David Prain

Director of Royal Botanic Gardens

Today in Fettercairn Scottland in 1857, the amateur botanist David Prain was born.

He would ultimately become the Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens of Calcutta and Kew.
Prain was sent to Calcutta in 1887 to be the curator of the herbarium. He researched Indian hemp, followed by other crops like wheat, mustard, pulses, and indigo for the Bengal government. Prain's most crucial work involved Cinchona plantations. The bark of cinchona trees contains quinine, which is used to treat malaria. In Prain's obituary, it said that he set up a system to send every village in India quinine through the local post offices, thereby saving unnumbered lives.
During Prain's directorship at Kew, the medicinal garden was installed at Cambridge Cottage, and the Japanese gateway was acquired for the 1910 Japan-British exhibition. Prain also reinstated the Kew Bulletin.
Prain's most significant professional challenge at Kew came not from a plant, but a person. William Purdom was a sub-foreman at Kew, and he was passionate about making sure that the garden staff was being treated fairly.
The discord stemmed from some of the gardeners at Kew, discovering that their positions were only temporary. Having wages well below market levels didn't help either. Even though all of this was set in place before Prain assumed the directorship, it fell to him to fix everything.
Prain's humble origins gave him a heart for his workers, and he did his best to remedy the situation. Despite Prain's reasonable efforts to mediate the situation, Purdom made it personal. Prain finally forced the issue, basically saying that it was either him or Purdom. In a noble gesture, Prain worked to get Purdom a spot on the expedition to China by Harry Veitch and the Arnold Arboretum.
Today, history looks back at Prain with admiration, that he could recognize the talents of an employee, even while disagreeing with him - and all the while acting with fairness and integrity.

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David Prain
David Prain

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