Lieut.- Col. E. F. Kelaart of Ceylon:

The brief yet influential life of a little known Naturalist


by Rohan H. Wickramasinghe, Ph.D.


The following account is of a little known personality of Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) which would be of particular interest to those interested in the colonial era of the country and in its natural history. It is based on information from a lecture given in Colombo some years ago by Mr. Rohan Pethiyagoda and a biographical sketch compiled and published by Kelaart's nephew, E.P.H.Kelaart, in 1932 (publisher: Frewin and Co., Colombo).

Edward Fredrick Kelaart was born in Ceylon on the 21st November 1819 to William Henry Kelaart and his wife Anna Johanna Fredrika, eldest daughter of Johannes Jacobus Meyer of Berlin. William Henry Kelaart was descended from Emmanuel Kelaart who arrived in Ceylon from Holland in about 1726.

E.F.Kelaart received his early schooling in Colombo at Revd. Dr. A. Kessen's school, the fore-runner of the Colombo Academy, which was itself to become the Royal College , which grew to become a distinguished educational establishment. At the age of about 15 years, he became a Medical Sub-Assistant to the Ceylon Government and attended medical classes given by an Army Surgeon.

Kelaart was, in 1837, appointed Assistant to a Staff Assistant Surgeon who was accompanying a detachment of the 78th Highlanders to England. After arriving in Britain, he entered the University of Edinburgh in 1838 for medical studies. He continued his medical studies at Edinburgh until 1841 with the exception of five months study in the best hospitals in Paris. He obtained his Membership in the Royal College of Surgeons in 1840 and his M.D. at Edinburgh in the following year. It has been said that he was "the first Ceylonese to obtain a British degree."

Whilst at Edinburgh, he made his first contribution as a Naturalist by presenting a paper in 1839 on "The Timber Trees of Ceylon" and, also, made a communication in 1840 to the Cuvierian Natural History Society of Edinburgh on "Artesian Wells."

After qualifying at Edinburgh, Kelaart returned to Ceylon to take up an appointment in October 1841 in the British Army Medical Service. In 1843, he returned to England in charge of a contingent of the 90th and 95th regiments.

While in England he met and married Fanny Sophia, only daughter of Phineas Hussey Esq., of Wyrley Grove, Staffordshire. "The young couple spent their honeymoon sight-seeing in the North of England, finally arriving at Kelaart's beloved Edinburgh. Edward Kelaart had a warm affection for this beautiful City of his student days. Writing home to his father he expressed great delight on revisiting it under such happy circumstances." (E.P.H.Kelaart, op.cit., p. 5).

After his return to London, Kelaart was posted to Gibraltar for two years as Army Surgeon. During this period, he studied the plants of the rock of Gibraltar and compiled the "Flora Calpensis - a contribution to the Botany and Topography of Gibraltar and its neighbourhood." This work, which included 456 indigenous species of flowering plants and ferns and 44 cultivated or introduced species was published in England in 1846. This Flora (the first on the flora of Gibraltar) was favourably reviewed by Boissier in the Annals and Magazines of Natural History in 1846.

Mrs. Kelaart died in 1847 and two years later he returned to Ceylon for five years. This period was most productive as regards his researches and included publications on geology, mammals, birds, reptiles and the cultivation of cotton. Many of his publications of that period appeared in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (Ceylon Branch) between 1849 and 1855. This period also saw the preparation of his Prodromus Faunae Zeylanicae, a classic work of early contributions to the Zoology of Ceylon (n.b. Prodromus means "A Beginning"). It was published by John Hieler of Colombo in 1852 and, while including desciptions of Ceylon mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibia, gave the first scientific classification of the mammals of Ceylon. The work was very well received. (The considerable contribution Kelaart made to defining the natural history of Ceylon may, in part, be judged by the numerous newly discovered species of animals named by or after him.) During this period in Ceylon he married Miss Elizabeth Nye in 1851.

Kelaart visited England again from 1854 to 1856 and on his return was appointed Naturalist to the Ceylon Government. The appointment carried with it a salary of two hundreds pounds per annum plus travelling allowances in addition to his army pay.

From 1837 to 1854 the Ceylon Pearl Fisheries had not produced an income and the Governor moved to have Kelaart investigate the life history of the Pearl Oyster and other matters related to the pearl fisheries. The results of these investigations appeared in Reports which were published by the Government between 1857 and 1859 . The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (Ceylon Branch) of 1856 - 1858 also carried his "Description of New and Little - Known Species of Ceylon Nudibranchiate Molluscs, Sea Anemones, Zoophytes and Entozoa." (Some original illustrations by Kelaart of some of these species appeared in the Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London in 1906 and 1907.)

In June 1860 , the then Governor of Ceylon was succeeded by the Officer commanding the Troops. The new Governor's health was, however, the subject of concern and on the 30th July 1860 he embarked for England on the s.s. "Nubia" accompanied by Dr. Kelaart as Medical Attendant, Mrs. Kelaart and five children and some others. The voyage was exhausting and the Governor died on the 30th August, two days before arrival in England. Dr. Kelaart died the following day shortly before the ship arrived in port, his heart having failed. His remains were buried on the 1st September in a cemetery at Southampton.

I feel that the above sketch of the life of Edward Fredrick Kelaart, a naturalist who achieved a great deal in a brief life of 41 years will be of interest to many. It only remains for me to note below some of the "titles" of a most erudite man : "Lieut. - Col. E.F. Kelaart, M.D. (Edin.), M.R.C.S. (Lond.), (Army Staff Surgeon), F.L.S., F.G.S., Fellow and Local Secretary of the Royal Botanical Society of Edinburgh, Fellow of the Physical Society of Edinburgh, Corresponding Member of the Zoological Society of London, Honorary Fellow of the Royal Dublin Society, Member of the Ceylon Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society."

Copyright -- Rohan H. Wickramasinghe, Ph.D.,
Fellow of the National Academy of Sciences of Sri Lanka,
Institute for Tropical Environmental Studies,
41 Flower Road,
Colombo 7,
Sri Lanka
(Tel. No.: 94-1-691986)