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Day, Francisfree

  • Peter Davis

Day, Francis (1829–1889), military surgeon and ichthyologist, was born on 2 March 1829 at Maresfield, Sussex, the third son of William Day (1797–1849) and his wife, Ann Elliott, née Le Blanc. The family moved to Hadlow House in Mayfield about 1833, and farmed an estate of some 2000 acres. Day was educated at Shrewsbury School from 1838 to 1843, and it was here that his interests in natural history developed, revealed in 'boyish observations on the habits of fish' (Cheltenham Examiner).

In September 1848 Day enrolled at St George's Hospital in London to study medicine and in 1851 qualified as MRCS. In 1852 he was appointed as an assistant surgeon in the Madras establishment, India, and from 1853 to 1856 he was attached to various regiments at Mercara, Bangalore, and Hyderabad. His interests in Indian natural history began to develop, and subsequently his life was devoted to the people and fauna of India. His twenty-two years in the country were punctuated only by periodic returns to England to recuperate from illness.

Day spent much of 1857 in England on sick leave. He was elected a fellow of the Linnean Society on 16 June 1857; his proposal form indicated that it was his knowledge of ornithology that underpinned his application, rather than ichthyology—the branch of zoology for which he became best known. On 3 November 1857 he married Emma Covey of Basingstoke, Hampshire, and the couple travelled to India in 1858. From 1859 until 1864 they lived in Cochin, where Francis had been appointed civil surgeon. Most of his medical publications—largely accounts of fevers—date from this period. His daughter Fanny Laura was born in Cochin (November 1861), and it was here that he began to study fishes, explored the Nilgiri hills (1863), and wrote The Land of the Permauls, or, Cochin its Past and Present (1863).

The family returned to London in 1864, and a son, Francis Meredith, was born in April that year; they moved to Cheltenham in October. In 1865 Day's observations on Cochin fishes were presented at meetings of the Zoological Society—he had been elected a fellow in 1864—and The Fishes of Malabar was published. In 1866 Francis and Emma returned to India, leaving their two children in the care of family friends. Day had various posts in Ootacamund, Madras, and Kurnool, began a series of fish stocking experiments, and published on cholera; their second daughter, Edith Mary, was born in October 1867. In 1868 and 1869 Day undertook extensive fishery surveys around Madras, in Orissa, Burma, and the Andaman Islands. He published on new species of fishes and compiled a catalogue of Indian freshwater fishes. Following the death of his wife, Emma, in 1869, Day returned to England in 1870.

Day was appointed inspector-general of fisheries in July 1871. He divided his time between Calcutta and Simla, published extensively on his discoveries, and was promoted to surgeon-major in December. During a brief return to England in 1872 he married Emily Sheepshanks at Coventry on 13 April, the couple travelling together to India where they lived in Simla while Day continued his relentless survey work and published accounts of marine fish and fisheries of India. Sadly, Emily died in 1873, and in 1874 Francis Day left India for the last time, returning to England in May.

Day devoted all his energies to researching and writing about fishes, beginning with The Fishes of India. From his home in Richmond-on-Thames he made frequent visits to the British Museum (to examine specimens he had donated between 1864 and 1870), and also journeyed to Paris, Berlin, The Hague, and Leiden in 1875. Part 1 of The Fishes of India was published that year, with part 2 appearing in 1876, the same year that Day retired from the army and moved to Cheltenham. Parts 3 and 4 appeared in 1877 and 1878 respectively. Arguably The Fishes of India was Day's greatest achievement. While preparing this major publication, Day had been pursuing his interests in British fishes, and a clear indication of his industry was the publication of part 1 of Fishes of Great Britain in 1880. Parts 2 to 4 were completed and published between 1881 and 1884. In addition to writing he took an active role in a number of international fisheries exhibitions, including those in Paris (1875), Berlin (1880), and London (1883), and won several medals. His fascination with salmon and trout led to the publication of British and Irish Salmonidae in 1887. In the following year a supplement to Fishes of India appeared, and his scientific achievements were recognized by the award of an honorary LLD by the University of Edinburgh. In 1889 Day corrected in proof his last major work, the contribution on Fishes to the Fauna of India. In his journal articles and books Day had described some 328 new species of fishes. He died on 10 July 1889 at his home, Kenilworth House, Cheltenham.

In addition to his published works, Day's major legacy to science was his extensive collections. During his early career in India, he had interests in many aspects of natural history, and made collections of birds, insects, crustaceans, reptiles, and mammals in addition to fishes. Day's large collections of fishes—his own estimate of the number of specimens shipped to England in 1873 was 'about 12,000 specimens in spirit, besides skins'—were distributed among at least twelve institutions. The Indian Museum, Calcutta, the Australian Museum, Sydney, the Rijksmuseum in Leiden, the Zoologisches Museum, Berlin, and the Naturhistorisches Museum in Vienna retain substantial collections, but the largest is that at the Natural History Museum in London, where over five thousand specimens are deposited.


  • P. J. P. Whitehead and P. K. Talwar, ‘Francis Day (1829–1889) and his collections of Indian fishes’, Bulletin of the British Museum (Natural History) [Historical Series], 5 (1976–7)
  • Nature, 40 (1889), 282
  • Cheltenham Examiner (17 July 1889)


  • Australian Museum, Sydney, fishes
  • Cheltenham Public Library, Day's Natural History Library, letters, MSS, proofs, etc
  • Field Museum, Chicago, fishes
  • Harvard U., Museum of Comparative Zoology, fishes
  • Humbolt University, Berlin, Museum für Naturkunde, bird collection; corresp.; fishes
  • Indian Museum, Calcutta, fishes
  • Linn. Soc., corresp.; reprints, scrapbooks
  • Museo di Fiscia e Storia Naturale, Florence, fishes
  • NHM, letters and family records [photocopies]
  • NHM, crustaceans; fishes
  • NRA, priv. coll., journals, letters, notebooks, photographs
  • Rijksmuseum, Leiden, fishes
  • Zoological Museum, St Petersburg, fishes
  • Zoological Society of London, drawings and MSS
  • Cambridge, bird collection


  • J. Hughes, photograph, 1865–6, priv. coll.; repro. in Whitehead and Talwar, ‘Francis Day’
  • engraving, 1870–79, priv. coll.; repro. in Whitehead and Talwar, ‘Francis Day’
  • E. White, photographs, 1880–89, priv. coll.
  • J. C. Egerton, oils, 1893, priv. coll.

Wealth at Death

£39,540 6s. 7d.: probate, 2 Aug 1889, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

, 63 vols. (1885–1900), suppl., 3 vols. (1901); repr. in 22 vols. (1908–9); 10 further suppls. (1912–96); (1993)