John Zephaniah Holwell, surgeon, an employee of the English East India Company, and a temporary Governor of Bengal (1760), is born in Dublin on September 17, 1711. He is also one of the first Europeans to study Indian antiquities.
Holwell grows up in London and studies medicine at Guy’s Hospital. He gains employment as a surgeon in the East India Company and is sent to India in 1732. He serves in this capacity until 1749. In 1751, he is appointed as zamindar of the 24 Parganas district of Bengal. He then serves as a member of the Council of Fort William (Calcutta) and defends the settlement against Siraj ud-Daulah in 1756.
In June 1756, Holwell is a survivor of the Black Hole of Calcutta, the incident in which British subjects and others are crammed into a small poorly ventilated chamber overnight, resulting in many deaths. His 1758 account of this incident obtains wide circulation in England and some claim this gains support for the East India Company’s conquest of India. His account of the incident is not publicly questioned during his lifetime nor for more than a century after his death. However, in recent years, his version of the event has been called into question by many historians.
Holwell succeeds Robert Clive as temporary Governor of Bengal in 1760, but is dismissed from the Council in 1761 for remonstrating against the appointment of Henry Vansittart as Governor of Bengal. He is elected Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) in 1767.
Holwell has also become an important source for modern historians of medicine, as a result of his description of the practice of smallpox variolation in eighteenth-century Bengal, An Account of the Manner of Inoculating for the Small Pox in the East Indies with Some Observations on the Practice and Mode of Treating that Disease in those Parts (London, 1767).