“Everest” is a recognizable word for a large part of humanity. It is easy to remember and has a simple and common pronunciation in the main languages, which would seem to be expressly chosen for a geographical milestone so prominent in every way. However, there was one person who did not agree that the highest mountain on Earth should bear this name, none other than British surveyor and geographer Sir George Everest, precisely the man whose name was chosen to designate the roof of the world.
Although in the golden age of exploration it was common for explorers to leave their own names in some of the places they visited, this is not one of those cases; in fact, George Everest (July 4, 1790 – December 1, 1866) never got to see with his own eyes the mountain that would bear his name. Although he certainly did not lack the merit to leave his mark on the history of geography, his was not the romantic story of the explorer, but the more technical and quiet tale of the surveyor.
Born into a family well-established in the London borough of Greenwich, Everest moved away from his roots at the age of 16 to pursue his military career in India. His flair for mathematics and astronomy soon led him to assume surveying roles, until in 1818 he was called upon as a principal assistant by William Lambton, director of the Great Trigonometric Survey Project.
A dedicated surveyor with multiple illnesses
From 1802 this initiative was aimed at carrying out an accurate measurement of the entire Indian subcontinent, and Everest was assigned a tedious task: to continue the measurement of a meridian arc from the southern tip of the peninsula to Nepal, along some 2,400 kilometres. Everest’s dedication was rewarded by his appointment as project superintendent upon Lambton’s death in 1823 and from 1830 with the position of Surveyor General of India, which he held until his retirement in 1843.
Perhaps the best-known aspect of his years of fieldwork were the multiple illnesses that he contracted. Malaria was almost unavoidable, but it was joined by another list of ailments that a 2013 study tried to identify and list: typhoid fever, hepatitis, Kyasanur forest disease (a viral haemorrhagic fever transmitted by ticks), peripheral neuropathy and vision problems that lead to suspicion of multiple sclerosis, cervical radiculopathy (a pinched nerve in the neck), Guillain-Barre syndrome (an autoimmune disorder of the nervous system) and possible neurosyphilis, together with episodes of mental symptoms identified with the so-called Mad Hatter’s disease, caused by the ingestion of mercury, which Everest took in large doses to treat his ailments.
Despite his more than delicate health, Everest was an indefatigable and conscientious worker, which opened the doors of several scientific institutions, including the prestigious Royal Society. After his retirement and his return to England, his position in India was occupied by his pupil, Andrew Scott Waugh, who in 1841 had completed the measurement of the meridian in the north and laid eyes on what was then one of the snowy peaks of the Himalayas. It was not until 1852 that Indian Bengali mathematician Radhanath Sikdar, the head of the team of “computers”, informed Waugh that the so-called Peak XV was the highest in the world, with a calculated elevation of exactly 29,000 feet or 8,839.2 metres (today corrected to 8,848 metres).
The Everest debate
Waugh took a few years to confirm the calculations, and in 1856 he announced his results to the Royal Geographical Society, proposing for the highest of the terrestrial peaks the name of his predecessor: Mount Everest. Both Waugh and his mentor used to adopt the local names for the geographical features they described. But in this case the mountain itself was outside the limits of British rule, and the villages to the south, Waugh argued, did not refer to that summit by a single name.
After a long debate, the designation proposed by Waugh was finally officially adopted in 1865. But the idea met with unexpected resistance: that of Everest himself, who objected that his surname could not be written in the Hindi language and that it was difficult for the natives to pronounce. Anecdotally, in a way it could be said that Everest’s opposition paid off: while the name of the mountain tends to be pronounced according to its literal writing, Sir George’s surname was pronounced “eev-rest“.
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