Walter Oudney (1790-1824) was a Scottish physician, botanist and North African explorer.
Born in Edinburgh to humble parents, Oudney began his medical career as a naval surgeon’s mate while in his late teens, becoming a full surgeon in 1810 at 20 years of age. On returning to Edinburgh he took medical classes at the University, and obtained his MD in 1817. He continued his studies becoming not only an accomplished surgeon, but also knowledgeable in botany, chemistry and natural history hoping for a lectureship at Edinburgh. However he was recommended by his lecturer in botany to the Foreign Office to lead an exhibition to determine the course of the River Niger in 1821. The course of the Niger was a hotly debated geographical question, and all attempts to trace it from the West had failed, so the suggestion was to search south from Tripoli. Oudney assumed that it must terminate in the lakes of Nupe (which he called Nyffe). Not long after, he was appointed permanent vice-consul to the Bornu Kingdom to provide diplomatic relations between the British and the Kingdom, provide natural history specimens and explore the area.
Hugh Clapperton (1788–1827) and Dixon Denham (1786–1828) joined the expedition, with Denham manipulating himself into position of leader much to the annoyance of Oudney and Clapperton. In 1822 they set off from Tripoli by way of Murzuq in Fezzan region (Lybia), eventually reaching the capital of Bornu, Kuka, (later Kukawa), on Lake Chad in November 1822. Oudney became unwell, and they remained in Kuka for a year. In December 1823, he and Clapperton began the journey to Kuka (now in northern Nigeria), but Oudney’s health deteriorated and he contracted pneumonia. He died at Katagum on 12 January 1824 and was buried there.
Oudney, Clapperton and Denham became the first Europeans to cross the Sahara Desert from north to south. They also advanced the geographical knowledge of the area, establishing amiable relations between Britain and the local rulers; they did not, however, resolve the Niger question. Oudney sent over 300 hundred natural history specimens back to Britain. The botanical genus Oudneya of the family Brassicaceae (cabbage family) was named in his honour.
Narrative of Travels and Discoveries in Northern and Central Africa in the years 1822, 1823 and 1824, by Major Denham, Captain Clapperton, and the late Doctor Oudney.
Note on the Genus oudneya, Brown, by Dr. Henry Trimen F.L.S. (Journal of the Linnean Society of London, Botany, Volume 17, Issue 101, pages 328–329, May 1879)