S2A3 Biographical Database of Southern African Science

Peters, Dr Wilhelm Karl Hartwig (zoology, botany)

Born: 1815, Coldenb?ttel, Schleswig, Germany.
Died: 1883, Place not known.

Wilhelm K.H. Peters, German zoologist at the Zoological Museum in Berlin, began his university training in Copenhagen, but continued it at the Friedrich-Wilhelms Universit?t, Berlin, in 1835. He was awarded the degree Doctor of Medicine (MD) in 1838 and presented a dissertation on the skeletal anatomy of the order Chelonia (tortoises and turtles). After working with Henri M. Edwards in the Mediterranean for 18 months he returned to Berlin as assistant to Johannes M?ller in the university's Anatomical Museum. With the encouragement of M.H.C. Lichtenstein* and others he planned a voyage to Mozambique, departing late in 1842 and returning in 1848. During these years he travelled widely in Mozambique, particularly in the neighbourhood of the lower Zambesi River, where he collected thousands zoological and botanical specimens. He also collected in Zanzibar, the Comores, Madagascar, South Africa and Angola, and in total sent 12 shipments from Africa to the Zoological Museum in Berlin. Most of the material remained in Berlin, though some of it was sold or exchanged with other museums at a later time.

Peters's study of these collections led to the publication of numerous papers from 1844 onwards, and a series of volumes under the general title Naturwissenschaftliche reise nach Mossambique... in den jahren 1842 bis 1848. Individual volumes dealt with the mammals of the region (1852), insects and myriapods (1862), plants (1862 and 1864), freshwater fishes (1868), and finally reptiles and amphibians (1882). His descriptions of the freshwater fishes included many new species and provided new insight into the anatomy and biology of several others. In all he collected 116 species of reptiles and amphibians, of which he regarded 55 as new. His volume on the reptiles and amphibians remained the only summary of the herpetofauna of Mozambique for more than a century. Its age and the exceptional quality of the hand-coloured plates make it a rare collector's item. After his death in 1883 his collection of amphibians was sent to the Senckenberg Museum in Frankfurt-am-Main, and was described in a series of papers by O. Boettger between 1886 and 1898. His botanical volumes comprised an enumeration of his plants by various authors. The molluscs he collected were described by von Martens in 1879. The plant collection, among others, was largely destroyed during World War II.

After Lichtenstein's death in 1857 Peters became the director of the Zoological Museum, a post he held until his death. He was a prolific writer who published well over 300 papers during his career. Most of these were written in German and dealt with a wide variety of zoological taxa in the collections of the Zoological Museum, or submitted to him by collectors from all over the world. However, he was principally a herpetologist, describing over 600 reptile and amphibian taxa. His papers on the fauna of southern Africa dealt with, among others, the sea-urchins (1854), fishes (1855), an electric catfish (1868) found in Mozambique; the amphibians collected in 1854 by J.A. Wahlberg* in Damaraland (1870); the reptilian fauna of South Africa, including the small collection of reptiles made by Wahlberg and other reptiles sent to the museum by early collectors in southern Africa (1870), and a new genus of rodents from South Africa (1875). He also at some time described two species of fish collected in the 1820's by G. Ludwig Krebs*, namely the Eastern Cape redfin (Pseudobarbus afer) and the Clanwilliam sawfin (Barbus serra). Among others the marine mollusc Haminoea petersi and the amphibian Xenopus laevis petersi were named after him.

While in Mozambique Peters compiled vocabularies of the indigenous people in various regions of the territory. These, with other material, formed the basis of a book by the South African philologist W.H.I. Bleek on The languages of Mozambique... (1856).

List of sources:
Barnard, K.H. Personal names in South African conchology. Cape Town: Conchological Society of Southern Africa, 1965.

Bauer, A.M. Early German herpetological observations and explorations in southern Africa, with special reference to the Zoological Museum of Berlin. Bonner zoologische Beitr?ge, 2003, Vol. 52, pp. 193-214.

Branch, W.R. Reptile systematic studies in southern Africa: A brief history and overview. Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa, 1999, Vol. 54(1), pp. 137-155.

National Union Catalogue, pre-1956 imprints. London: Mansell, 1968-1980.

Royal Society of London. Catalogue of scientific papers. London: Royal Society, 1867-1925.

Skelton, P. A complete guide to the freshwater fishes of southern Africa (2nd ed.) Cape Town: Struik, 2001.

South African bibliography to the year 1925. London: Mansell, 1979.

Standard encyclopaedia of southern Africa (SESA). Cape Town: NASOU, 1970-1976.

Compiled by: C. Plug