S2A3 Biographical Database of Southern African Science

FitzSimons, Mr Frederick William (herpetology, archaeology)

Born: 6 August 1870, Garvagh, Northern Ireland, United Kingdom.
Died: 25 March 1951, Grahamstown, South Africa.
Mr Frederick William FitzSimons

Frederick William Fitzsimons, museum director, came to South Africa with his parents in 1877 and received his school education in Pietermaritzburg. Subsequently he studied medicine and surgery in Ireland for three years. However, he was mainly interested in natural history and returned to Pietermaritzburg in 1895 without qualifying. He was then appointed curator of the Natal Society's museum in Pietermaritzburg. In July 1903 this museum was taken over by the Natal government and became the Natal Museum, where he worked as assistant to the director, Ernest Warren*. As a young man he was active in sport, particularly soccer and cricket. He married Patricia H. Russell, with whom he had two sons.

In July 1906 Fitzsimons was appointed director of the Port Elizabeth Museum, a position he held until his retirement in 1936. Soon after his arrival he closed the museum to the public for five months to rearrange and catalogue the collections. He was particularly active in promoting the museum and in using the collections for educational purposes. For example, during 1908-1928 he sent out hundreds of small collections of named specimens to schools to form the nuclei of school museums. He also undertook lecture tours to promote an interest in natural history, and wrote many articles on scientific subjects for the press and in popular magazines. During World War I (1914-1918) the museum moved to new premises and in 1930 a marine hall was built to accommodate the marine collection, including marine mammals, fish, sea birds, shells and whale skeletons.

Fitzsimons's was an outstanding naturalist whose main interest was in snakes and he is regarded as the first South African herpetologist of note. Initially he exhibited some live snakes in glass-fronted cases, but in 1918 he established a snake park at the museum - the first of its kind in southern Africa and the second in the world - not only for the benefit of visitors, but also to study the habits of snakes and the effects and treatment of snake-bite. A larger facility was opened seven years later and he promoted this so effectively that it became a major tourist attraction. As an authority on South African snakes and their venoms he patented the first complete first-aid and serum treatment outfit in South Africa. He was the first to detail the toxic nature of boomslang venom, in "On the toxic action of the Boomslang or South African Tree Snake (Dispholidus typus)" (Annals of the Magazine of Natural History, 1909). The next year he wrote the first popular book on South African snakes: The snakes of South Africa, their venom and the treatment of snake bite (1910, 160p; 2nd ed., 1912, 547p; 3rd ed. 1919). His other publications on the subject included Snake bite and its scientific treatment (1913, 15p); "Recent experiments with some alleged snake bite remedies" (Report of the South African Association for the Advancement of Science, 1914, pp. 87-95); "Snake venom and its effects, especially on other snakes" (South African Journal of Science, 1920, Vol. 17, pp. 353-355); "New facts about snakes" (Ibid, 1927, Vol. 24, pp. 384-386); Snakes and the treatment of snake-bite (with V.F.M. Fitzsimons; 1929, 70p, also in Afrikaans); Pythons and their ways (1930); and Snakes (1932, with a German translation in 1934). In 1929 he presented a paper on "Snake venoms, their therapeutic uses and possibilities" at the joint meeting of the British and South African Associations for the Advancement of Science, held in South Africa, in which he advocated the use of venom in the treatment of epilepsy. The snake lizard Tetradactylus africanus fitzsimonsi was named after him by J. Hewitt* in 1915.

His other zoological publications included several semi-popular books and pamphlets, such as The monkey-folk of South Africa (1911, 1924, 167p); The house fly: a carrier of disease and death (1914, 18p); Ants and their ways (1927); The natural history of South Africa: mammals (4 vols, 1919-1920) and The natural history of South Africa: birds (2 vols, 1923). The last two books together constitute a classic work on South African natural history. Earlier in his career he contributed nine short articles on a variety of topics in natural history to the Natal Agricultural Journal (1905-1906, Vol. 8-9) and one more to the Agricultural Journal of the Cape of Good Hope (1907, Vol. 30). The topics included "Protection of wild birds", "Vegetation and sunlight", "Wild animals of South Africa", and "The flightless birds of the world". Through these publications and numerous articles in newspapers and popular magazines he did much to popularise the study of natural history in South Africa.

In addition to zoology Fitzsimons was interested in archaeology and played a significant part in the early investigation of archaeological sites in the Eastern Cape, particularly along the Tsitsikamma coast. In 1921 he excavated a cave there which has not been clearly identified and reported his finds in a paper entitled "The cliff dwellers of Zitzikama", in the South African Journal of Science (1923, Vol. 20, pp. 541-545). The human skeletal remains recovered from the cave were sent to Professor R.A. Dart at the University of the Witwatersrand, who concluded that they belonged to the Boskop race, identified earlier from the Transvaal. Fitzsimons also excavated Bushman remains in the Zuurberg (Ibid, 1923, Vol. 20, pp. 501-504), which were studied and described by L.H. Wells in 1929. In 1926 he excavated a cave somewhere in the Outeniqua range and described the work in "Cliff dwellers of Zitzikama: results of recent excavations" (Ibid, 1926, Vol. 23, pp. 813-818). The human remains found there were described by L.H. Wells and J.H. Gear in 1931. The exact position of the cave was uncertain for many years, but D.E. Schauder (1963) succeeded in finding it again. Two years later Fitzsimons reported on human skeletons uncovered by railway workers in "Results of recent Strandlooper excavations at Knysna" (Ibid, 1928, Vol. 25, pp. 448-451). Much of the material uncovered and his original notes can no longer be found, and his excavation methods and descriptions of the sites may appear inadequate in the light of more recent procedures. However, he deserves credit for recognising the anthropological and archaeological significance of the Eastern Cape sites and for continuing his excavations despite public misunderstanding of the scientific value of the results.

Fitzsimons's interest in astronomy led him to acquire a telescope, organise a group of amateur observers, and to deliver talks on the subject. He was also drawn to psychical research, publishing a book on Opening the psychic door (London, 1933). He was a Fellow of the Zoological Society of London (FZS) and of the Royal Microscopical Society (FRMS). In 1912 he joined the South African Association for the Advancement of Science, serving as president of Section C that same year. In 1916 he became a foundation member of the South African Biological Society. One of his sons, V.F.M. Fitzsimons, later became director of the Transvaal Museum; the other, D.C. Fitzsimons, later established the Durban Snake Park.

List of sources:
Agricultural Journal of the Cape of Good Hope, 1907, Vol. 30.

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. 137-156.

Cape of Good Hope. Report on the Port Elizabeth Museum, 1906, 1907.

Dictionary of South African biography, Vol. 3, 1977.

Natal Agricultural Journal, 1905-1906, Vol. 8-9.

Natal civil service list, 1904.

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

Obituary [Mr F.W. FitzSimons]. Southern African Museums Association Bulletin (SAMAB), 1951, Vol. 5, p. 62.

Pringle, J.A. A short history of the Port Elizabeth Museum. Southern African Museums Association Bulletin, 1942, Vol. 2, pp. 346-349.

Retrospective South African national bibliography for the period 1926-1958. Pretoria: State Library, 1985.

Schauder, D.E. The anthropological work of F.W. Fitzsimons in the Eastern Cape. South African Archaeological Bulletin, 1963, Vol. 18, pp. 52-59.

South African Association for the Advancement of Science. Report, 1912, 1914, 1916, 1918.

South African bibliography to the year 1925. London: Mansell, 1979 (Vol. 1-4); Cape Town: SA Library, 1991 (Vol. 5).

South African Journal of Natural History, 1920, Vol. 2(2), Roll of members [of the SA Biological Society].

South African Journal of Science, 1920-1928, Vol. 17, 20, 23 and 25.

South African who's who, 1908, 1919/20, 1931/2.

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

Compiled by: C. Plug