A legacy lives on – The Fitzsimons success story

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A legacy lives on – The Fitzsimons success story

By: Jan van den Bos: Curator Small collections

DITSONG: National Museum of Cultural History (DNMCH)


Frederick William Fitzsimons
The herpetologist, naturalist and zoologist Frederick William Fitzsimons (1870-1951) gained recognition for his study on the habits of snakes and the treatment of snake bites. His appointment as Curator of the Natal Society’s Museum in Pietermaritzburg in 1897 and his subsequent appointment as Director of the Port Elizabeth Museum in 1906, created an opportunity to study the behavioural patterns of (living) snakes in these collections. He established the first snake park in southern Africa at the Museum as well as a marine collection with sea mammals, sea birds and fish.
Frederick Fitzsimons will be remembered for his publication The snakes of South Africa, their venom and the treatment of snake bite (editions 1910, 1912 and 1919). One of his other books, Snakes (1932). was so in demand and acknowledge, and eventually translated into German in 1934.
Frederick Fitzsimons’s contribution in scientific journals and reports on the experiments he carried out resulted in a first-aid, serum treatment outfit. It was the first complete first-aid remedy in South Africa, patented in the late 1940s.


Frederick William Fitzsimons (1870-1951)


The German translation “Schlangen” (1934)
(Source: DITSONG: National Museum of Natural History (DNMNH), Library)


Fitzsimons first-aid snake bite outfit complete with instructions
Size: (14 cm x 10.5 cm x 4 cm) tin included two sealed Anti-Cobra, Puff Adder and Rinkhals serums and one sealed Anti-Cape and Egyptian Cobras serums
(Source: DNMCH: Medical collection, HG 34308)


Fitzsimons snake bite outfit tin (empty). Contents consisted of specialised serum with full instructions
Size: 18 cm x 6 cm x 11 cm
(Source: DNMCH: Medical collection, HG 34289)


Fitzsimons’s anti-venomous serum
(Source: DNMCH: Medical collection, HG 15535-32=33)

Archaeology and astronomy were Fitzsimons’s other fields of interest. He excavated sites in the Eastern Cape along the Tsitsikamma coast and discovered human skeletal remains in one of the caves. His paper, “The cliff dwellers of Zitzikama”, published in the South African Journal of Science (Volume 20 of 1923) discussed his findings. Fitzsimons’s work brought him in contact with other distinguished scientists like Professor Raymond A. Dart. Professor Dart an Australian anatomist and anthropologist became professor of Anatomy at the University of the Witwatersrand in 1922. He helped identifying the human skeletal remains excavated by Fitzsimons and categorised them as part of the Boskop race.
Fitzsimons’s astronomy “career” started late in his life when he bought a telescope. The science fascinated him so much that he organised a group of amateur observers who regularly met, observed and discussed interesting phenomena of the universe. He also gave regular talks on aspects of astronomy as well as on psychics – yet another interest. He published Opening the psychic door in 1933, following his interest.
Fitzsimons became a fellow of the Zoological Society of London and of the Royal Microscopical Society. He also served as president of the South African Association for the Advancement of Science and was a foundation member of the South African Biological Society.
Frederick William’s two sons, Vivian Frederick Mynhard (1901-1975) and Desmond Charles (1906-1963) followed in his footsteps. Desmond Fitzsimons established the Durban Snake Park in 1939 and Vivian Fitzsimons became the director of the Transvaal Museum (now DITSONG: National Museum of Natural History) between 1947 and 1966.


Vivian Frederick Mynard Fitzsimons

Vivian Frederick Mynhard Fitzsimons (1901-1975)
Former Curator of Lower Vertebrates and Invertebrates
(Source: Dippenaar, N.J. (ed), Staatsmuseum 100, p. 28 )

Vivian Fitzsimons studied chemistry and zoology at Rhodes University College, Grahamstown between 1921 and 1923. While still a student he assisted his father with the compilation of two editions of The Natural History of South Africa (1923). It counted in Vivian`s favour, because it provided him with an essential background knowledge of natural history.

In 1924 he was appointed as a senior assistant in zoology at the Transvaal Museum. He later became curator of the Vertebrates and Invertebrates, focusing on lizards and snakes. He described 41 South African reptiles, which marked him as one of the leading herpetologists. Even after his appointment as director of the Museum in 1947, he continued with research on reptile fauna.

His early fieldwork took him to remote areas like the Kalahari, south Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and Botswana. He added an additional 20 000 herpetological specimens to the Transvaal Museum`s collection. He undertook study tours to museums in the United Kingdom, Western Europe and the United States. (See photograph of the lighter below: He received the cigarette lighter during his visit to the USA).

Vivian obtained a DSc degree with the thesis: “The lizards of South Africa” in 1942 at the University of the Witwatersrand. The Rhodes University also awarded him an honorary DSc degree in 1968.


A cigarette lighter presented to Dr Vivian Frederick Mynhard Fitzsimons
by The Army Attaché of the United States of America
(Source: DNMCH: Smoking collection, HG 34303-1=2)


Dr Fitzsimons developed the Museum into a leading scientific institution. Dr C.K. Brain, a former director (1968-1991) of the Transvaal Museum said the following: “… the study collections of the Transvaal Museum have been carefully built up until they probably rank, in many fields, amongst the largest and most representative of their kind in the world today. Their scientific value and importance is steadily gaining widespread recognition as is demonstrated by the increasing numbers of scientific workers, both from South Africa and abroad, who are making use of the unique opportunities which are provided for study”. (E. Grobler, 2005: 82).

Vivian Fitzsimons published various research findings in more than 50 scientific journals. Description of five new lizards from the Transvaal and Southern Rhodesia was for example published in the Annals of the Transvaal Museum in 1933. A well-known book on the snakes of Southern Africa was published in 1970.


A field guide to the snakes of Southern Africa (1970) (Source: DNMNH, Library)

The publication of Fitzsimons on snakes was revised and updated by other herpetologists.

Vivian served on committees and associations. He became a Fellow of the Royal Society, a member of the (Transvaal) Fauna and Flora Advisory Board, the Board of Trustees of the Foundation for Education, Science and Technology, a council member of the Zoological Society of Southern Africa and was an honorary life member of the Herpetological Society of Rhodesia.


Snakes of Southern Africa, 1983, V Fitzsimons. Herpetologist, Donald G Bradley revised and updated the (first) 1962 publication of Dr Vivian. F. M. Fitzsimons’s on Snakes of Southern Africa in 1983.
(Source: National Museum of Natural History (DNMNH), Library)

He served as a councilor of the South African Museums Association and as president in 1955. The South African Biological Society awarded him the Senior Captain Scott Memorial Medal in 1967.

He contributed to samples of spermatophyte for the National Herbarium, which forms part of the South African National Biodiversity Institute at the Pretoria National Botanical Gardens. He also helped to establish the Namib Desert Research Institute in Gobabeb (Namibia).

The Fitzsimons’ will be remembered for their immense contribution to natural sciences, the herpetology, their diversity and their link to snakes.


Dippenaar, N.J. (ed). Staatsmuseum 100. National Cultural History Museum, Museum of the Geological Survey, Transvaal Museum. 1992.
Grobler, E. Collection Management practices at the Transvaal Museum 1913-1964: Anthropological, Archaeological and Historical. DPhil thesis, 2005.
S2A3 Biographical Database of Southern African Science, Frederick William FitzSimons.
S2A3 Biographical Database of Southern African Science, Vivian Frederick Mynhard FitzSimons.

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