For many south africans, the name Fitzsimons will always be linked to snakes - to their diversity and the treatment of their venomous bites. Rightly so, as nobody has done more than the Fitzsimons family to inform the public about our serpentine fauna or to alleviate the dangerous effects of snakebite. For much of the twentieth century people have relied on Fitzsimons's snakebite serum to save their lives after having being bitten and have used the familiar Fitzsimons books to identify snakes they have encountered. Furthermore, these pioneering achievements have stimulated new generations of reptile enthusiasts who now continue the work.
The saga began when Frederick W Fitzsimons, who had been born in Londonderry, Ireland on 6 August 1870 and died on 25 March 1951, emigrated with his parents as a seven-year-old boy to settle in Pietermaritzburg, where he attended the Boys' Model School. He later went back to Ireland to study medicine, but quickly realised that his real interest lay in natural history so returned to Pietermaritzburg in 1895 where he was appointed curator of the Natal Society Museum. Soon afterwards he married Patricia Henrietta Russell from Ireland, with whom he had two sons and who became an active supporter of women's rights and of various charitable organisations in South Africa.
In 1903 FW Fitzsimons transferred the various collections, all of which he had personally catalogued and organised, to the new Natal Government Museum, where he held the post of scientific assistant; three years later he was appointed as director of the Port Elizabeth Museum, a post he held until his retirement 31 years later. Initially the museum was situated in part of the Feather market building but was transferred in 1915 to a three storey house in Bird Street that had been donated to the city for use as a museum in the estate of a well-known Port Elizabeth resident, Adam Guthrie.
Here Fitzsimons organised the collections and displays, which included a variety of whale skeletons and other exhibits, in a new Marine Hall, built in 1930. But his main interest was in snakes, which had started in Natal and continued throughout his life. In the Bird Street Museum he set up live exhibits of snakes in glass-fronted cases that proved so popular that he was able to establish a Snake Park in 1918, which was the first in Africa and the second in the world. This was followed by the construction of a much larger park in 1925, with Johannes Molikoe as its talented park attendant and snake handler.
This park, with daily demonstrations of live snakes, became a major tourist attraction in Port Elizabeth and throughout South Africa. It was here that Fitzsimons undertook research on snake venoms that brought him international recognition. He had already established himself as an authority on snakes with the publication in 1910 of a book, The Snakes of South Africa, followed by Snakes and the Treatment of Snake Bite (in English and Afrikaans) in 1929, Pythons and their Ways in 1930 and Snakes during 1932, which was also published in German two years later. But at the new Port Elizabeth Snake Park he could embark on a vigorous programme of "milking" the venom from captive snakes and preparing an anti-snakebite serum for human use by carefully monitored inoculation of other animals whose immune serum was then extracted, concentrated and purified.
In this work FW Fitzsimons was greatly assisted by his younger son Desmond Charles Fitzsimons, who had been born in Pietermaritzburg in 1906 and whose lifelong interest was also in snakes. During the 1930s he did intensive research on snakebite serum at the Port Elizabeth Snake Park, up to the time of his father's retirement, and then moved to Durban, where, assisted by his mother, he established the Durban Snake Park, which also proved to be an exceptional tourist attraction. Here he extracted the venom from thousands of snakes and became the leading distributor of serum in South Africa, particularly during the years of the Second World War, when there was a need for large quantities for the armed forces. At the time of his death in 1963 he owned several snakebite preparations and trademarks, such as Fitzsimons Snake-bite Serum, Fitzsimons Snake-bite Outfit and the Serosyringe Snake-bite Outfit.
But it was FW Fitzsimons's elder son, Vivian Frederick Maynard, born in Pietermaritzburg during 1901, who was to further consolidate the Fitzsimons tradition as the foremost southern African snake authorities. As a schoolboy, Vivian attended Grey College in Port Elizabeth, where he was a distinguished athlete, but an unfortunate accident with a homemade bomb deprived him of the sight in his right eye. At Rhodes University he continued to excel in athletics, where he was Victor Ludorum in 1919 and 1920. He graduated with an MSc degree in zoology and was appointed as curator of lower vertebrates and invertebrates at the Transvaal Museum, Pretoria, in the following year. His task was to investigate the reptilian biodiversity of Southern Africa and, in the course of his career, he added 20 000 specimens to the collections. Extensive fieldwork was undertaken throughout the subcontinent and he participated in a number of collaborative expeditions. The most ambitious of these was the Vernay Lang Kalahari expedition that lasted from March to September 1930; others took him to South West Africa and Namaqualand in 1937, south-eastern Rhodesia in 1938 and the Cape Province in 1940.
The culmination of all this fieldwork was the publication of a major work, The Lizards of South Africa in 1943, that gained him a DSc degree from the University of the Witwatersrand. This was followed by his magnum opus on The Snakes of Southern Africa, published by Purnell in 1962 and his Field Guide to the Snakes of Southern Africa, first published by Collins in 1960. He was appointed director of the Transvaal Museum in 1946, a position he held with great distinction for twenty years, creating the favourable climate of scholarship in the institution which allowed his distinguished colleagues such as Robert Broom, Georges van Son and Austin Roberts to make major scientific contributions that benefited all South Africans.
Encouraged by the Transvaal Museum entomologist Charles Koch, Dr Fitz, as he was affectionately known, turned his interests from 1959 onwards to the arid western regions of Southern Africa, particularly the Namib desert, where these two enthusiasts established a Namib Desert Research Station at Gobabeb, inland from Walvis Bay. As a fund raising exercise, they set up the Namib Desert Research Association and created an internationally acclaimed facility dedicated to all aspects of Namib Desert ecology. Financial support from the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research allowed the establishment of the Desert Ecological Research Unit, which was administered by the Transvaal Museum until the independence of Namibia in 1990. One of the greatest pleasures of Dr Fitz was to visit the Research Station at Gobabeb and to investigate the reptile fauna of the surrounding Namib Desert. Since Namibian independence, the station has become a focus for environmental education among Namibian students.
The tireless dedication of FW Fitzsimons and his two sons to the cause of informing South Africans about snakes and the treatment of snakebite was a twentieth-century phenomenon, the benefits of which will penetrate well into the next millennium.
• This biography is a modified extract from the following source:
Hudson, M. (1999) “Vivian FittzSimons” from They Shaped our Century: The Most Influential South Africans of the Twentieth Century. Published by Human and Rousseau. P.460