By Bernard Verdcourt
Gustaf Adolf Fischer was born in Barmen, which was then in Rhenish Prussia and now part of Wuppertal, on 4 March 1848 and studied medicine and natural science at Bonn, Berlin and Würzburg, becoming medical officer to the First Dragoon Guards in 1874. He obtained leave to join an expedition to East Africa and 1877 found him in Zanzibar. In June of that year he joined Denhardt’s expedition to Witu, that area of the (now) Kenya coast opposite Lamu, a part of the Sultanate of Zanzibar which was under German influence until 1886. I suspect this influence lasted until a few years later: in fact I saw an old German notice still on a building in Witu in 1960! Prestwich (1963) states he made ‘two journeys along the cost of Kenya Colony [not of course in existence then] to Witu and the Upper Tana, in 1877 and 1878.’ From 1879 to 1882 he was in medical practice in Zanzibar (presumably having been permanently released from the Dragoon Guards) in order to raise money for further expeditions. He must of course have known Kirk who was, however, wary of the intentions of all Germans in East Africa and very anxious that undescribed plants and animals should, as far as possible, be written up by British scientists.
Fischer made a long expedition at the end of 1882 with the support of the Geographical Society of Hamburg, leaving from Pangani, skirting south of Kilimanjaro thence to Lake Magadi and up to Lake Naivasha, thus being the first European to enter what was later to be called the ‘White Highlands of Kenya’. He was unable to proceed further due to the hostility of the Masai despite the fact that he had 300 armed askaris (native soldiers) under his command. He returned safely to Pangani in 1883.
His third journey also started in Pangani in August 1885 with the purpose of relieving Dr Junker, Emin Pasha and other Europeans stranded in the Sudan. He aimed to pass the southern end of Lake Victoria, and move up the eastern shores to the north-east corner (Kavirondo). The return was to be via Lake Baringo and Lake Naivasha, before passing north of Kilimanjaro and thence to the coast. Prestwich says that on proceeding to skirt Lake Victoria, Fischer found the country devastated by famine and so was forced to return without making contact with Junker and his companions.
These are staggering journeys not to be contemplated lightly even today by car. It is a tribute to the unostentatious but practical methods of this man that his journeys were so successful. He wrote two interesting travel books (1885). He died in Berlin on 11 November 1886 a few months after leaving Africa where he had obviously contracted a fever.
Although mainly an ornithological and botanical collector Fischer also collected a few snails and also some slugs which must have been preserved in spirit. The slug specimens appear to be no longer extant but the snails and birds are in the Zoological Museum in Berlin. Many of his plants are preserved in Hamburg but a great many were destroyed in Berlin during the Second World War; needless to say the majority were previously undescribed species so the loss of the types is serious. Unfortunately many of them were very inadequately localized which makes the species difficult to interpret from the original descriptions; the consequences of their loss are therefore that much more serious. His name is commemorated in the epithets of many plants, Fischer’s lovebird (Agapornis fischeri) and probably other birds, Fischer’s shrew (Crocidura fischeri) and Rhynchocyon petersi flscheri (now sunk under the nominate race) Peter’s black and red elephant shrew; also Fischer’s Needle, a remarkable pinnacle of rock near Lake Naivasha at the mouth of Njoroa Gorge (Hell’s Gate) in Kenya. The lovebird was one of the 22 new species of birds he discovered.
List of molluscs described from material collected by Dr. G. A. Fischer in East Africa
The molluscs collected by Fischer were described by von Martens (1879) and Simroth (1889, 1896):
Rhachidina braunsi succincta (von Mts.).
Cleopatra ferruginea (I. & H.C. Lea).
Limicolaria martensiana martensiana (Smith).
Burtoa nilotica crassa (von Mts.)
Bulinus nasutus (von Mts.) (I showed (1965) that the correct name for this is B. praeclarus but nasutus is still the name in common use).
Polytoxon robustum (Simroth).
Geogr. Jb. 1888. 12: 363.
Ibis 1887. 5: 128.
J. Orn. 1886. 34: 613–22.
Mitt. Hamb. geogr. Ges. 1885–86: 215–21.
Proc. geogr. Soc. 1886. 8: 791–2.
Természettud. Közl. 1887. 19: 503–4.
Z. Ethnol. 1886. 18: (641)–(643).
Whilst this article was in the press R. Kilias published a further instalment of his list of types in the Berlin Museum (Achatinidae) (Mitt. Zool. Mus. Berl.. 1992. 68: 167–80). Since he does not include Fischer specimens of either Limicolaria mentioned above it appears some Fischer specimens are not at Berlin.