Sir John Kirk - 1832-1922 - Collectors in East Africa - 11.

By Bernard Verdcourt

Extracted from The Conchologists' Newsletter, No. 91, pp. 215–218 published December 1984. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Sir John Kirk, G.C.M.G., K.C.B., F.R.S., M.D., is one of my heroes and was one of the best diplomatists ever to leave England. He was a first rate naturalist and very many of his plants are at Kew often accompanied by valuable paintings and sketches made in the field. His interest remained with him all his life and he was a close friend of Sir W. Hooker and Sir J. D. Hooker for over 50 years. His correspondence with these two successive directors of Kew is preserved in that institution. Apart from collecting he also carried out several personal scientific investigations of high quality. The non-marine molluscs that he collected were worked out by various people including H. Dohrn, G. R. von Frauenfeld, E. A. Smith and Isaac Lea. Perhaps even more important than his personal collections was the influence he exerted on local Arab rulers on the coast to abandon the slave trade and to tolerate explorers, missionaries and other potential collectors.

He was born on 19 December 1832 in the Manse of Barry in Forfarshire about eight miles north of Dundee and died as recently as 1922 at Sevenoaks in Kent. He was the second of the four children of the Rev. John Kirk who was himself a keen botanist. He became interested in botany at a very early age since it was his father’s principal hobby. His father tutored him at first then he attended the local high school in Arbroath and he matriculated at the age of 15 and entered Edinburgh University in 1847 at that age first the Arts faculty then the Medical School. By the time he was 22 he graduated from the medical faculty, MD, LRCS. He was also a pupil of the famous botanist Prof. I. H. Balfour during this period.

He first took a post as resident physician at the Royal Edinburgh Infirmary, one of his colleagues being Joseph Lister. The Crimean war had just started and like many other young doctors Kirk sailed for the area in 1855; there he stayed until 1856 being stationed mainly at Erenkevi in the Dardanelles and at Scutari. After the Crimean episode he collected plants on Mt. Ida and Mt. Olympus before returning to London in 1856. He was soon off again, however, this time to Syria, Palestine, Egypt and Italy arriving back in London once again in 1857 when his friendship with the Hookers started.

From 1858–1863 he was physician, economic botanist and naturalist (and later chief officer) to Livingstone’s Zambesi Expedition. When Livingstone first approached him about this post Kirk is reported to have been so enthusiastic that he replied ‘be ready tomorrow’. Actually being a good Scot he was not quite that impetuous and wanted to have details of ‘the necessary expenses’. Livingstone’s classic reply of 4 January 1858 was ‘I am not quite clear as to what you mean with regard to necessary expenses. Suppose you shoot a buffalo there will be no expense incurred in cooking and eating it. There are no inns or hotels in the country. The lodging will all be free – expeditions of this kind cannot be successful unless all the members are willing to rough it and it will be well if we all thoroughly understand this before we start. The salary is £350 per annum.‘ Livingstone and Kirk got on very well and in a letter to Hooker, Livingstone recorded his personal views as follows ‘The Doctor has been I can assure you a most assiduous and painstaking collector – nothing ever deterred him from doing his duty and he did it like a man. If you can confer any favour on him you will never find a more deserving recipient – this I can say after five years of constant intercourse’. The reason Kirk remained friends with Livingstone when so many others failed is partly due to his outstanding qualities of forbearance and understanding and partly that Kirk was the only other member of the expedition with the physical toughness and the strength of will to match Livingstone’s own. His last association with Livingstone was to act as a pall-bearer on 18 April 1874 at Livingstone’s funeral in Westminster Abbey – the others included Stanley and Jacob Wainwright, one of the Africans who had carried Livingstone’s body to the coast after his death; a long and fantastic journey of 11 months.

The Zambesi expedition only just touched on the borders of the area with which I deal but it did visit the Rovuma River. From 1866 to 1873 Kirk was Vice Consul for Zanzibar and later Assistant Political Agent. In 1873 he was appointed Consul General at Zanzibar and under his influence the Sultan abandoned slavery in his dominions. In 1880 he was Political Agent at Zanzibar and was created KCMG in 1881. He retired in 1887 on account of ill-health. From 1889–1890 he was Plenipotentiary for Britain at the Brussels Anti-Slavery Conference where his long association with the problem was of enormous value. He was created KCB in 1890. He was one of those many giants produced by the Victorian era and his great strength of character shows in the various portraits which exist.

He was very interested in the practical uses of plants and during the Zambesi expedition he made experiments with Strophanthus which was used as an arrow poison by the natives in the area. He discovered its effect on the heart and sent material back to Edinburgh for more detailed investigation. As a result strophanthinum was added to the pharmacopeia and a minor industry started in Central Africa. It is still used as a heart stimulant. He was quick to see the possibilities of an area and published a report on the natural products and capabilities of various areas he visited with Livingstone. He recommended the Shire Highlands for European settlement, the Manganja Hills for coffee planting and the Batoka Highlands for cattle ranching. He fostered the Zanzibar copal industry, the resin from a leguminous plant important in the manufacture of varnish. He also developed the important india-rubber trade, the rubber being obtained not from Hevea (then not grown in the Old World) but from wild climbers of the genus Landolphia. He also took an interest in the fibre obtainable from the genus Sansevieria. Impatiens walleriana (= I. sultanii) the common busy lizzy, now I would say too well known in cultivation, was first introduced by Kirk. He published a revision of the economically important East African palms. He was also one of the earliest amateur photographers and certainly the first to take photographs of vegetation in the Zambesi area if not in tropical Africa. Wax negatives of the 1859 photographs are still extant and quite excellent prints taken from them. Many of these have been reproduced in Coupland’s fascinating book ‘Kirk on the Zambesi’ and by Foster in his "The Zambesi Journal and letters of Dr. John Kirk" and "The Zambesi Doctors".


List of molluscs described from material collected by John Kirk

Achatina kirkii Smith, 1880. Between Zanzibar and Lake Tanganyika. = Achatina craveni Smith, 1881. Holotype BM:
Buliminus kirkii Dohrn, 1865. Mozambique, near Cabaceira. = Pseudoglessula kirkii (Dohrn, 1865). Formerly a type specimen* at BM but mislaid.
Ennea hanningtoni Smith, 1890. Tanzania, Usagara, Hannington and Kirk (& also Mamboia leg. Last) = Gulella sexadentata (von Martens, 1869). Syntypes: BM 1884: 2.19.68–70 (purchased from Hannington) 1885.5.25.103–4 (purchased from Last) 1885.6.25.6–7 (purchased from E. Gerrard jun. and obtained by Sir John Kirk)..
Ennea laevigata Dohrn, 1865. Lake Malawi, Mumba I.. = Gulella laevigata (Dohrn, 1865). Syntype*: BM: 1862. 9.25.21. and further possible syntype in Cuming collection.
Gibbus (Gonidomus) breviculus Smith, 1890. Tanzania, Usagara = Gonaxis breviculus (Smith, 1890). Syntypes BM: 1855-6-25.8–9, 2 specimens lectotype marked with red spot by Connolly (‘holotype’ sic).
Lanistes nyassanus Dohrn, 1865. Southern end of Lake Malawi and near Lake Pamolombue through which the R. Shire flows after leaving Lake Malawi.. = unchanged. Type not found.
Melania nodicincta Dohrn, 1865. Southern end of Lake Malawi and in upper pert of R. Shire. = Melanoides nodicincta (Dohrn, 1865). Syntypes* BM: and Cuming collection, 3 specimens, lectotype marked with red spot by Connolly (‘holotype’ sic.)
Melania victoriae Dohrn, 1865. River Zambezi, Victoria Falls, rapids above the falls. = Melanoides victoriae (Dohrn, 1865). Syntypes* BM: Cuming collection, 3 specimens.
Spatha alata Lea, 1864. Lake Malawi. = Mutela alata (Lea, 1864). Syntypes* BM: Cuming collection, 3 specimens.
Spatha modesta Lea, 1864. Mazambique ("freshwaters near Mozambique". = Aspatharia petersi modesta (Lea, 1864). fide Pilsbury & Bequaert (modern attribution not known). No type* found in BM.
Spatha nyassaensis Lea, 1864. Lake Malawi. = Aspatharia (Spathopsis) nyassaensis (Lea, 1864). No types* found in BM.
Streptaxis craveni Smith, 1880. Kenya** on hills between the mouth of the R. Dana (i.e. Tana) and Mombasa. = Gonaxis craveni (Smith, 1880). Syntypes: BM 80.12.22. 3–4, 2 specimens lectotype marked with red spot by Connolly (‘holotype’ sic).
Streptaxis kirkii Dohrn, 1865. Lake Malawi, Mumba I. = Gonaxis (Pseudogonaxis) kirkii (Dohrn, 1865). Syntype: BM
Unio aferula Lea, 1864. Lake Malawi. = Nyassunio nyassaensis aferula (Lea, 1864). Type*: BM Cuming collection, 1 specimen.
Unio kirkii Lea, 1864. Lake Malawi. = Nyassunio nyassaensis nyassaensis (Lea, 1864). Type*: BM Cuming collection, 1 specimen.
Unio nyassaensis Lea, 1864. Lake Malawi. = Nyassunio nyassaensis (Lea, 1864). Syntypes*: BM Cuming collection, 2 specimens.
Vivipara capillata von Frauenfeld, 1865. Lake Malawi. = Bellamya capillata (von Frauenfeld, 1865). Syntypes*: BM Cuming collection, 2 specimens lectotype with red spot.
Vivipara jeffreysii von Frauenfeld, 1865. Lake Malawi. = Bellamya jeffreysii (von Frauenfeld, 1865). Syntypes*: BM Cuming collection, 2 specimens (labelled type and paratype).
Vivipara robertsoni von Frauenfeld, 1865. Lake Malawi. = Bellamya robertsoni (von Frauenfeld, 1865). No type material found.
Notes on the above list.
*An asterisk appended to the word type indicates I am not sure of the actual status of the material in the BM. The true types are or were presumably in the collections of Dohrn (destroyed at Stettin during the Second World War and Lea (probably Aced. Sci. Philadelphia); I have no evidence that the authors actually saw the material in the Cuming collection. It seems unlikely they had it all and then sent some back; more likely that duplicates were retained which are therefore not really of any standing as types. Lea speaks of the ‘liberality of Mr. Cuming’ so it is clear he kept the material sent to him. In the case of the Viviparidae, von Frauenfeld actually mentions that he was staying in London when he examined and described the material so the Cuming specimens are true syntypes even if von Frauenfeld did retain material. Crowley, Pain, and Woodward (1964) considered all the Bellamya to be variants of B. unicolor (Olivier) but I agree with D. Brown that this is not correct.
**There are no hills to speak of between the mouth of the Tana and Mombasa. I suspect the material came from the E. Usambaras which Kirk certainly visited. A different species lives in the coastal forests near Mombasa.

Apart from the species described from material collected by Kirk several others were named after him, e.g. Achatina kirkii Craven, 1880 (= Pseudoglessula leroyi fasciata Connolly), Spathella kirki Ancey 1894 (now Aspatharia kirki (Ancey 1894) and the beautiful Limnotrochus kirki Smith 1880 (now Chytra kirki (Smith, 1880)).


Crowley, T.E., Pain, T. & Woodward, F.R. (1964). A monographic review of the Molluscs of Lake Nyasa. Ann. Mus. Roy. Afr. Centr. 8º Sci. Zool. 131:1–58, p1. 1–VIII.
Dohrn, H. (1865). List of the land and freshwater shells of the Zambesi and Lake Nyassa, eastern Tropical Africa, collected by John Kirk, M.D., F.L.S., &c. Proc. Zool. Soc. Lond. 1865: 231–234 [the paper was actually presented by Kirk who added the introduction and localities].
Frauenfeld, G. von (1865). Zoolog. Miscell. V. Bescreibung von 7 neuen Arten der Gatt. Vivipara Lam. Verhandl. Zool.-bot. Ges. Wien 15: 525, 531–533, t. 22 [see also Description of seven new species of the Genus Vivipara Lam. Proc. Zool. Soc. Lond. 1865: 658–659].
Lea, I. (1864). Descriptions of six new species of Unionidae from Lake Nyassa. Proc. Acad. nat. Sci. Philadelphia 16: 108–109.
Lea, I. (1867). Observations on the genus Unio 11: pl. 12, 13.
Smith, E.A. (1880). Diagnoses of new shells from Lake Tanganyika and East Africa. Ann. Mag. nat. Hist. (5) 6: 425–430 (see also Proc. Zool. Soc. Lond. 1881: 280, pl. 32/5).
Smith, E.A. (1890). List of land and freshwater shells collected by Dr. Emin Pasha in Central Africa with descriptions of new species. Ann. Mag. nat. Hist. (6) 6: 146–168.

B. Verdcourt