South African Field Guides of the 1940s

By Jane Carruthers

The twentieth century saw the emergence of ‘field guides’ as authoritative publications enabling people to identify, and learn about, animals alive in the ‘field’ rather than as dead specimens in a museum or laboratory. Over the decades, these guides have been important resources for biologists and laypeople alike, and the partnership between the professional and citizen scientist has been productive. One might apply this remark about partnership and collaboration to the Royal Society of South Africa itself, which has categories of both Fellows and Members, thus linking everyone interested in science in the endeavour to generate and share knowledge.

There were many books about the fauna of southern African region that prefigured the field guide and they were to find their maturity in three seminally important books published between 1940 and 1951. These three have not only provided examples to many followers, but they themselves have been extremely long-lasting and remain in print today. Both text and illustrations have been regularly updated, and many Fellows and Members of the Royal Society of South Africa have been involved in the revisions.

Frontispiece of Roberts Birds by Norman Lighton

Frontispiece of Roberts Birds by Norman Lighton

The field guides under discussion are The Birds of South Africa by Dr Austin Roberts (1940),1 The Mammals of South Africa, by “the late Austin Roberts” (1951),2 and The Sea Fishes of Southern Africa by J.L.B. Smith (1949).3 Interestingly, these books spanned the period of the 1940s which, given the Second World War and its immediate aftermath, would not necessarily come to mind as being an auspicious period for generating such literature. As can also be appreciated from the fact that the publishers were especially established Book Funds and not commercial publishers, these books would not have appeared without the financial support of local philanthropists and subscribers. Moreover, Sea Fishes required enormous help from Gabriel Mauricio Teixeira, Governor-General of Mozambique (1948-1958), while monetary and other assistance came from Hugh le May (1881-1964), head of the Delagoa Bay Engineering Works. (Later, Le May was a generous benefactor to Rhodes University and a scholarship exists in his name.) Austin Roberts (1883-1948) and James Leonard Brierley Smith (1897-1968) were both extremely interesting – maverick, perhaps difficult – men. Neither began their careers as zoologists. Born in Pretoria of a clerical family that moved to Potchefstroom, Roberts had no formal tertiary education and started life as a clerk, soldier and hunter. Keenly interested in natural history from his childhood, Roberts applied for employment in the Transvaal Museum and, having impressed the Director, Dr J.W.B. Gunning, he was appointed in 1910 as curator of birds and mammals. Roberts’s title of ‘Dr’ refers to an honorary D.Sc. from the University of Pretoria (1935), just one of many honours and medals that later came his way. The Austin Roberts Chair of African Mammalogy at the University of Pretoria, established in his memory – he died in a car accident in the Transkei – is currently held by Nigel Bennett FRSSAf, an animal ecologist and behaviourist.

Smith was born in Graaff-Reinet and displayed his intellectual brilliance early, passing with high accolades through the various schools he attended and coming first in the country in chemistry while at the University of Stellenbosch (1917). After completing his M.Sc. (and garnering more prizes and scholarships), he obtained a Ph.D. in Chemistry from Cambridge in 1922 and thereafter went to teach at Rhodes University College. Apparently his lifelong poor health required him to spend considerable time out of doors and he took up angling: thus commenced his professional career in fish taxonomy. Smith’s handling of the discovery of the coelacanth Latimeria chalumnae in 1938 made world headlines and secured his international fame. The monograph description of the ‘fossil fish’ appeared in the Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa in 1940.

While ‘passionate’ is a term generally overworked as a cliché, it is clear that both Roberts and Smith found intense enjoyment in their work. They were also dedicated to promoting scientifically reliable information, even if it meant disagreeing

Plate 36 of Smith’s Sea Fishes by Margaret Smith

Plate 36 of Smith’s Sea Fishes by Margaret Smith

with the renowned scientists of their day. In his biography of Austin Roberts, C.K. (Bob) Brain FRSSAf described how Roberts had crossed swords in the 1920s with the renowned Michael Oldfield Thomas (Curator of the Mammal Section, Department of Zoology, British Museum, 1879-1923) on the naming of the groove-toothed rat Pelomys australis (now Pelomys fallax), to the extent that Roberts refused to return the type specimen to that Museum. On the question of the correct name (which Roberts had decided upon) Roberts had been bold enough to write to Thomas that, ‘In coming to my conclusions I have in many cases been materially assisted by knowing the species in nature’, a disparaging comment to make to a leading academician, but one that displays the value of field knowledge.4

A.C. (Alec) Brown, a marine biologist, President of the Royal Society of South Africa in 1979, and editor of the Transactions for many years, recorded his intense dislike of Smith; mainly, it seems, for his single-mindedness, his entrepreneurial approach to science and his love of publicity. These are not traits necessarily detrimental to a professional scientist and publicity was certainly an advantage. When Smith abandoned the Department of Chemistry at Rhodes and began his work in ichthyology at that institution, he transformed his small unit into a large Department and subsequently into the world-renowned J.L.B. Smith Institute of Ichthyology. Among his many ‘unlovable characteristics’, Brown regarded Smith’s  worst as being that he could not ever admit to being wrong,5 perhaps an explanation for Smith’s frequent embroilment in arguments over fish systematics.

The three field guides are indicative of a shift in natural history throughout the world in the 1940s and 1950s. The efforts of field biologists grew in importance as both plant and animal ecology

demonstrated their scientific promise and, despite the War, more leisure for the middle class and the ubiquity of the motor car opened opportunities for travel away from towns and cities to game reserves and national parks or to coastal resorts. Ideas around the conservation of nature became widespread. Roberts’s Mammals, for example, emanated from a suggestion by Dr Rudolf Bigalke, Director of the National Zoological Gardens in Pretoria, that the Wild Life Protection Society sponsor a guide to mammals and, indeed, the Society’s support was critical to the success of all three publications. The Foreword to Mammals was written by James Stevenson-Hamilton, the recently retired Warden of the Kruger National Park. He believed that Roberts’s book would reduce the threat to South Africa’s mammal fauna from ‘ever-spreading industrial civilization’.

Roberts’s bird book was illustrated by Norman C.K. Lighton (1904-1981) an architect employed in the Public Works Department in Pretoria. Lighton, who had previous experience in illustrating bird books, was seconded to the Transvaal Museum for the period he was engaged on the art-work. For want of competent artists of fish, by far the majority of the illustrations in The Sea Fishes was done by Margaret MacDonald, a colleague who had become Smith’s second wife in 1938. Margaret Smith herself became an acclaimed ichthyologist and, after Smith’s suicide, she became head of the institute he had founded. Illustrator of Roberts’s Mammals was Pierre Jacques Smit (1863-1960). Born in the Netherlands, Smit was brought up in London, where his father was an illustrator of wildlife at the British Museum and later at the South Kensington Museum. The talented young Smit joined his father and became well known for his work in catalogues, scientific journals and natural history books specializing in African fauna. In 1903 Smit immigrated to Bloemfontein where he became a Wesleyan minister and, having retired in 1932, he moved to Port Elizabeth and resumed his artistic career. When he began illustrating Roberts’s book (a three-year task) he was 80 years old and he was still painting other work when he died at the age of 97.6

The Forewords to all three books were contributed by eminent South Africans involved in science. James Stevenson-Hamilton’s contribution to Roberts’s Mammals has already been mentioned, and his was a strong wildlife conservation message. In Sea Fishes Basil Schonland, then President of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (where Smith was employed as a Research Fellow), reminded readers that zoology was an inclusive discipline, and that the biota of the seas was as important as that on the land. The author of the Foreword to Roberts’s Birds, Prime Minister Jan Smuts, highlighted the educational value of the field guide and emphasised its inspiration to ornithological research.

This trilogy of field guides to the creatures in our sub-region that inhabit land, sea and air, together with their still-relevant messages of conservation, multi-disciplinarity, education and research are treasures of South African biology.



Published for the Trustees of the South African Bird Book Fund in London (by H.F. & G. Witherby) and in Johannesburg (by The Central News Agency).

  1. Published by the Trustees of the Mammals of South Africa Book Fund and distributed by the Central News Agency.
  2. Published by the South African Fish Book Fund.
  3. Quoted in C.K. Brain, Austin Roberts: A Lifelong Devotion to South Africas Birds and Beasts (Cape Town, John Voelcker Bird Book Fund, 1998), pp.144-145. Oldfield Thomas had been born in Cape Town where his father was a clergyman, but he had returned to England as a youth.
  4. Carruthers, ‘Preface to “Some Royal but unmemoired Fellows” by A.C. Brown’,

Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa, 2014. DOI 10.1080/0035919X.2014.882429

  1. His son, Dr Bernard Smit, became a famous entomologist.