Schmidt, Karl Patterson

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(b. Lake Forest, Illinois, 19 June 1890; d. Chicago, Illinois, 26 September 1957)


Schmidt was the paradigm of the modern naturalist. He was a superior observer, with a tremendous depth of knowledge of nature, and a deep interest in ecology, systematics, behavior, and biogeography. His greatest contributions to biology were the impact he had on numerous younger biologists and his willingness to serve science as editor (of five journals or serials), as officer of societies, as translator of German books, and as curator of museum collections. As one biographer wrote, “He made no important discoveries, expounded no important new theories, organized no school of thought and directed no vast enterprises.” Nevertheless, Schmidt infected everyone he met with his enthusiasm and his common sense. Anything he published was thoroughly sound. More than anyone else, he turned herpetology, previously largely a hobby, into a branch of scientific biology.

Schmidt’s father, George Washington Schmidt, was professor of German language and literature at Lake Forest College. Karl was the oldest of four children, and had all the personality traits of a first-born. His mother, Margaret Patterson Schmidt, of Scottish descent, played a decisive role in forming his interests through her own active studies of nature, particularly botany. This was reinforced by three summers camping with his father in northern Wisconsin, and above all by six years he spent on a farm in Wisconsin after completing his freshman year at Lake Forest College. Schmidt had been a brilliant student, always at the head of the class, and turned to farming in 1907 only so that the family could live on a farm and the father could continue to teach until the farm could support them all. In his six farming years Schmidt took correspondence courses through the University of California and read voraciously.

At the age of twenty-three, Schmidt left the farm and in 1913 entered Cornell University as a sophomore. Here, living at the home of entomologist James G. Needham (who had been his biology teacher at Lake Forest College), he had more contact with graduate students and faculty than with undergraduates. While he was still undecided about his future, a chance meeting with herpetologist Mary C. Dickerson led to an assistantship at the American Museum of National History in New York, where Schmidt worked for the next six years in the department of herpetology, first under Dickerson and then under G. K. Noble. Two major monographs on the reptiles of the Belgian Congo, prepared during this period, established his reputation as a herpetologist. It also awakened his interest in zoogeography, a subject to which he contributed many publications throughout his life. In 1919 Schmidt married Margaret Wightman; they had two sons.

In 1922 Schmidt took charge of the newly established Division of Amphibians and Reptiles at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, and over the next twenty years, without assistants or clerical help, he built it into one of the foremost herpetological departments in the world. He became chief curator of zoology in 1941 and curator emeritus in 1955. While at the Field Museum, Schmidt took part in numerous expeditions to the Caribbean, Central and South America, New Zealand, and Israel, always returning with rich collections that usually covered all branches of natural history.

Schmidt received many honors. He was president of the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists from 1942 to 1946, and president of the Society for the Study of Evolution in 1954. In 1956 he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences. In 1952 Earlham College awarded him an honorary D.Sc., and in 1955 a volume of scientific papers by many of his associates was published in honor of his sixty-fifth birthday. In 1953 Schmidt led the American delegation to the Thirteenth International Congress of Zoology at Copenhagen that fought for common sense and stability in zoological nomenclature. Several of the subsequent improvements in the Code of Nomenclature were due to his influence.

Schmidt was a great lover of books and during his career acquired an extensive herpetological library. A one-year stay in Germany, when he was six years old, gave him a perfect command of German, and later in life he was indefatigable in translating important German works into English. Some of these translations were subsequently published, such as Richard Hesse’s Tiergeographie auf oekologischer Grundlage and Willy Hennig’s Grundzüge einer Theorie der phylogenetischen Systematik (with Rainer Zangerl); works by Hans Böker, Max Weber, and Adolf Portmann were made available to his associates in manuscript.

As a taxonomist Schmidt was very much a representative of the new systematics. More important, he was one of the taxonomists responsible for the rapprochement of systematics and general biology. In 1943 he was appointed lecturer in zoology at the University of Chicago, and in the ensuing years he collaborated with four of the professors of that university in writing Principles of Animal Ecology (1949). His extensive knowledge of the literature and his coverage of the geographical aspects were particularly valuable in this enterprise. Owing to his vast knowledge of the literature, Schmidt was preadapted to become a historian of herpetology (1955). He was very much interested in broadening the general interest in natural history, and he wrote two popular books on animals. To his closest friends he was known as a poet of no mean ability.

With his genial optimism, his keen sense of humor, and his willingness to place the common welfare over his personal interests, Schmidt was a much-sought-after member of boards and committees. Owing to his many-sided services and lack of time, he accumulated a considerable number of large, unfinished manuscripts. These he hoped to complete after his retirement. Unfortunately, he died only two years later, of snake poisoning, after being bitten by a South African boomslang he was attempting to identify for a zoo.

Schmidt was always ready to write a scientific report on reptiles and amphibians brought back by expeditions to the West Indies, Mexico, Central America, Arabia, the Sudan, any country in South America, New Guinea, islands in the Pacific, China, Iran, Sinai, or Southeast Asia. He was not a regional specialist but knew reptiles and amphibians from every area in the world. His major contribution to herpetology was the geographical and ecological slant he gave to his papers on the variation and distribution of reptiles and amphibians. This rather new approach had a lasting influence on the field.


I. Original Works. Schmidt’s bibliography (compiled by Robert F. Inger but not yet published) has nearly 200 titles. Major publications are “Contributions to the Herpetology of the Belgian Congo . . ., in Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History, 39 (1919), 385-624, and 49 (1923), 1-146; Amphibians and Land Reptiles of Puerto Rico, with a List of Those Reported from the Virgin Islands, which is New York Academy of Sciences Scientific Survey of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, X, pt, 1 (New York, 1928); “The Amphibians and Reptiles of British Honduras”, in Field Museum of Natural History Publication no. 512, zoological ser., 22 (1941), 475-510; A Check List of North American Amphibians and Reptiles, 6th ed. (Chicago, 1953); “Faunal Realms, Regions, and Provinces”, in Quarterly Review of Biology, 29 (1954), 322-331; Ecological Animal Geography (New York, 1937), an authorized, rewritten ed. based on Richard Hesse’s Tiergeographie auf oekologischer Grundlage, with W. C. Allee; Field Book of Snakes of the United States and Canada (New York, 1941), written with D. Dwight Davis; Principles of Animal Ecology (Philadelphia, 1949), written with W. C. Allee, Alfred E. Emerson, Orlando Park, and Thomas Park; “Herpetology”, in A Century of Progress in the Natural Sciences 1853-1953 (1955), 591-627; and Amphibia (1959), written with Robert F. Inger.

II. Secondary Literature. There is an obituary by D. Dwight Davis in Copeia (1959), no. 3, 189-192. Fieldiana, zoology ser., no. 37 (1955), is the Karl Patterson Schmidt anniversary volume.

Ernst Mayr

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Schmidt, Karl Patterson

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