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Robert KNOX
Dr. Frederick John KNOX L.R.C.S.E


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Margaret RUSSELL

Dr. Frederick John KNOX L.R.C.S.E

  • Born: 3 Apr 1794, St. Cuthbert's, Edinburgh, Midlothian, Scotland
  • Christened: 19 Apr 1794, St. Cuthbert's, Edinburgh, Midlothian, Scotland
  • Marriage: Margaret RUSSELL on 12 Dec 1825 in St. Cuthbert's, Edinburgh, Midlothian, Scotland
  • Died: 5 Aug 1873, Wellington, Wellington, New Zealand at age 79
  • Buried: 7 Aug 1873, Wellington, Wellington, New Zealand

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A brief account of the life and times of Frederick John Knox LRCSEd
This article examines the career of Frederick John Knox (1794 - 1873), who was the younger brother and erstwhile assistant of Robert Knox the anatomist. He was licensed by the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh in 1831, and in 1840 he emigrated with his wife and family to New Zealand, becoming a significant figure in the scientific community of the infant settlement of Wellington.
J.R.Coll.Surg.Edinb., 46, April 2001, 119-123
Frederick John Knox was born in Edinburgh on 3 April 1794, the ninth child of Robert Knox and his wife Mary, nee Scherer. His father was mathematical master at Heriot's Hospital, his mother a farmer's daughter. The couple's eighth child, born in 1791, was Robert Knox, who became the first Conservator of the Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh.
As a young man Frederick assisted his older brother Robert in his anatomical work, very much as John Hunter had worked for his brother almost a century earlier. Unlike John Hunter, he would not overshadow the older brother; but from him he obtained a good grounding in anatomy, both descriptive and comparative, and in the wider field of natural history.
Then, in 1829, came the Burke and Hare scandal. William Hare, an Irish labourer, had opened a boarding house in Edinburgh in 1827. When one of his lodgers died owing him money he, with the assistance of another Irishman, Thomas Burke, who lodged with him, sold the body to Robert Knox to cover the man's debts. The lure of such easy money prompted the two men to embark on a programme of murder by suffocation. When their scheme was exposed (after no fewer than 32 murders) Hare the ringleader turned King's evidence so that Burke was hanged, Knox, the innocent purchaser of several bodies, was subjected to severe criticism - and Hare went free.
Frederick Knox was not, as far as it is known, included in the public censure that drove his brother into obscurity. Robert resigned his post as Conservator in 1831, leaving a promising museum, and his violin, as his contribution to the College's treasures.1 In that same year Fredrick was licensed by the College. Thus qualified, he 'maintained a small practice' as a surgeon in Edinburgh; but it is reasonable to assume that his real interests were philosophical rather than those of the surgical craftsmen of the time.
He wrote a monograph, The Anatomist's Instructor and Museum Companion: Being Practical Directions for the Formation and Subsequent Management of Anatomical Museums, which was published in 1836 by the firm of Adam and Charles Black.2 Four years later, Frederick Knox arrived in New Zealand with his wife Margaret and their family (variously reported as four or five children).
The reasons for his departure are unclear. It may be that the name of Knox was not conducive to surgical success in the aftermath of the Burke and Hare scandal; it may be that Frederick's heart was not in surgical practice. It may even have been the rosy picture painted by the New Zealand Company, the colonising venture that came out of the theories propounded by Edward Gibbon Wakefield, which enticed him to emigrate.
Wakefield was a man with political ambitions and a prediliction for underage heiresses. In 1826 he abducted a 15-year-old schoolgirl, Ellen Turner, in the hope that her father, a rich Macclesfield manufacturer, might be prompted to further the career of a promising son-in-law. The father was not so inclined!
Gibbon and his brother William, who had helped in the unsavoury enterprise, were each sentenced to 3 years' imprisonment - Gibbon in Newgate, William in Lancaster Castle. But during his 3 years in prison Gibbon was able to refine his theories so as to arrive at a policy in which a 'core sample' of society', not just one stratum, could be transplanted into settlements with scope for 'upward mobility'. Gibbon was influential in the settlement of South Australia, had a role in Canada as adviser to Lord Durham, and then formed the New Zealand Company.
Brother William (and Gibbon's own son Jerningham) came out in the ship Tory in 1839, to prospect sites for settlement and buy land. Much of what they bought from a local Maori chief, Te Puni, was not his to sell, and land disputes have continued into the present century. But they did identify a site in the harbour of Port Nicholson, at the southern extremity of the North Island, and here settlers began to arrive in January 1840.
The first settlement was named Britannia; it was on flat land at the northern corner of the harbour at what is now Petone. However, by the first winter it had proved to be swampy ground and exposed to southerly storms that swept in through the harbour entrance. In the latter part of 1840, therefore, the settlers took themselves to the site of the Wellington of today, in the 'hook'of the harbour - where there was only a small flat area but it provided better shelter

Into this very provisional settlement came the Martha Ridgway, 621 tons (Figure 2). Captain J.F. Bisset, with Frederick Knox as ship's surgeon and his family. It would appear, amid a conflicting series of dates, that the vessel sailed from London on 5th July 1840 and arrived on 14th November 1840; a four-month journey in those days was quite creditable. The vessel carried 80 married couples, 19 single men, 17 single women, 47 boys and 34 girls under the age of 14, and two children under one year-of-age. Shortly after the Martha Ridgeway left England, smallpox broke out, and during the passage to New Zealand the ship was never wholly free from cases. The first to contract the disease was a steward, who developed it soon after leaving England. Several of the passengers were down when Port Nicholson was reached, so a quarantine ground was established on the eastern shores of the harbour [Lambton Harbour]. The ship was taken across, and everybody aboard was placed in strict quarantine for three weeks. Like everything else it did, the Company had seen carefully to it that the new settlement was supplied with first-class medical men, and these soon had the disease stamped out.There were six births and 5 deaths during the voyage - rather a high number of deaths compared with other voyages of the period.

Knox threw himself promptly into the scientific life of the infant settlement, but does not appear to have practised as a surgeon, despite his qualification. Instead he became the first librarian when, after a meeting of the settlers on 1 December 1840, it was agreed 'to take steps for the formation of a Public Library and Reading Room'.3
Having formed this decision, the settlers wasted no time. What was described as 'an Exchange and a Library' appears, with a large crowd of people outside it, in Charles Heaphy's panorama of Te Aro dated April 1841 (Figure 3). It is tempting to speculate that the crowd may have been assembled for the opening of the new building, to which Knox himself referred as the 'Port Nicholson Museum and Public Library'(Figure 4). His salary was 75 a year, which suggests that he was full time in the post, and able to indulge his scientific interests.
Figure 3: View of Wellington looking south, also by Charles Heaphy, 1841. The recently completed Exchange and Library building, with its white gable, is on the far shore just left of centre. The road on the extreme right of the picture is Willis Street, where Knox lived in 1843 when his name appeared on the Roll of Burgesses

His name appears in the Roll of Burgesses for Wellington in 1843, when a Town Council was elected. On the 11th July that year he was one of the signatories to a message of condolence and support to the Nelson settlers, who had lost a number of their fellows in an affray with aggrieved Maoris in the Wairau district. He signed himself 'Frederick John Knox MD' -convenient enough shorthand for a qualified practitioner in a situation where there were few of his sort to be found.
The following year, he was involved in a protest against a decision by the then Governor, Robert FitzRoy, to appropriate certain land that had been set aside for a cemetery.4 On a more agreeable note, he is listed among those attending a function to celebrate Queen Victoria's birthday in 1849, and in 1851 at a dinner at the Hutt (further up the river valley beyond the site of the original settlement) to entertain FitzRoy's successor as Governor, Sir George Grey.
The 1843 burgesses' roll gives his address as Willis Street, which then ran along the shoreline (it is now one of the main streets in the central business district). In 1855-57, he served as resident medical officer to the asylum in Karori, in the hills to the west of the main settlement, and at some stage he moved to the hamlet (now suburb) of Johnsonville.5 Formerly 'Johnson's clearing', it had been opened up to traffic by Grey, when he set out to discipline Te Rauparaha, the diminutive Maori chieftain who had terrorised the central region for many years. Grey's road ran on to Porirua and the west coast, on the way to the hinterland, and on the 15th August 1861, Knox was gazetted as Coroner for Porirua.
He was involved in the scientific community from the beginning, the Wellington Philosophical Society, the Mechanics' Institute and, from its foundation in 1867, the New Zealand Institute, forerunner of the Royal Society of New Zealand. Its Transactions and Proceedings date from 1868, and the five volumes printed before Knox's death in 1873 include a number of manuscripts under his name - 18 in fact, if we include his 'anatomical observations' appended to Dr Hector's account of the eel species Ophisurus (Vol 2, p 34; 1869). These articles are mostly descriptive rather than explanatory. - as was the fashion of natural history at that time - and deal with a wide range of creatures, from eels and the New Zealand swordfish, through that unique reptile the tuatara (Spheodon punctatus, named Hatteria punctata by Knox) to the now extinct huia bird, the comparative anatomy of penguins, and to mammals; the Balaenidae, the New Zealand bat, and even 'the skeleton of an aboriginal inhabitant of the Chatham Islands', which lie about 400 miles to the east of New Zealand.6
Frederick and Margaret Knox had six children. There was one son, Robert John, and five girls who all married prominent Wellington settlers.7 Frederick died on 5 August 1873 'in the hospital' says Carman, quoting the death notice in the Evening Post, though he does not record a cause of death.8
In a tribute to his colleague, Dr (later Sir James) Hector referred to the loss, by the Institute, of 'one of it most active and zealous members'.9 He described how, 'more than half a century ago', Knox had been 'assistant and friend of some of the leading anatomists of that day'and went on to refer to his role as assistant to Dr Barclay, where 'he was chiefly instrumental in producing that magnificent collection of anatomical preparations, illustrative of the various forms of animal life, which is known as the Barcleian Museum. On the retirement of Dr Barclay from the chair of anatomy in 1824, he became assistant to his brother, the eminent and brilliant lecturer on comparative anatomy, and continued to be curator of the Museum until he immigrated to this colony in 1840.'
Knox's favourite branch of study, Hector recalled, had been the cetacea; and 'in later years he frequently had just cause to complain that many of his early discoveries, disputed or neglected at the time they were made, had since been appropriated by subsequent writers.'10
It is evident that Frederick Knox was a talented man; his emigration to New Zealand probably deprived him of the scientific reputation he deserved. Yet by his presence in the young colony he was able to contribute to the cultural development of what would become a respectable scientific community.
Dr Knox's violin was brought out and played after a dinner given in 1983 in the Edinburgh College for members of a visiting party from the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons. Its tone was pure, the music enchanting.
It is of interest that this same firm published much of the work of a New Zealander, the late John Cawte Beaglehole OM, who became the world authority on Cook and Pacific exploration.
They numbered about 1200 by this time; it is not recorded how many of them attended the meeting.
It was FitzRoy who captained the Beagle on the 1831-36 voyage, which introduced the young Charles Darwin to evidence of natural selection.
Although Karori was difficult of access, it soon attracted a settlement, with a population of 215 as early as 1845.
The tuatara is a unique survivor from the age of the great reptiles. It looks rather like a modern lizard, but has a spiny back and a pineal eye.
Mary married William Couper on 14 September 1848, and a son was born to them on 3 December 1850. Helen married Thomas Thomas J Drake junior (born 4 August 1841) on 30 March 1869; they had five sons. Helen's father-in-law Thomas J Drake senior was the owner of one of the five original Wellington 'town acres'. The Wellington Club, founded in December 1841, bought 'Drake's Acre' and there in 1877 built a clubhouse. The Club has occupied the site ever since, the present clubhouse (the third on the site) having been opened in 1990 by the patron of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, HRH The Duke of Edinburgh. I can find no evidence that Knox was ever a Club member, although several of his scientific colleagues, notable WBD Mantell and Hector himself, were. Janet married Henry Fitzherbert, a widower, in 1868. Fitzherbert, like young Drake, was born in 1841; he came to New Zealand in 1861, married Annie Farmer the same year and practised as a veterinary surgeon, at first in the town in Brougham Street, then moved to Tawa Flat (beyond Johnsonville on the Porirua Road) from 1864. His first wife died in 1867, aged 24, soon after the birth of their fourth child; Janet bore him three children, and the family moved back to Britain in 1872. The other daughter, Isabella, married Charles de Castro in 1855.
Frederick was buried in the Bolton street cemetery on the 7th August. Margaret outlived him by ten years; her burial was on the 11th August 1883. The location of Frederick's grave is now unknown, while Margaret's fell victim to motorway construction in the 1960s.
James Hector (1834-1907), like Knox himself, was born in Edinburgh and there qualified in medicine. But he had learned something of geology, and in 1857 he went as surgeon-geologist with Palliser's expedition to western Canada. (The name of Kicking Horse Pass commemorates an occasion when the expedition almost lost its surgeon-geologist.) He so established his reputation as to be appointed director of the Geological Survey of Otago (NZ) in 1861 and, four years later, his directorship came to cover the entire colony (and the Colonial Museum in Wellington). He was soon effectively chief scientist for the colony, responsible at various times for the Meteorological Department, the Wellington Time-Ball and Colonial observatories, the Wellington Botanic Gardens, the custody of standard weights and measures and the library of the Patent Office. He managed the New Zealand Institute from its establishment in 1867 until 1903, when it became the Royal Society of New Zealand. Made FRSEd and FRGS after Canada, he became FRS (London) in 1866, CMG in 1875 and KCMG in 1887. He is a prime example of the polymath who guides the scientific development of a new country and his eulogy of Knox suggests that he could recognise the merit of another who achieved in the same manner if on a lesser scale.
Transactions of the New Zealand Institute, vol 6, p 367 (1873)
Transactions of the New Zealand Institute, vols 1-6. 1868-73
Concise Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1992
Beasley, AW. The Club on the Terrace. Wellington: The Wellington Club. 1996: p 11ff
Carman, AH: Tawa Flat and the Old Porirua Road.Wellington: Wright & Carman. 1955
Irvine-Smith FL. The Streets of My City. Wellington: Reed. 1948: p 43
Perry, S: Public Libraries and the city's culture. In: (eds. McLeod, NL & Farland BH) Wellington Prospect. Wellington: Hicks Smith. 1970: p 151
Ward, LE: Early Wellington. Papakura: Southern Bookbinding. 1928
Dictionary of New Zealand Biography (file on Frederick John Knox)
Alexander Turnbull Library, National Library of New Zealand (index of early settlers, newspaper files)
3 Bolton Street cemetery register
This study began as a favour to the Edinburgh College: it ended with my conviction that the College (and Mrs Sheena Jones in particular) had done me a favour in drawing to my attention a fragment of early New Zealand history that had been, as it were, under my nose.
Copyright date: 6th March 2001
Correspondence: Professor A.W. Beasley, 37 Hay Street, Oriental Bay, Wellington 1, New Zealand
2001 The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, J.R.Coll.Surg.Edinb.


Frederick married Margaret RUSSELL on 12 Dec 1825 in St. Cuthbert's, Edinburgh, Midlothian, Scotland. (Margaret RUSSELL was buried 11th August 1883 in Wellington, Wellington, New Zealand.)

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