Skip to main content

Karl Patterson Schmidt: Legacy

Contact Us

Please use this guide as a starting point for your research. If you need further assistance, contact us via email at reflib@fieldmuseum.org

The Legacy of Karl Patterson Schmidt (1890-1957)

Karl Patterson (K.P.) Schmidt was a world-renowned herpetologist and curator with The Field Museum from 1922 until 1957. He began his career as assistant curator of reptiles and amphibians, eventually becoming chief curator of zoology in 1941. Among his numerous honors, Schmidt was awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship in 1932, and elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1956. Over the course of his career, Schmidt named more than 200 species of reptiles and amphibians; Many scientists named species and subspecies of reptiles and amphibians for Schmidt. 

While the manner of Schmidt's death added to his legend and was sensationalized in local papers and around the world (detailed briefly below), a lesser-known story about collecting a crocodile specimen while on expedition in Belize that remains on display at the Museum today--the Morelet's crocodile is located in the Hall of Reptiles and Amphibians on the Main Floor--is equally incredible. Schmidt describes wading into a swamp and wrestling an injured 5'3" crocodile to shore in this passage from Crocodile Hunting in Central AmericaChicago: Chicago Natural History Museum Press, 1952: 

Fearing that we would lose the only good-sized crocodile we had seen, I made a despairing grab for his eyes with thumb and finger. This proved to be a decidedly effective hold, for I had no difficulty in carrying him ashore. Changing my hold to the front of his jaws almost proved disastrous, for although it was easy to hold the jaws shut, he was able to twist over and over with astonishing rapidity, necessitating equally rapid changes of hands on his snout to avoid laceration by the sharp projecting teeth. 

On September 25, 1957, the director of the Lincoln Park Zoo sent a snake to The Field Museum for identification. Schmidt concluded that based on the snake's behavior, it was a boomslang, native to Sub Saharan Africa. After taking the snake from a colleague without precautions to prevent a bite, Schmidt was bitten on the thumb. The venom of the boomslang is a hemotoxin, which means that it disrupts blood coagulation in humans; essentially, as the venom spreads it causes fibrinogen in the bloodstream to form clots. The fibrinogen is then not available to stop bleeding. This leads to bleeding in major internal organs and possibly death. Schmidt did not seek medical attention, but kept a journal of the symptoms he experienced, recording all of the effects of the bite in graphic detail. Within 24 hours, Schmidt was pronounced dead. A transcript of his journal was published by the Chicago Tribune in an article titled "Diary of a Snakebite Death!" on October 3rd, 1957. 

Field Museum Resources & Publications

More than 100 books, chapters, and journal articles by and about K.P. Schmidt are freely available on Internet Archive as well as via the Biodiversity Heritage Library website, here

Annual Reports

  • Annual Report of the Director to the Board of Trustees for the year 1922 p. 87 
  • Annual Report of the Director to the Board of Trustees for the year 1923 p. 209
  • Annual Report of the Director to the Board of Trustees for the year 1926  pp. 67-70
  • Annual Report of the Director to the Board of Trustees for the year 1928 pp. 392398, 450
  • Annual Report of the Director to the Board of Trustees for the year 1929 pp. 81-85
  • Annual Report of the Director to the Board of Trustees for the year 1931 p.12, 38, 48, 58-59, 95, 102-103, 202, 218
  • Annual Report of the Director to the Board of Trustees for the year 1932 p. 102
  • Annual Report of the Director to the Board of Trustees for the year 1933 p. 66
  • Annual Report of the Director to the Board of Trustees for the year 1934 p. 209
  • Annual Report of the Director to the Board of Trustees for the year 1935 pp. 306, 344
  • Annual Report of the Director to the Board of Trustees for the year 1936 p. 30
  • Annual Report of the Director to the Board of Trustees for the year 1937 pp. 176, 218-219
  • Annual Report of the Director to the Board of Trustees for the year 1938 p. 331, 338
  • Annual Report of the Director to the Board of Trustees for the year 1940 p. 194
  • Annual Report of the Director to the Board of Trustees for the year 1941 p. 16
  • Annual Report of the Director to the Board of Trustees for the year 1955 p. 32
  • Annual Report of the Director to the Board of Trustees for the year 1957 pp. 33, 71

Databases

Newsletters

Mr. Schmidt typically wrote a paragraph near the beginning of most of these newsletters, and in later issues his book reviews appeared near the end of each newsletter.  

 

K.P. Schmidt

© The Field Museum, Z86242, Photographer unknown. Mr. Karl P. Schmidt [and friends] with British Honduras Lizards. Helmeted iguanas (Corytophanes hernandesii, FMNH 69225 and Corytophanes cristatus, FMNH 69226-28) from Gallon Jug, Belize.