THE DOCTOR WHO CAPTURED EXTINCT REPTILES by Deborah Painter

 As a child I enjoyed books on prehistoric life, so I became familiar with the Kannemeyeria, a plant eating mammal like reptile with four tusk like fangs and no other teeth. The area of South Africa where it was found is world famous for its fossil mammal like reptiles such as those found by a Dr. Kannemeyer.   I did not know until recently that Dr. Kannemeyer was a physician and not a paleontologist.  Since paleontologists and archaeologists were rarities in his day, physicians who took an interest were among the few who possessed scientific training to lend help to their efforts.

THE DOCTOR WHO CAPTURED EXTINCT REPTILES

Daniel Rossouw Kannemeyer was born on December 26, 1843 in Cape Town to Daniel Gerhardus Kannemeyer and Johanna Susanne Rossouw. The family moved to Burgersdorp soon after. While a boy Daniel became fascinated by the many fossil reptiles and the artefacts he was finding in Burgersdorp as well as in the Stormberg District’s coal beds.   He went back to Cape Town and earned his Bachelor of Medicine at Cape Town’s South African College between the years 1859 and 1863.  The Royal College of Physicians at Edinburgh granted Kannemeyer his licence to practice.   While at Edinburgh he met and married Helen Hill.  The newlyweds sailed back to South Africa and Dr. Kannemeyer cared for workers for the railway industry in Smithfield and Aliwal North for the next four decades.  Daniel gave public lectures on natural history and archaeology.  During his meanders as an adult in Smithfield, the doctor continued collecting artefacts.   He also collected fossils, purchasing a second set of surgical instruments to carry out the more delicate phases of separating fossils from the hard surrounding rock.  The railroad would often make room in their cars for transporting specimens from the field to his home.

Kannemeyeria erithrea was as large as a hippopotamus and is believed to be herbivorous. CREDITS: Ghedoghedo (Public domain)

  Dr. Kannemeyer served on the local school board, and then volunteered to serve as medical officer in the Ninth Frontier War of 1877-1979 and in the campaigns against the Basuto and Moorosi in 1879 and 1880.

Trirachodon kannemeyeri was a small (20 centimeter long) cynodont, a mammal like reptile whose fossils were found in the Burgersdorp area by Dr. Kannemeyer. CREDITS: Smokeybjb (Public Domain)

  After returning to civilian life, Dr. Kannemeyer became involved with the South African Museum on Queen Victoria Street in Cape Town, the city’s very first museum built in 1825.  Beginning in the early 1880s to 1919 Daniel donated his finds to the South African Museum (now the Iziko South African Museum), including his personal collection of cynodont fossils.  A cynodont (“dog tooth” in ancient Greek) is a mammal like reptile, extinct since the Jurassic Period of approximately 176 million years before the present day.  The cynodonts, counted among ancestors of true mammals, had large braincases for complex brains and fed upon meat.  They possessed secondary palates, meaning that they, like our modern mammals, could chew and breathe at the same time.  Trirachodon kannemeyeria, in particular, is thought to have been a burrower which had a complex social structure suggested by its initial discovery in what may have been a den for rearing young.  Dr. Kannemeyer’s other important fossil find of mammal like reptiles, the Kannemeyeria, belonged to a group of cousins of mammals living successfully before the reign of the dinosaurs in the late Triassic period.  Kannemeyeria was one of the first known truly large land animal genera and is seen in the fossil record dating from approximately 251 to 225 million years B. P.    The group to which it belonged, the kannemeyerids, ranged from sheep sized to elephant sized and grew rapidly from hatchling stage to adult.  The latter suggests a warm blooded physiology.  They have no direct descendants.  Because of Dr. Kannemeyer the Burgersdorp area is now world famous for its “bone beds” of mammal like reptile fossils.  An early Triassic period long jawed amphibian, Trematosaurus kannemeyeri, was named in the doctor’s honour years after his death. The genus has been renamed Aphaneramma .    Daniel also worked with naturalist Roland Trimen in the study of butterflies, learned about the culture of Bushmen from getting to know them firsthand, and collected most of the Museum’s 19th century collections of Free State insect, reptile and amphibian specimens.  A species of African ground spider and a species of velvet spider were named for him.  Prior to Dr. Kannemeyer’s archaeological efforts there had been  no formal study of what would be termed the Smithfield culture, a Later Stone Age hunting and gathering culture known from the time between 1300 and 1700 A. D.  

    Despite his contributions to archaeology and paleontology, he published very infrequently and confined his publications to his work in identifying foot and mouth disease vectors.  Daniel Kannemeyer died on January 1, 1925 in Bloemfontein.  His daughter Helen M.R. Burton followed in his footsteps with regard to the study and promotion of natural sciences.  Educated at the Sacred Heart Convent in King William’s Town, she was prepared to enter the University of the Cape of Good Hope when she married Henry Burton, future minister of railways and harbours.  Helen Burton found the time while tending and educating nine children to help establish the Botanical Society of South Africa in 1913 and to collect specimens for the British Museum of Natural History in London.  A species of oxalis, Oxalis burtoniae, was named after her.