The Herpetological Collection

The appointment of Carl von Schreibers as director of the natural history collections in 1806 marked the first attempt to study these natural objects in a scientific way; until that time they had been merely inventoried. The result was a functional separation into three newly established entities, a mineralogical, a botanical, and a zoological collection (Scholler 1953). The first enumeration of herpetological objects in the form of an acquisition book dates from the year 1806. In 1817, Leopold Fitzinger joined the Museum as a "volunteer trainee"; his task was to attend to the neglected reptile and fish collections (Steindachner 1901).


We owe the numerous anatomical mounts of vertebrates to von Schreibers's interest in comparative anatomy. Herpetological specimens of great value were incorporated into the collection through the purchase of individual objects and entire collections (such as that of James Cook), through collection trips of staff members in Europe, and through overseas expeditions (e.g., the Brazilian expedition of 1817- 1835, overseas voyages by the Austro-Hungarian navy, and the circumnavigation of the earth by the frigate NOVARA 1857-1859). In the course of the Museum's Brazilian expedition (1817-1835), Johann Natterer - scientific director of the enterprise - collected thousands of amphibians and reptiles (Figure 1).

The herpetological material suffered losses in the revolutionary year of 1848 when, during the battle for Vienna, the east wing of the court library at the Josefsplatz was hit by cannon fire. The entire animal depository stored in the attic went up in flames. Johann Natterer's valuable private collection and his diaries of the Brazil expedition were lost, as were bird and mammal specimens (stored in the attic for lack of space) along with extensive herpetological collections from all over the world. The fire also damaged the official apartment of Carl von Schreibers; numerous unpublished manuscripts as well as "cabinet" documents were destroyed (Scholler 1955). After Carl von Schreibers's retirement in 1851, Emperor Franz Joseph I officially split the "United Natural History Cabinets" into a "Zoological, Botanical, and Mineralogical Court Cabinet."

Herpetological Collection,  room XXVIII
Herpetological Collection, room XXVIII
H. Grillitsch, R. Gemel, S. Schweiger in the herpetological collection.
H. Grillitsch, R. Gemel, S. Schweiger in the herpetological collection.



Leopold Fitzinger

Leopold Fitzinger (Figure 2), who came to the Museum in 1817 at the age of 15, published in 1832 a catalog of mammals, reptiles, and fishes native to the Archduchy of Austria. It was based on numerous field trips throughout the Archduchy. He was assisted in the ichthyological studies by Johann Jacob Heckel, who later became one of the most distinguished Austrian ichthyologists. Leopold Fitzinger became a permanent member of the staff when he was made assistant curator in 1844. His uncertain employment status prior to this led him to leave the Museum in 1821 and take on a position as secretary in the provincial legislature of Lower Austria. He was granted time to continue attending to the collection during his office hours. Upon his appointment in 1844, he was officially entrusted with the supervision of the reptile and mammal collections. Yet with few exceptions his most significant scientific contributions were written in the preceding years. These include "Neue Classification der Reptilien nach ihren natürlichen Verwandtschaften" (New classification of reptiles according to their natural relationships) (1826), "Entwurf einer systematischen Anordnung der Schildkröten nach den Grundsätzen der natürlichen Methode" (Draft of a systematic arrangement of turtles based on the principles of the natural method) (1835), "Systema Reptilium" (1843), "Über den Proteus anguinus der Autoren" (1850), and a catalog of the reptiles and amphibians collected during the Novara expedition (1861). His achievements in the field of vertebrate research were recognized by academies in Vienna, Naples, and Philadelphia, as well as by numerous scholarly societies, all of whom bestowed upon him honorary memberships. Fitzinger died in 1884.

Between 1851 and 1876, the zoological collection had the status of a separate "Imperial and Royal Zoological Court Cabinet"; very valuable material from all parts of the world was incorporated into the collection during that period. Members of diplomatic missions, ship's surgeons on commercial and marine vessels (SAIDA, AURORA, FASANA, etc.), and members of the Imperial family helped to expand the volume of the collection. A number of contributors deserve special mention. Alexander Carl Freiherr von Hügel (1796-1870) collected between 1831 and 1837 in Greece, Egypt, Kashmir, India, China, the Philippines, and the Cape Province. The botanist Theodor Kotschy (1813-1866) collected in North Africa, Cyprus, Turkey, and Persia. In 1857, Georg Ritter von Frauenfeld (1805-1873) took part as a zoologist in the first circumnavigation of the earth by the frigate NOVARA. Ferdinand Stoliczka (1838-1874) traveled throughout India from 1864 to 1874 as an assistant to Dr. Thomas Oldham (1816-1878), superintendent of the Geological Survey of India (Ball 1886).

Leopold Fitzinger (1802 -1884)
Leopold Fitzinger (1802 -1884)



Franz Steindachner

In 1857, the student Franz Steindachner (1834-1919, Figure 3) became a regular visitor at the "Imperial and Royal Court Natural History Cabinet." After working in the fish collection on a temporary basis for close to a year, he was given a vacated office clerk position in 1861. He then took over as curator of the fish, amphibian, and reptile collections. In 1876, he was named director of the "Zoological Court Cabinet" and, 22 years later, in 1898, became the director of the entire "Imperial and Royal Natural History Court Museum" (Kähsbauer 1959).

His participation in Professor Louis Agassiz's (1807-1873) nine-month South America expedition in 1871-1872, in several Mediterranean excursions in 1891-1893, in the First and Second Red Sea expeditions, and in the Natural History Museum's 1903 Brazilian expedition, considerably enlarged the collections of the departments under his supervision. Steindachner returned with approximately 10,000 fishes and reptiles from a trip to Spain, Portugal, and the Canary Islands in 1864-1865. A frugal man in private life, he supplied large sums of money from an inheritance to finance collection trips and acquisitions; he was also among the first to recognize the scientific value of large series of collected material.

The transfer of the collections from the Hofburg Palace to the new building on the Burgring Boulevard in 1886 was completed during Steindachner's term of office. The 85-year old Steindachner retired in 1919 after 60 years of service at the Museum. He died only 10 weeks later, felled on 10 December 1919 by pneumonia, probably aggravated by poor heating in his official apartment in the Museum.

Viktor Pietschmann (1881-1956), named curator of the fish collection in 1919, undertook numerous collection trips (Mesopotamia, 1910; Armenia, 1914; Pacific Ocean, 1927; Anatolia, 1931; Danube delta, 1925, 1934, 1935, 1937); these led to a considerable expansion of the herpetological collection.

Franz Steindachner (1834-1919)
Franz Steindachner (1834-1919)



Friedrich Siebenrock

In 1919, Friedrich Siebenrock (1853-1925) (Figure 4) became Steindachner's successor in the amphibian and reptile section. At this time he had already established his reputation as a turtle specialist (Tiedemann and Grillitsch 1989). Along with Steindachner Siebenrock, who attended universities in Innsbruck and Vienna and who had been a colleague of Carl Brühl (1820-1899) at the Zootomical Institute at Vienna, had been working in the collection since 1886. He climbed the civil service career ladder and was named Hofrat in 1920. Although interested in crocodiles, his main scientific research was devoted to turtles, a specialization reflected in numerous publications on the morphology and systematics of these animals. The herpetological collection owes to his comparative anatomical studies a skeleton collection unparalleled in the world; most specimens were personally dissected and mounted by Siebenrock himself. Siebenrock also worked up the collections of Viktor Pietschmann (Mesopotamia, Kurdistan), Alfred Voeltzkow (1860-1947, East Africa), and R. Grauer (1870-1927, Belgian Congo). In 1895 and 1897, he accompanied the then director Franz Steindachner on the "First" and "Second Austrian Expedition to the Red Sea"; in 1903, he also worked on the herpetological specimens gathered by Steindachner during his Brazilian expedition. The year 1886 marked the publication of the first volume of the journal Annalen des Kaiserlich-Königlichen Naturhistorischen Hofmuseums (renamed Annalen des Naturhistorischen Museums in 1919), which contained numerous herpetological articles.

On 10 August 1889, Emperor Franz Joseph I inaugurated the Museum of Natural History on the Burgring Boulevard. It was designed by the architects Semper and Hasenauer and accommodated the three previously separate natural science "Court Cabinets," which more than a decade earlier had been placed under the auspices of a single director, a function assumed by Ferdinand von Hochstetter (1829-1884) on 30 April 1876.

After Steindachner's retirement in 1919, Friedrich Siebenrock (who had been exempt from military service due to nearsightedness) managed the ichthyological and herpetological collection together with Pietschmann and Otto von Wettstein Ritter von Westersheimb (1892-1967). In 1920, Wettstein took over the herpetological collection as sole administrator (Eiselt 1967).

Friedrich Siebenrock (1853-1925)
Friedrich Siebenrock (1853-1925)



Otto Wettstein-Westersheimb

Otto von Wettstein (Figure 5), whose initial zoological interest was in mammals and birds, applied for a position at the herpetological collection after obtaining his doctoral degree in 1915; this was the only department in which there was a prospect of appointment to the Museum. Wettstein was a student of the zoologists Karl Grobben (1854-1945) and Franz Werner (1867-1939) as well as of the paleontologist Othenio Abel (1875-1946). As was customary at the time, Wettstein requested permission to work at the herpetological collection without pay. His first assignment was to inventory the collection of Egid Schreibers (1836-1913).

Wettstein was hard of hearing due to bouts of severe tympanitis in his youth. He was thus declared unfit for military duty and was assigned to auxiliary service; this led him to Split (Croatia), where he was part of a "fisheries company" instructed to develop new fishery methods to supplement provisions for the troops. He took over the herpetology collection as Siebenrock's successor in 1920. It was in a chaotic state (Bauer 1963), and within five years he reorganized and developed it into one of the largest amphibian and reptile collections in Europe (Niethammer 1967).

At the beginning of World War II, all specimens preserved in alcohol - a collection even then amounting to tens of thousands of glass containers - had to be removed from the Museum building and stored in bunkers for safety; in 1944 some of this material, which was considered to be a part of the country's cultural wealth, was transferred into mines. The transportation of this material proved to be very difficult; most of the men were serving in the armed forces and therefore unable to help. Despite the battles raging in Vienna - some in the immediate vicinity of the Museum - the building was spared major war damage. During this time, Wettstein managed to take over the duties of many inducted colleagues; he even succeeded in publishing volumes 51-54 of the Annals (1941-1944).

In cooperation with the botanist Karl Heinz Rechinger (1906-1999) and the zoologist Franz Werner Wettstein accumulated a special collection of southeast European vertebrates and published fundamental works in this field: "Die Vogelwelt der Ägäis" (The birds of the Aegean) (1938) and "Die Säugetierwelt der Ägäis" (The mammals of the Aegean) (1941). Later in 1942, he participated in the Crete expedition of a German Wehrmacht biological research squad. His "Herpetologia Aegaea" (The amphibians and reptiles of the Aegean) (1953a), the result of field trips to Greece in the years 1934, 1935, 1942, and 1954, is one of his most important zoogeographic, herpetological works. Wettstein published a total of 205 scientific papers (Schimitschek 1967), sixty of these on herpetological topics. His memberships in scientific societies alone attest to the versatility of this scholar: Corresponding member of the Austrian Society of Sciences, honorary member of the Academy of Zoology Agra (India), honorary member of the Bavarian Ornithological Society, German Society of Mammalogy.

In addition to his international scientific reputation, Otto von Wettstein was highly esteemed for his other qualities. When the Museum was in great financial need (1932), he did not hesitate to draw the public's attention to its plight in newspaper interviews. Donations, benefit concerts, and royalties from newspaper articles enabled important purchases. A collection in schools yielded enough funds to acquire and exhibit a Komodo dragon in the Museum's halls.

After the war, Wettstein was for unknown reasons denied access to his old workplace. While the return of other Museum objects was completed by 1947, the alcohol specimens of the herpetological collection (by this time numbering approximately 100,000) remained in outlying depots. Wettstein retired after World War II and officially worked in forest management at the Department of Forest Protection in the Federal Research Institute of Forestry in Mariabrunn. In addition to the intensive study of forest insects and their parasites, Wettstein found time to write "Herpetologia Aegaea" (1953a) and a contribution on the Crocodilia published in the Handbook of Zoology (1953b). Wettstein, retired curator and professor at the University of Vienna, died on 10 July 1967.

Otto von Wettstein (1892-1967)
Otto von Wettstein (1892-1967)



Josef Eiselt

In 1952, Josef Eiselt (born in 1912, Figure 7), was hired as Wettstein's successor at the Museum. A student of Jan Versluys (1873-1939), Eiselt wrote his thesis on "Bau und Funktion des Mittelohres der Frösche und Kröten" (Structure and function of the middle ear in frogs and toads), which was later published under a different title (Eiselt, 1941). This topic led to his contact with Otto von Wettstein as early as 1936. Thanks to Otto Pesta (1885-1974), director of the crustacean collection, Eiselt became familiar with the Museum of Natural History, benefiting from Pesta's "Tours through the zoological exhibits of the Museum of Natural History" as an introduction to zoological systematics. Pesta drew Eiselt's attention to siphonostomatous cyclopoid copepods. Eiselt retained his interest in these semiparasitic microcrustaceans even later during his later tenure in the herpetological collection, eventually publishing eight papers on these animals.

Eiselt joined the Museum's ranks as a volunteer on 3 May 1939. His salary was so small that he saw no alternative but to take on a position at the Institute of Zoology at the University of Vienna on 1 December 1939. His induction into the armed forces in 1940 interrupted his scientific career. After the war his position was occupied by someone else and between 1946 and 1949 he was forced to find work as a transport laborer under the British occupation forces. Even during these very difficult times, Eiselt managed to help rebuild the Institute of Zoology, organized exhibits, and was active as consultant at the Federal Scientific Cinematographic Agency and at the Institute for Nature Conservation. At the age of 40, after additional jobs as a high school teacher and scientific assistant at the Institute of Zoology, University of Vienna, Josef Eiselt was hired by the Museum on 1 September 1952.

Despite totally inadequate technical resources and lack of staff, yet with great personal commitment, he set about organizing the return, and revised systematic arrangement, of the evacuated herpetological material. It required 15 years to restore the collection to a level that satisfied the highest curatorial standards and enabled systematic research to be conducted. During this period, Eiselt attended only a single zoological symposium (London, 1958) and undertook one excursion to Sorrento (Italy).

Participation in the Nubian expedition in 1962 (Eiselt and Beier 1962) inaugurated a period of highly successful collection and study trips for Eiselt. His journeys took him to Turkey more than ten times, to Iraq four times, as well as to Afghanistan, Italy, and Greece. The focus of the collection and research activity on the Near East and subsequent intensive publication activity led to a specialization of the herpetological collection in this region (Bauer and Tiedemann 1978).

On 1 January 1972, Josef Eiselt became director of the vertebrate collections at the Museum of Natural History Vienna, a position he held for five years until his retirement in 1977. He was bestowed the title "Wirklicher Hofrat" for his achievements as civil servant, and awarded the Austrian Cross of Honor for Science and Art, First Class, for his scientific work. Freed from a myriad of administrative duties, Eiselt resumed his research on the herpetofauna of the Near East with undiminished vigor. Additional study trips to Turkey followed in 1984, 1986, 1988, and 1990. Eiselt has been cooperating for many years with Josef Friedrich Schmidtler (born in 1942 in Munich) and since 1977 with Ilya Sergeevich Darevsky (born in 1925 in St. Petersburg) in studying this material. The valuable collections of both Schmidtler and Darevsky from Turkey and the Transcaucasian territory complement the specimens here in Vienna. The progressive examination of the herpetofauna of these regions, with emphasis on the lacertilian fauna, including the problem of unisexual reproduction, is being currently pursued by Eiselt. The result should be a synopsis of the Lacertilia of Asia Minor and the Caucasus. The herpetological collection, with a total of approximately 220,000 specimens, was later under the custody of the authors of this historical account, F. Tiedemann and H. Grillitsch which were supported by A. Cabela and R. Gemel. From 2017 on Silke Schweiger is responsible for the custody of the herpetological collection.


The beginning


Josef Eiselt (1912- 2001)
Josef Eiselt (1912- 2001)