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Frederick Chapman (1864–1943)

by Irene Crespin

This article was published:

Frederick Chapman (1864-1943), palaeontologist, was born on 13 February 1864 at Camden Town, London, son of Robert Chapman, surgical instrument maker, and his wife Eleanor, née Dinsey. His father was an assistant to Michael Faraday and John Tyndall and his brother Robert was a physicist with an interest in microscopy and botany. Chapman went to school in Chelsea and also studied privately. When disappointed in his hopes to secure a cadetship at the British Museum, in 1881 he became assistant to Professor J. W. Judd in the geology department, Royal College of Science, London. He later qualified at the college as a teacher of geology and physiography. Encouraged by Judd's study of material from borings around London and guided by his mentor Professor T. R. Jones, he became interested in the Foraminifera. He was later a world authority on these small organisms.

In 1902, on Judd's recommendation, Chapman was appointed by the Victorian government to the newly created position of palaeontologist to the National Museum, Melbourne. His first duty was to transfer to the museum large collections of fossils housed at the Geological Survey of Victoria and at the University of Melbourne. As most specimens in these large collections were undescribed, he published papers on land plants, sponges, corals, mollusca, fishes and other forms. In 1920-32 he was part-time lecturer in palaeontology at the university and was honorary palaeontologist to the Geological Survey of Victoria from 1920. Interested in Australian flora, he was honorary curator of the Maranoa wildflower gardens near his home at Balwyn. In 1927 Chapman retired from the museum to become first Commonwealth palaeontologist, his work involving examination of both micro and macro-fossils from bore and surface material submitted in the search for oil. He retired in 1935. In 1936 he returned to the National Museum as honorary palaeontologist.

Chapman was honoured by many learned societies. In 1896 he was elected associate of the Linnean Society of London and was a fellow of the Geological Society, London, which in 1899 awarded him the Lyell Prize for research and in 1930 the Lyell Medal. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Microscopical Society, London, in 1892 and an honorary fellow in 1929. In 1920 he received the David Syme prize and medal for research. From 1920 he was a member of the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature. In 1919-20 he was president of the Microscopical Society and Field Naturalists' Club of Victoria and was a member of the Australian National Research Council from 1922. In 1926 and 1932 the royal societies of South Australia and New Zealand made him an honorary fellow. He was president of the Royal Society of Victoria in 1929-30, and in 1932 received the (W.B.) Clarke Medal from the Royal Society of South Wales. In 1933 he became corresponding member of the Paleontological Society (United States of America) and in 1941 the Field Naturalists' Club of Victoria awarded him the Australian Natural History Medallion.

Outstanding among Chapman's qualities were his quiet gentlemanly manner, his patience and his willingness to pass on his experience and guidance to all-comers. He was an expert photographer and artist. Fossiliferous and Recent material was sent to him for micro-examination from all parts of the world, including material collected by Sir Ernest Shackleton and Sir Douglas Mawson during British expeditions to Antarctica.

Chapman was a prolific writer, publishing five books and some 500 scientific papers, some in collaboration, on geology, palaeontology and zoology. Between 1886 and 1902 he wrote much on Foraminifera, both fossil and living, and on some geological subjects. His last important paper appeared in 1941. Chapman published work on organisms other than the Foraminifera in scientific journals in many different countries. The most important of his books was The Foraminifera. An Introduction to the Study of the Protozoa (London, 1902) which remained the only work of its kind until 1928. Australian Fossils was published in Melbourne in 1914. His Book of Fossils (London and Sydney, 1934) was his last major effort.

Chapman had married Helen Mary Dancer of Northampton, England, on 12 August 1890. She had predeceased him by three years when he died at Kew on 10 December 1943; he was survived by his son Wilfrid, a distinguished engineer and soldier, and one daughter. His magnificent collection of slides was presented by his son in 1949 to the Bureau of Mineral Resources, Canberra, which purchased his library. A fire in 1953 destroyed many of his microfossils and rare books.

Select Bibliography

  • Linnean Society (London), Proceedings, 1943-44, pt 3
  • Royal Society (New Zealand), Proceedings, 75 (1944), no 3
  • Herald (Melbourne), 13 Dec 1943.

Citation details

Irene Crespin, 'Chapman, Frederick (1864–1943)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 20 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (Melbourne University Press), 1979

View the front pages for Volume 7

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


13 February, 1864
London, Middlesex, England


10 December, 1943 (aged 79)
Kew, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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