What’s in a Name?

Calm on the East African Plains (1918) by John G. Millais

by Brooke Chilvers

I miss bookstores. Not mall bookstores with 50 shades of the same thing, but independent bookstores that carry obscure titles like Shakespeare and the Hunt or African Animals in Renaissance Literature and Art. 

That’s how I found The Eponym Dictionary of Mammals. I was probably already a college grad before learning that the much tossed-around “eponymous” simply means naming something after somebody. As in the Roosevelt sable being named after Teddy. So this is a dictionary of the people after whom mammals are named.

This 574-page reference book turned out to be a page-turner as I looked up every species with a family name I could think of. The history is so rich in semi-tragic characters that one is relieved they are immortalized – at least to hunters. 

Thornicroft’s giraffe:  The British pioneer Harry Scott Thornicroft (1868–1944), for whom Zambia’s Luangwa Valley’s giraffe is named, spent 17 years as District Commissioner in Northern Rhodesia. He married a Ngoni matriarch named Elizabeth Mvula with whom he had 11 children.  In 1902, he shot a unique-looking giraffe and shipped its skin to the British Museum, where it was displayed until it rotted away.  Presumably, he learned that the subspecies had been named after him before he was killed when a tractor fell on him. 

Thomson’s gazelle:  Scotsman Joseph Thomson (1858–1895) was second-in-charge on his first Royal Geographical Society expedition to Kenya and Tanganyika (1878-1884), when its leader died of dysentery in southern Tanzania.  The first to explore Masailand with its “tommies,” he completed the 3,000-mile, 14-month safari, impressing the locals with his “magic” by removing his dentures.  Weakened by multiple African maladies and a goring by a buffalo, he died at age 37 in London, furious that Rider Haggard had ripped off many of his tales, while his own book failed.  

Maxwell’s duiker:  Lieutenant General Sir Charles William Maxwell (1776–1848) was Governor of Senegal in 1809, Sierra Leone in 1811, and later of Dominica.  It was Maxwell who reported that the explorer Mungo Park (1771-1806) was, indeed, dead. Upon returning to England, an American whose African factories Maxwell had burned down, in his fight against slavery, sued him, and was awarded compensation by the British government. 

Grant’s gazelle:  Scottish naturalist, explorer, and hunter, Colonel James August Grant (1827–1892) fought in India during the Sikh Wars and the Indian Mutiny, before spending three years with John Speke (1860–1863), looking for the source of the Nile. Debilitated by leg ulcers during the last stretch to the source, the modest Grant was really a botanist and never really claimed to have discovered Grant’s gazelle or Grant’s zebra!  A truly great man, interested in the customs and habits of the tribes the expedition encountered, there’s a brass inscription in his memory in London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Midday, East African Plains (1928) by John G. Millais

Jentink’s duiker:  Director of the Dutch National Museum of Zoology at Leiden, Dr. Fredericus Anna Jentink (1844–1913) was also a member of the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature, a still-extant organization charged with “achiev(ing) stability and sense in the scientific naming of animals.” He collected the first Jentink’s duiker in 1884.  The species sort of disappeared from scientific literature until a skull was found in Liberia in 1948. 

Patterson’s eland:  Colonel J. H. Patterson (1867–1947) of Tsavo-lion fame, not only had a client die of a gunshot wound, he then buried him and continued the safari with the newly widowed Mrs. Blyth, giving Ernest Hemingway the basis for “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.”  In the Great War, the pro-Israel Irish Protestant commanded the Jewish Legion of the British Army.  Patterson lived in California for a number of years, and his ashes are interred in Israel.

Lord Derby eland:  Hon. Edward Smithy Stanley, 13th Earl of Derby (1775–1851) fathered a future Prime Minister, but never visited Africa.  At his death, he owned 1,272 birds and 345 live mammals at his estate, hopefully including several Lord Derby elands!   

Mrs. Gray’s lechwe:  Mrs. Gray seems to have lost her lechwe that today is more commonly known as the Nile lechwe.  Maria Emma Gray’s famous husband, John Edward, Keeper of Zoology at the British Museum, gets all the name credit for everything from bats to whales, while she was his artist and often co-author.  

Hartmann’s mountain zebra:  At least Dr. George Hartmann, who sent two zebra skins to the Berlin Museum, had his sub-species named after his wife, Anna.  An official in the German South West Africa government, he died in a refugee camp in Schleswig-Holstein in 1946; Anna died in 1941.

Not to be forgotten are A. H. Neumann’s hartebeest, Jules Grévy’s zebra, F.R. Roberts’s gazelle, and Sir Robert Harvey’s duiker, among others. Not to mention Theodore Roosevelt Jr. himself, with five species to his name. 


Brooke Chilvers is married to retired professional hunter Rudy Lubin, who hunted Lord Derby eland in the Central African Republic for more than 40 years.