Dr James Fawcett was a lifelong stalwart of herpetological research who made significant contributions to our understanding of the reptile fauna of Aotearoa and the world. James was also a life-long member of the Auckland Museum Institute and a passionate supporter of student research.

Born in New Plymouth in 1933, it seemed an unlikely scenario that James would build his research legacy at a university as far afield as Nebraska, but that’s exactly what he did.

A respected and well-loved researcher, James passed away in early 2020; however, his legacy lives on in the field of herpetology (the study of reptiles and amphibians) and now in the form of a new Auckland Museum scholarship opened in his memory: the Dr James Fawcett Postgraduate Research Awards (learn more).

James’s journey to becoming an academic at the University of Nebraska began with him completing a bachelor’s and master’s degree in science at the University of Auckland. His master’s thesis, supervised by Associate Professor, Joan Robb, focused on the life history and ecology of Oligosoma ornatum (then known as Sphenomorphus pseudornatus), a skink commonly known as the ornate skink.

Indeed, it was this thesis that set the groundwork for James's academic career abroad.

James's thesis was examined by American herpetologist, Hobart Muir Smith. Hobart was so impressed by James's thesis that he asked him to relocate to Illinois to start a Ph.D. in 1965. James accepted the offer—at a cost. James had to leave behind his career as a professional musician. A talented clarinet player, he performed with the Auckland Wind Ensemble and many orchestras in the Auckland area. However, unbeknownst to him at the time, this sacrifice would pay off in more ways than he had hoped for. In Illinois, he met Georgene Tyler, a librarian from Indianola. They married in 1968.

In 1972, James accepted a position as Instructor of Biology at the University of Nebraska and moved to Omaha. Shortly after, in 1975, he was awarded his Ph.D. and promoted to Assistant Professor. His degree discussed the effects of season, ovariectomy and hormone replacement therapy on the oviduct of Anolis carolinensis, a tree-dwelling species of lizard commonly known as a green anole. This research continued his work on herpetology and reproductive biology.

In 1981, James was promoted to Associate Professor at the University, a position he held until his retirement in 2015, when he became Associate Professor Emeritus. During his career, he published 28 articles, including ten on New Zealand species. James was particularly popular at the university and mentored 53 master’s students from 1974 until 2017.

Despite his career being in the United States, James’s heart remained very much in his home country. According to Georgene, “Jim was a proud New Zealander who planned to eventually retire to New Zealand; he did not take out American citizenship. New Zealand was never far from his heart,” as evidenced here by his field hat, emblazoned with ‘New Zealand’ and a kiwi.

James was a life-long member of the Auckland Museum Institute and was a founding member of the World Congress of Herpetology, where he represented New Zealand in 1982. During his career at national and international meetings, James was often the designated New Zealand representative or delegate.

The launch of the Dr James Fawcett Postgraduate Research Awards honours James’s commitment to Aotearoa and the Museum. Students with relevant post-graduate research areas can apply for funding of up to $5000. Applications are now closed for the inaugural funding round of the awards. 

A response from Auckland Museum

Rebecca Bray

Senior Collection Manager

Rebecca Bray

When the Museum first received information about James Fawcett and his generous bequest, I felt an immediate affinity for someone I had never had the chance to meet and was immediately struck by the similarities between us. Like James, I am both a herpetologist (researching skinks and geckos) and musician.

At an undergraduate level I was able to complete two bachelor’s degrees in science and in music at the same time (something that likely wasn't possible in the 1950s). I enjoyed studying zoology, marine biology and music performance – whilst playing and teaching the French horn in Melbourne, Australia. Like James, I also decided to stop my music career and pursue my love of science and herpetology.

Reading stories from those who knew him, I can only wish that I could have had the opportunity to cross paths and get to know James. I am grateful to be able to create opportunities for upcoming herpetology researchers in Aotearoa in James's name and continue his support for student research.

More information about James's life and research is available here.