Skip to main content

Frederick Knox

Dr Frederick Knox was the librarian of New Zealand's first public library. He emigrated from Scotland in July 1840 and within days of arriving in Port Nicholson became involved in establishing the country's first public library.

The library lasted for just one year before winding up and handing over its contents to another organisation. But Knox continued to contribute to the cultural development of the country until his death in 1873.

Frederick John Knox was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, in April 1794. From approximately the 1820s to the 1830s he was employed as an assistant to his older brother, the renowned anatomist Robert Knox. In 1831 Frederick was licensed by the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh, where he opened a small practice. He supplemented his income with a stipend as conservator of his brother's private teaching and museum collection, and is credited with compiling a detailed catalogue of its contents. In 1836 he drew on these experiences to compile a monograph entitled The Anatomist's Instructor and Museum Companion: being practical instructions for the formation and subsequent management of anatomical museums.

Body-snatching brother

Frederick’s brother Robert is best remembered for his involvement in the ‘Burke and Hare’ body-snatching scandal of 1829. In order to obtain cadavers for his anatomy school, Knox purchased bodies from Irishmen William Hare and Thomas Burke, who were later found to be obtaining their supplies by murdering vagrants. Burke testified that Knox was unaware of the murders, and a committee of the Royal Society of Edinburgh later exonerated him of blame, but his reputation never recovered. His name lives on in a Scottish taunt:

Up the close and doon the stair,
Ben the hoose wi’Burke and Hare,
Burke’s the butcher, Hare’s the thief,
Knox the boy who buys the beef.

In July 1840 Knox emigrated to New Zealand with his wife, Margaret, and their five children. They arrived in Port Nicholson in November, and within days he was appointed as the librarian of the first public library at a salary of £75. Contemporary accounts give no reason for his selection for the position, but the work he had done on his brother's collection in Edinburgh undoubtedly gave him relevant experience.

During his time as librarian Knox was able to indulge his passion for collecting natural history specimens, even establishing a small museum within the library. But despite his best efforts the library and museum were wound up within a year of opening. In April 1842 he was directed to offer the building and its contents to a Mechanics' Institute that was in the process of being formed. He was subsequently elected to the Committee of the Mechanics' Institute, but this involvement did not prevent the downgrading of ‘his' museum. In November 1842 it was reported that the museum collection had not been added to and that ‘much injury' had been done to it ‘from want of proper accommodation'. Knox continued to collect specimens, writing of his discoveries in the New Zealand Gazette and Wellington Spectator. But he sent these specimens to the British Museum and other overseas institutions, or to the Dominion Museum following its formation in 1865.

Records suggest that Knox did not practise as a medical practitioner in New Zealand until after he moved to the Hutt Valley, where he practised between 1851 and 1855. After this time he held various medical positions, including Resident Medical Officer to the Asylum (Karori) from 1855 to 1857, and Coroner at Porirua from 1861 to 1862. But on his death in August 1873 he was best remembered for his contribution as a scientist. James Hector, the President of the Wellington Philosophical Society, of which Knox was an active member, recalled that they would miss the good example Knox set them, that ‘of the strong and earnest love of science for its own sake'. Knox was also a founding member of the New Zealand Institute (now the Royal Society of New Zealand).

Further information:

How to cite this page

Frederick Knox, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated