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Biography: Themistocles Zammit

Scientist, Archaeologist, Historian, and Writer

Born in Valletta, from a humble family background, Themistocles Zammit studied at the Lyceum and the UM. Zammit matriculated in 1882 and first qualified as an apothecary in 1887, which he practised briefly. In 1889 Zammit graduated MD. In 1891 he was appointed as Analytical Chemist to the Sanitary Branch of the Police Department. He proceeded to specialize in bacteriology in London and Paris. In 1890 he was appointed government analyst with the department of health and in 1897 university examiner in physics.

Zammit carried successful experiments on undulant fever (also called Malta Fever) which attacked the vitality of and killed hundreds of its victims. He analysed the blood of some of his patients and found that it contained the micrococus melitensis, a micro-organism discovered by Sir David Bruce in 1887. Bruce, however, did not discover the source of the disease or how man become infected.

After returning to Malta, in 1904, he was appointed member of the Mediterranean Fever Commission as the representative of the Maltese Government.

In 1908 he formed part of another commission to combat  Mediterranean Fever, and in 1909 he was the Malta delegate at the Medical Congress in Milan. He wrote ‘Mediterranean Fever from a Sanitary Point of View’ (1902) and a ‘Report on the Goats with Mediterranean Fever’ (1908) and numerous other scientific articles.

In 1903 he was appointed the director of the National Museum and two years later,  professor of chemistry. Between August 1920 to March1926 he served as university rector.

In 1911 Zammit was nominated commander of the Order of St Michael and St George, while in 1920 he was awarded the Mary Kingsley Medal. In 1920 he was  also presented with the degree of D Litt. (Honoris Causa) by the University of Oxford. In 1930 he was created knight bachelor by King George V.

Zammit was greatly interested in archaeology and history. In 1901 the Duke of Cornwall and York (later King George V) paid an official visit to Malta and a historical exhibition was organized to mark the occasion. The exhibition was such a great success that Governor Grenfell thought of starting a national museum and chose Zammit as its first director. Zammit became so dedicated to this enterprise that, when in 1926 he retired from the rectorship of the university, he concentrated his entire energy on his duties as museum director.  His responsibilities included the exhibition of historical material and the compilation of records of Malta’s history and prehistory. His interest in Maltese history led him to publish Il-Gżejjer ta’ Malta u l-Ġrajja Tagħhom and its English version Malta - The  Islands and their History. He also took care of the archaeological heritage.  He made several unique discoveries and wrote extensively about them: Ħal Saflieni Prehistoric Hypogeum; {al Tarxien Neolithic Temples; The Neolithic Temples of Ħaġar Qim and Mnajdra; The St Paul’s Catacombs and Rock-cut Tombs in Malta, Valletta an Historical Sketch  and Guide to the Valletta Museum. He also wrote Tas-Sliema u San Ġiljan about the sociological and geographical expansion of the Sliema area.

Zammit  also made a great contribution to Maltese literature. He wrote Tagħlim fuq id-Dinja  a geography book in Maltese, and Il-Ħobż,  in which he described the process of bread-making. In Il-Malti he wrote several technical articles that showed folkloristic elements. In various articles he made use of folkloristic elements and also wrote various short stories about the simple behaviour of Maltese countryfolk.  His best-known stories include ‘Il-Ħmar tas-Sienja’, ‘Ferħa bla Temma’, ‘Kelb Rieqed la Tqajmux’, ‘Il-Gideb għomru Qasir’, ‘Ċensa u ċ-Cine’, ‘Ir-Rebħa ta’ Pupull’, and ‘Nies bla Sabar’. His narrative prose sought to teach, but he depicted the Maltese mentality in the common speech of the villages.

 Zammit was member of many boards and commissions, including British  Empire Exhibition 1924 (1923), president of the Malta Historical and Scientific Society (1911-1912), and Library Committee (1903). He lectured to Royal Naval medical officers and was member of the Council of Government (1920). 

In 2007 the Central Bank of Malta issued a silver proof coin bearing the image of Sir Temi Zammit, designed by Noel Galea Bason.

Themistocles Zammit was married to Aloisia Barbaro di San Giorgio and they had a son, Charles, and a daughter, Sophia.

This biography is part of the collection created by Michael Schiavone over a 30-year period. Read more about Schiavone and his initiative here.