How Fioravanti Sammut became Sir Temi Zammit
Many are aware of the name Sir Temi Zammit. His bust greets us as we enter the National Archaeological Museum in Republic Street, Valletta, and the bookshops further down the street stock a reprint of one of his guide books.
But the plaque celebrating his work on brucellosis with his colleagues of the Mediterranean Fever Commission in the early 1900s, at the entrance to the Ministry of Health in Merchants Street, is no longer seen by passers-by – admission is through security next door. Nor can one see, or even know about the Zammit Museum on the top floor of the ministry via a narrow staircase.
Yet Temi Zammit’s reputation was earned early in his career in his home town of Valletta as a doctor of medicine and scientist. He was born in downtown Valletta at a quarter to midnight on December 30, 1863, yet his bust at the museum and the Dictionary of Maltese Biographies (Michael Schiavone (ed.)) gives his birth date as September 30, 1864.
A friar from the parish church of St Dominic would have hurried to baptise the new child – and hurried back again to finish his disturbed sleep. With less hurry he recorded the baptism with another in the church register, two days later.
More than a week later the birth was registered at the Public Registry set up earlier that year. The church register records his Christian names as Themistoclo, Laurentius, Joseph, Dominicus.
Laurenzo was the name of his mother’s father and Dominicus was the saint of the parish. However, in the state records he was officially named “Fioravanti, Temistocle, Archimede, Laurenzo, Giuseppe”, to be known as Fioravanti.
His parents are given in both records as Spiridione Sammut (born on the Greek island of Santa Maura in 1839) and Filomena née Bologna born in Valletta in 1840. They were married in St Dominic’s church on October 7, 1861.
Did his parents change their minds about his names during that week or did the friar consider that Fioravanti and Archimede were unsuitable – or perhaps he was forgetful? Temistocle and Archimede would have reminded his father of his Greek origins.
The boy must have been known at school and at University by his official name of Fioravanti Sammut. His medical and pharmacy degrees in about 1887 would have been given in this name – there is no record of a Zammit at this time. But from then on, he was known as Temi Zammit. He might have taken the Zammit from his paternal grandmother, Ann Zammit from Qormi.
Why then did he change his name to Themistocles Zammit?
In 1889 he and Fabrizio Borg founded La Rivista Medica (The Medical Review) as editors. The microbiological abstracts are signed TZ.
At 25 and without any substantial experience of bacteriology, did Zammit try to shelter his inexperience behind a false name? As Zammit, he was appointed analytical chemist in December 1890 with two assistants. He must have impressed the appointing committee as he visited the Institut Pasteur in Paris and Kings College in London in early 1892.
At Stella Maris church in Sliema on November 6, 1898, he married Maria Aloisia dei Marchesi Barbaro, widow of Edward Laferla. In the church record he was Themistocles Sammut, son of Spiridione Sammut.
In the two marriage certificates he is Temistocle Sammut, but with Zammit placed below in one and bracketed in the other. His father is also named as Spiridione Sammut with Zammit in brackets. In the certificate, the notes use Sammut Zammit.
Zammit was probably an early member of the Malta branch of the British Medical Association. He became honorary secretary and treasurer in 1904.
He soon established himself with public lectures in 1896 (and the first X-ray pictures in Malta), his first paper in the British Medical Journal in 1898 and scientific correspondence with Ronald Ross, Col. David Bruce and others.
In addition to his position at the Ministry of Health, he was simultaneously Professor of Chemistry at the University and director of the Archaeological Museum.
In 1912 he applied for the chair in chemistry at Perth in Australia but withdrew when he found that he would lose his pension from Malta.
What would he have done in Australia? He had published nothing in chemistry. His researches were on Maltese goats and brucellosis. Might he have set about archaeology in Perth?
After a distinguished career as Rector of the University of Malta and in politics and archaeology, he died on November 2, 1935. Medical historian Paul Cassar described him as “Malta’s most distinguished man”. Sir Temi received obituaries in the British Medical Journal, The Lancet and Nature.
His death certificate shows him as ‘Hon. Professor Sir Themistocles Zammit, Kt, CMG, MD, D.Litt.’ and his father as Spiridione Zammit.
In 1989 his son wrote to the Curia in Floriana asking that the church record of his father’s baptism be changed. The Chancellor, in a handwritten note on the petition, wrote that he had seen a certificate of Themistocles Zammit. There is no attached certificate, nor in the Curia files of Application 247 in AAM Sup Vol. 419-1989 II. Which certificate had his son found?
It could have been the death certificate, as other certificates showed the name of Sammut as well as Zammit. The Chancellor sent a letter to St Dominic’s church on May 30, 1989, asking for the surname to be changed to Zammit.
The parish priest changed the surname from Sammut to Zammit in both margin and text, with a note in the margin “Decr. Curial. Arch. die 30. 5. 1989”. Sammut remains in the index.
Did his son suppose that the friar (whose name was Sammut) had made a mistake and wished to correct it? Did he know that his grandparents were Sammut and had been married in the same church?
He must have known his father’s correct date of birth, but he apparently did not know that the records showed his parents’ names, or of their marriage record in the church. Was his father’s death certificate perhaps his only record? He did not try to amend the state document.
What prompted his petition more than 30 years after his father’s death? The church records now show Zammit to have been Sammut for his birth and he remains a Sammut for his marriage.
The Church may alter its records, but not the State, where only mistakes may be rectified. And where did September 24, 1864, as the date of his birth come from? The marginal note could have said that the baby Sammut grew up to be the Maltese genius, Temi Zammit , scientist, doctor, professor of chemistry, archaeologist, rector of the University, politician and author.
There can, however, be no doubt that Spiridione and Filumena Sammut gave us a son whom we know as Temi Zammit.
Dr Wyatt is Honorary Lecturer in Philosophy, and formerly Honorary Research Fellow in Public Health Medicine at the University of Leeds, England. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; website: http://sites.google.com/site/vivianwyatt/