Frederick Nutter Chasen
by Tan, Fiona
Frederick Nutter Chasen (b. 1896 Norfolk, England–d. 1942, Singapore) was a zoologist who worked at the Raffles Library and Museum from 1921 to 1941, first as a curator and later as its director. Under his directorship, the institution was developed as a centre for scientific research in the region and became known for its zoological and prehistoric collections.
Little is known of Chasen’s youth except for his association with Frank Leney, curator of the Norwich Museum, whom Chasen worked for as an apprentice from 1912 to 1915.
During World War I, Chasen served with the Norfolk Yeomanry regiment from 1914 to 1918. He continued pursuing his passion for ornithology despite the war, compiling notes while stationed in Macedonia. This culminated in an article published in the prestigious journal, The Ibis, regarding the birds he observed on the Struma Plain.
After the war ended in 1918, Chasen joined the Norwich Museum, where he continued to hone his skills in ornithology and museum work. In 1921, he left Norwich to join the Raffles Library and Museum in Singapore.
Contributions to Raffles Library and Museum
Chasen’s appointment as taxidermist of the Raffles Library and Museum was welcomed by its director John C. Moulton, who utilised Chasen’s expertise to reorganise the collections of the museum.
Six months after joining the museum, Chasen was promoted to the position of assistant curator in October 1921. In 1923, Chasen took over the position of curator from the retiring Valentine Knight, who had served the museum since 1902. At the same time, C. Boden Kloss, formerly the assistant director of the Federated Malay States Museums, replaced Moulton as the director of the museum..
Kloss and H.C. Robinson, director of the Federated Malay States Museums, introduced Chasen to the study of mammals and reinforced his interest in birds. As curator of the museum, Chasen travelled widely in Southeast Asia in search of zoological specimens: from the mountains and lowlands of Malaya, Sumatra and Java to the islands of the Sunda Shelf and South China Sea.
In 1932, Chasen was promoted to the post of director of the museum, a position vacated by Kloss's appointment as director of the Federated Malay States Museums. Under Chasen’s directorship, the museum flourished as a research institution in the 1930s despite the Great Depression.
In addition to the continued collection and classification of zoological specimens, the museum also developed a strong research focus in the field of prehistory. The museum recruited H.D. Collings, who trained in anthropology and archaeology at Cambridge University, to assist Chasen. The museum was designated a headquarters for prehistoric research in the Far East at the Second Congress of Pre-Historians of the Far East in 1935. In 1936, the museum’s unrivalled position as the central research institution for prehistoric research in the region was further cemented with the receipt of grants worth over 20,000 Straits dollars from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.
Under Chasen’s leadership, the library did not fare as well as the museum. By 1938, the disparity between the museum and library departments was so great that letters were exchanged with the municipal secretary to discuss the possibility of grants to bolster the Reference Library.
Nevertheless, the library did make some headway under Chasen’s directorship, such as the creation of a Legal Section in 1932 for ordinances, gazettes and other official texts; a new China Section in 1933 that made Chinese history and travel texts available to users, and the appointment of the first female librarian, K. E. Savage-Bailey, in 1935.
Publications and contributions to science
Despite his lack of formal academic qualifications, Chasen had become a renowned authority on birds and mammals of the region by the time he was appointed as director of the Raffles Library and Museum. Scientists from all over the world frequently sought his advice and requested his assistance to identify specimens.
Chasen authored many publications on the zoology of Southeast Asia, a number of which were co-authored with Kloss. Upon Robinson’s death in 1929, Chasen was a natural successor to Robinson’s encyclopedic series on the birds of Malaya, Singapore and Sumatra, given his credentials as a foremost authority on the subject.
Besides his meticulous work on volumes three and four of The Birds of the Malay Peninsula, Chasen also compiled the comprehensive Handlist of Malaysian Birds and Handlist of Malaysian Animals, published in 1936 and 1940 respectively to favourable reviews.
Civil society work
In addition to his publications and work at the Raffles Library and Museum, Chasen was also active in civil society. He was the honorary secretary of the short-lived Singapore Natural History Society, from its founding in 1921 to its demise in 1926, and a member of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society (previously known as the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society). Chasen was also a long-serving honorary secretary of the society and editor of its quarterly journal from 1927 to 1941.
Due to his professional standing, Chasen was also appointed the vice-chairman of the Wild Animals and Wild Birds Committee formed by the governor in 1933 to inquire and report on the wildlife trade in Singapore. He was on the committee with four other prominent members of colonial Singapore: Theodore Hubback, Tan Cheng Lock, Henry Elphick and James T. Forbes.
In 1939, Chasen was recruited by the Department of Information, which was formed in response to the looming threat of Japanese military expansion in the region. On the eve of the Japanese invasion of Singapore in February 1942, Chasen lost his life when the ship he was on was sunk by the Japanese.
Chasen was married to Mollie (surname unknown), who bore him two daughters. His first daughter, Jean Heather Chasen, was born on 20 July 1927 and his second daughter, Christine Elizabeth Chasen, on 4 May 1931.
His first marriage was legally dissolved on 27 August 1938. Chasen remarried on 25 August 1938, and gained a step-son as a result of this second marriage.
Banks, E. (1936, January 27). The birds of Malaysia: Immense field surveyed by Mr. F.N. Chasen. The Straits Times, p. 10. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
Birth notice. (1927, July 21). The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
Chasen, F. N. (1933). Annual Report of the Raffles Museum and Library for the year 1932 [Microfilm: NL 25786]. Singapore: Government Printing Office.
Chasen, F. N. (1939). The birds of the Malay Peninsula: A general account of the birds inhabiting the region from the Isthmus of Kra to Singapore with the adjacent islands, Volume IV. The birds of the low-country jungle and scrub [Microfilm: NL8817]. London: H. F. & G. Witherby.
Committee of the Singapore Natural History Society. (1922-25). Singapore Naturalist [Microfilm: NL6582]. Singapore: Singapore Natural History Society.
Hubback, T. R., et al. (1934). Report of the Wild Animals and Wild Birds Committee [Microfilm: NL26231]. Singapore: Government Printing Office.
Kloss, C. B. (1924). Annual report of the Raffles Museum and Library for the year 1923 [Microfilm: NL 25786]. Singapore: Government Printing Office.
Letters to Widows and Orphans Pensions Office. (1937-1939). National Museum Files, MSA1140/154, National Archives of Singapore.
List of Members for 1941. (Feb 1941). Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 19(1), i – xi [Microfilm: NL1581]. Singapore: Malayan Branch, Royal Asiatic Society.
Liu, G. (1987). One hundred years of the National Museum: Singapore 1887-1987. Singapore: The Museum.
(Call No.: RSING English 708.95957 LIU)
Lost, stolen or strayed. (1935, September 13). The Straits Times, p. 10. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
Moulton, J. C. (1921). Annual Report of the Raffles Museum and Library for the year 1920 [Microfilm: NL 25786]. Singapore: Government Printing Office.
Moulton, J. C. (1922). Annual Report of the Raffles Museum and Library for the year 1921 [Microfilm: NL 25786]. Singapore: Government Printing Office.
Raffles Museum adopted as eastern centre. (1936, August 24). The Straits Times, p. 13. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
Raffles Museum as headquarters for east. (1935, February 25). The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
Robinson, H. C., & Chasen, F. N. (1936). The birds of the Malay Peninsula: a general account of the birds inhabiting the region from the Isthmus of Kra to Singapore with the adjacent islands, Volume III. Sporting birds; birds of the shore and estuaries [Microfilm: NL8817]. London: H. F. & G. Witherby.
Seet, K. K. (1983). A place for the people. Singapore: Times Books International.
(Call No.: RSING English 027.55957 SEE -[LIB])
Tweedie, M. W. F. (1947). Obituary: Frederick Nutter Chasen [Microfilm: NL 6549]. Bulletin of the Raffles Museum, 18, 170-176. Singapore: Raffles Museum.
World's best collection of Malaysian mammals in Raffles Museum. (1940, July 27). The Straits Times, p. 13. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
Chasen, F. N. (1940). A handlist of Malaysian mammals: A systematic list of the mammals of the Malay Peninsula, Sumatra, Borneo and Java, including the adjacent small islands [Microfilm: NL10058]. Bulletin of the Raffles Museum, 15(2), xx-209. [Singapore : Raffles Museum].
Chasen, F. N. (1935). A handlist of Malaysian birds; a systematic list of the birds of the Malay Peninsula, Sumatra, Borneo and Java, including the adjacent small islands [Microfilm: NL5140]. Bulletin of the Raffles Museum, 11(4), xx-389. Singapore: Printed at the Govt. Print. Off.
The information in this article is valid as at 15 March 2013 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further resources on the topic.