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New Zealanders and Science

14 — Conclusion

page 146


That two small islands in the South Pacific should, in one hundred years, have contributed so much to science is a fact transcending the limits of mere chance. Some of the reasons for New Zealand's achievement have been stated in the preceding pages; others have been implied. The purpose of this brief epigraph is by recapitulation to summarise these reasons and so to indicate the probable future of science in a country where its foundations have been so well laid.

In the early years of its history science in New Zealand owed much to its natural advantages. Here, before the eager gaze of nineteenth-century science, lay a field of study absorbing in its interest. In area it was small when compared with the great continental masses, but for that reason its secrets were the more accessible. And within its confines were features both varied and unique. Stretching through more than a thousand miles and subjected to the influences of ocean currents and winds, the islands ranged from the page 147north, with its semi-tropical fern and forest, to bleak outposts exposed to Antarctic storms. In relief they descended from relentlessly carved peaks and volcanic mountains to calmer foothills and plains. For aeons the land had lain in splendid isolation. No beasts of prey terrorised its fastnesses: the tuatara slept the centuries away; the wings of birds withered through disuse; the only dangerous creature, a poisonous spider, carried a red marking on its back as a warning of danger. Buttercups, daisies, lilies, and speedwells grew to giant proportions; the forget-me-not developed leaves as large as rhubarb; mosses grew more than a foot high; and full-grown pine-trees cowered beneath these mosses.

As the era of modern science began and communications expanded, men came to explore this fascinating terrain, scientists eager to test new theories in a land little disturbed by the ravages of man or centuries of grazing and agriculture. Their reports, based on personal observations or the accounts of missionaries and settlers, attracted further scientific recruits who came not to visit but to stay. Thus from the beginning the natural history of New Zealand was recorded in a systematic manner and, as the years progressed, a tradition was gradually built up by a distinguished group of scientists and their followers.

The next phase saw the establishment of a university where science and mathematics were placed on an equal footing with classics under men pre-eminent page 148both as scholars and as teachers. It is, of course, possible to argue that the struggle of the Otago pioneers was a mistaken one and that New Zealand would have been better served by the establishment of a purely classical university. New Zealanders, as a people, do not think so, and indeed it is difficult to picture Auckland, for instance, as a 'home of lost causes and impossible beliefs'. However that may be, the decision was made in favour of a university as much scientific as 'humane', and this survey will have made it clear that the University of New Zealand and its constituent colleges have been of paramount importance in our later scientific achievements.

Three factors have thus emerged which have shaped the growth of science in New Zealand: first, its advantages as a field for the study of natural history; second, the force of a tradition founded by men of the highest calibre; third, a system of education which provides admirable facilities for scientific study and training. These factors still operate to-day and will condition the future development of New Zealand science. Though the field has already been mapped, the sources of study for the natural historian, both the amateur and the trained specialist, remain inexhaustible. With the passing of the years, moreover, the country's scientific tradition has been widened and deepened by the contributions of New Zealanders to every branch of study.

But of even greater moment than New Zealand's page 149natural advantages and the strength of its scientific tradition is a system of education highly favourable to the growth of science. The primary and secondary school systems are democratic in the extreme, and a practical bias encourages the clever youth to take up the study of mathematics and science. Rutherford and Mellor, for example, were the sons of parents in poor circumstances; they required financial assistance to pursue their studies; and they were forced to seek immediate financial results on the completion of their education. In a country dominated by older ideals of education, the conditions of scholarships and the requirements of the teaching profession might have forced them to follow a classical or literary course.

In such circumstances, it is true, the men themselves might have gained, but science would definitely have lost. The significant fact is, however, that a tendency noticeable in the nineties has gathered strength in the succeeding half-century, and is to-day particularly noticeable at the apex of the educational system, the University of New Zealand.

Particularly in those subjects favoured by the New Zealand environment—geology, botany, and biology—the four colleges are worthily maintaining the standards set in the early years of their history. Otago, always a centre of geological teaching and research, has been fortunate since 1917 in having as its professor of geology so distinguished an authority as Dr W. N. Benson, whose work has brought him deserved fame page 150in geological centres abroad. The professor of mining and economic geology, until his retirement in 1931, was the veteran James Park, whose long and varied career goes back to the days when he served as a field geologist under Hector. At Canterbury for many years Professor Robert Speight, like Haast before him, held dual office as curator of the Canterbury Museum and lecturer (later professor) of geology, while at Auckland Professor J. A. Bartrum, a New Zealander born and educated, has occupied the chair of geology since 1927. These men have not only been scholars and research workers but they have been continuously employed in the teaching and training of successive generations of students. Indeed the demand for geologists trained in New Zealand is so insistent that it is difficult to keep students in the colleges until their course is completed. Although there has never been a separate chair of botany in this country, the school of New Zealand botanists is held in high esteem. To single out individuals is somewhat invidious, but mention must be made of the Rev. Dr J. E. Holloway of Otago, whose patient work in this field was recognised by his election as F.R.S. in 1937 and by awards in New Zealand and elsewhere. In the study of biology, now highly specialised, the name of Sir William Benham, F.R.S., until recently professor of that subject at the University of Otago, will sufficiently proclaim the fact that Hutton has had worthy successors. Even so cursory a glance as this through page 151the list of teachers of science in the colleges of the University of New Zealand is enough to show that students of science will in the future, as in the past, receive a thorough and stimulating training under the guidance of able men in each field.

New Zealand has great natural advantages; its scientific tradition has been enriched by the contributions of a line of eminent men; and science is firmly established in its educational system. Who can doubt that in its second century this country will continue that scientific work which has been not the least of its contributions to a hundred years of varied history?