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New Zealanders and Science

5 — Hector

page 48


Like von Haast, Hector was attracted to New Zealand by the opportunities it offered for original research. While he accomplished difficult and strenuous original work in his early years, he was later to find that he had a particular talent for directing and co-ordinating the scientific labours of others.

James Hector was born at Edinburgh on 18 March 1834. His father, a great friend of Sir Walter Scott, was a Writer to the Signet. (The father of every famous Scot seems to have been a Writer to the Signet, but the phrase, with all its seeming romance, is virtually only a synonym for Crown Solicitor.) His mother was a niece of Dr Barclay, the teacher of Owen who was afterwards popularly credited with the reconstruction of the moa from a single bone of the leg—an instance of gross popular exaggeration. At the age of fourteen he entered his father's office for a short period, and was then apprenticed to an actuary for three years. He early showed a bent for chemical and natural history studies, and after page 49matriculating in 1852, he left office work finally and entered the University of Edinburgh to study under Edward Forbes. There he duly graduated m.d. in 1856. He had no desire to be a surgeon, but at that time it was impossible to study science at the university without keeping terms in medicine. Thus Owen and Huxley, as well as many other scientists, had perforce to study medicine.* Hector devoted as much of his time at the university as he could to natural science, especially geology. There was no separate chair of geology at Edinburgh, but Edward Forbes and Professors Balfour and Jameson gave him extremely efficient instruction. During the vacations he made long walking excursions through England and Scotland studying geology and natural history. His graduation thesis on The Antiquity of Man showed clearly his bent towards pure science.

Hector had proved such an able student at Edinburgh that in March 1857 he was selected by Sir Roderick Murchison, director-general of the geological survey of Great Britain, to act as surgeon and geologist with an expedition to explore the western part of British North America. The expedition was in charge of Captain John Palliser, and the programme entailed a four years' survey of the area west of Lake Superior and north of the 49th parallel, principally with a view to settlement possibilities, and also to page 50search for passes suitable for horses through the Rockies to British Columbia. A great deal of the scientific work of the expedition fell to Hector, but he was a young man of twenty-three afraid neither of work nor of responsibility. When the expedition went into winter quarters while the snow lay on the ground, it was Hector's practice to take a volunteer or two and an Indian guide and to explore the prairie country on snow-shoes and with dog-sleighs. Over a thousand miles were covered in this way, the bill of fare consisting of inadequate supplies of pemmican diversified by chance game. On the expedition to search for a pass in the Rockies, the party split. Palliser in charge of one group searched the more southern reaches of the mountains, while Hector led the other group farther north. It fell to the latter group to discover the most practicable pass, the well-known Kicking Horse Pass, now used by the Canadian Pacific Railway Company for their trunk line from Montreal to Vancouver. This discovery nearly ended in disaster for Hector, as the name of the pass indicates, for there he was kicked severely in the chest by the animal he immortalised.

After three hard years the expedition returned to England in 1860, its great work, the discovery of a practicable route from the east to the west coast of Canada, accomplished. Hector was the hero of the hour. The geological material with which he returned secured his immediate appointment as a Fellow of the page 51Royal Society of Edinburgh, the Geological Society of London, and the Royal Geographical Society. He was awarded the precious gold medal of the last-named society, and his future was assured.

The immediate result was the offer in 1861 of two positions, one—political agent and geologist to Kashmir State—a very well paid position, and the other —provincial geologist to the province of Otago—a less remunerative post at the other end of the world with little prospects of other than hard work. Hector applied for advice to Sir Roderick Murchison who recommended Otago. As we know, Kashmir's loss was New Zealand's gain, and Hector arrived in Dunedin on 15 April 1862.

Hector was engaged for three years from 1 November 1861, at £800 per year, with an assistant at £300 per year. He was required first, to devote all his time and abilities till its completion to a geological survey of the province, and to deliver the results of the survey to the superintendent, and, second, at the completion of the survey, to furnish specimens of all the minerals of the province. On his arrival he immediately plunged into work, organising his office and surveying his domain. Very little work had been done on the geology of Otago save for a few observations by Dr Forbes of the Acheron and for a brief survey by Dr Lauder Lindsay who was one of the first to mention the evidence of former glacial action in New Zealand.

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From April to September 1862 Hector undertook a preliminary reconnaissance of one-third of the province, during which he collected over 500 fossil specimens, duly classified by him on his return. On 27 August he forwarded his first report to the superintendent, a very valuable sketch report on the geology of the Manuherikia valley, pointing out the enormous erosion that had taken place in that area. The Molyneux (Clutha) river and tributaries had removed deposits several hundred feet in thickness from an area of at least 800 square miles. He predicted that no main seam of gold would be found, but that patchy deposits of great richness could be expected. The gold during the lapse of vast ages, he explained, had been sifted and separated by the sluicing action of the river from the debris of the schistose rocks and had thus been concentrated in a smaller and smaller quantity of wash gravel. Within a few weeks of this announcement enterprising miners, who ransacked the whole Taieri basin, abundantly verified Hector's opinions.

In this report Hector first mentioned his mistaken theory of the older and newer Tertiary deposits. The central Otago basin, he claimed, as it passed through the successive stages of submergence became partially filled with deposits classified as older Tertiary deposits. When the level of the land rose again and the basin became drained by lakes and rivers, a second layer of debris was deposited—the newer Tertiary page 53deposits. This theory provided a glorious opportunity for the personal recriminations in which the scientists of that day rejoiced. When the din of battle had died away, Hector himself came to modify the opinions which had so infuriated some of his colleagues.

Hector's next excursion was to discover a practicable land route to the West Coast, but a short journey convinced him that an opening could best be discovered from the West Coast. In May 1863 therefore he set out on an historic expedition to the West Coast sounds. A small twenty-ton schooner-rigged yacht, the Matilda Hayes, was selected, and her limited accommodation was turned to such account that she was able to carry nine persons with provisions for six months. On 29 May after an early breakfast at Bluff 'on mutton bird, a disagreeable Maori delicacy, which I tasted for the first time', the real work began. Stewart Island was the first port of call, but the welcome was not so enthusiastic as that given a few days later to the schooner Wild Wave, overdue from Invercargill with eagerly awaited provisions for the settlers, who had been reduced for some time past 'to a diet of cockles and woodhens'.

Five weeks were spent in geological observation in Preservation Inlet, the weather being atrocious and the winds contrary. The only accident of the trip occurred while the yacht was attempting to beat out of this sound: 'The yacht rolled heavily and in making sail the main boom broke loose by accident and page 54knocked two of us down, and unfortunately dislocated my left shoulder joint. However, with the aid of one of the seamen, who had been treated for a similar mishap himself, I managed to reduce it and have the necessary bandages applied.' However 'we had great reason to be thankful for the temporary south-east breeze which enabled us to escape in time from our perilous position on the weather side of the Balleny reef.'

Thompson and Doubtful sounds were next surveyed, and some time was spent at Milford, where Hector ventured to the source of the Cleddau river and satisfied himself that no easy pass existed to the east. As Milford had such a good entrance, however, he believed that 'by blasting or quarrying, a sufficient extent of wharf frontage might be obtained where vessels may be safely moored, although the water is too deep for anchorage.' That work after the lapse of three-quarters of a century is now under way.

Hector next proceeded to Martin's Bay, and deciding that an easy pass existed, he left his schooner and men at Lake McKerrow. Accompanied by Mr Hutchinson, owner of the Matilda Hayes, who had shipped as one of the hands in order to see the West Coast, and by two others, Hector proceeded up the Hollyford river, over the divide into the Eglinton valley and continued by an easy route to Lake Wakatipu and so by coach to Dunedin. There he had the pleasure of reporting his arrival 'to his Honour on page 55 the 7th. October', and of redeeming his promise to communicate with the government within five months from the date the expedition started. He did not learn until his arrival in Dunedin that he had been preceded in this Hollyford route by Alabaster and Caples.

After every journey Hector devoted much time to preparing specimens to form the nucleus of a museum. In December 1862 he held a public display of the Survey Department's collection, which so impressed the provincial authorities that £400 was voted for the construction of a temporary museum to be attached to the Geological Department.

The success of this very small exhibition led some men to believe that a larger one embracing the whole of New Zealand would give a strong impetus to the exploitation of the resources of the colony. Hector was appointed a commissioner for this exhibition, and in 1864 he toured the provinces in order to secure their support for the scheme. When the exhibition was opened in 1865, Hector's collection, in the cataloguing of which he was aided by Dr Lauder Lindsay, was one of the most complete there. Although burdened with these extra duties, he was able to complete his survey of Otago by April 1865, when he severed his connection with that province. His survey he admitted was only of a general kind and called for more detailed study.

The Weld Government realised the need of page 56co-ordinating the geological work done in the various provinces. For this task it appointed Hector director of the geological survey in New Zealand, a position which he held from 1865 until his retirement in 1903. This position proved to be really that of trusted adviser to the government on all matters of science and higher education, and for forty years he bestrode his 'narrow world like a Colossus'. Besides controlling the geological survey activities, he organised, developed, and managed the Colonial Museum, the government laboratory, the botanical gardens, and the Meteorological Office. He proved an able and very approachable administrator.

Hector's organising abilities were so well recognised that in 1879 he was appointed executive commissioner to the Sydney Exhibition, on which occasion he wrote a very able Handbook of New Zealand, briefly summarising its geology, geography, and history. A year later he was appointed commissioner to the Melbourne Exhibition. He contributed largely to the success of the Wellington Exhibition of 1885, for which service he was knighted. To the Indian and Colonial Exhibition (1886) in London he sent models of Milford Sound and Ruapehu, an extensive collection of casts of extinct New Zealand reptilia, and a model of New Zealand.

The New Zealand Institute was, however, the object nearest his heart, the field where he best displayed the versatility and catholicity of his scientific page 57knowledge. It is his enduring monument. That body was incorporated by The New Zealand Institute Act, 1867, framed by Hector. It was intended to serve as a parent and directing organisation of the various local philosophical societies already established or visualised, and to draw together the New Zealand scientists working in their different fields. The act provided for a board of governors consisting of ex-officio and nominated members, and for a manager to be appointed by the government. Hector was nominated manager and dominated the proceedings for thirty- five years. He voluntarily edited the Transactions for all those years, and perusal of the volumes shows that this work alone was a full task. Every number showed his personal touch in arrangement, comments, and choice of papers; but in addition he published seventy original papers of his own during the thirty-five years. Besides numerous articles on geology, he wrote ably on botanical and zoological subjects, and on anatomy, for he had an all-round knowledge of science. He was a very efficient man for many years, but after a time the strain of his early life began to tell, and he seened incapable of prolonged concentration. His autocratic methods were without parallel, but his tact and diplomacy overcame every difficulty, until in 1903 the long-simmering discontent at his dictatorship forced the reconstruction of the Institute on a more democratic basis. As he was then just on seventy years of age, he no doubt found that his page 58abdication had its compensations. In the same year, 1903, he ended his long official association with the University of New Zealand by resigning the chancellorship. He had held this office since 1885, and had been a member of the university senate since its foundation.

A feature of Hector's career was the many friends he made. He was a close personal friend of every scientist in the New Zealand of his time, though frequently their doughty opponent in scientific debate and activities. He engendered a remarkable loyalty in his subordinate officers. His close contact with successive governments and his incontestable executive ability enabled him to dominate science and thought to an unparalleled degree.

Hector was the recipient of numerous honours, among them being the Order of the Golden Cross conferred by the German Emperor in 1874 and the Lyell medal awarded to him by the Geological Society in 1877. In 1875 he was created c.m.g., and in 1886 was created k.c.m.g. The greatest triumph of his career however was the wonderful reception he received from the Canadian government and people when in 1905 he paid a visit to the scene of his former activities. The visit partook almost of the nature of a royal progress, and a monument was erected to his honour by the Canadian government at the highest point of the Great Divide in order to commemorate his youthful discoveries. The trip was page 59tragically marred, however, for Hector's son Douglas, who accompanied him, contracted pneumonia and died at Revelstoke, British Columbia, close to the Kicking Horse Pass. Sir James returned to Wellington a broken man and died not long after in 1907.

* Curiously enough the situation was reversed in the next generation: Hector's son, Dr C. Monro Hector, was a doctor by choice, a scientist by avocation, and became a valued astronomical worker.