September 16, 2018

Biography lauds science pioneer

An encounter with Professor James Belich provided the inspiration for a biography of influential scientists, James Hector.

James Hector: Explorer, scientist, leader by Simon Nathan, has special significance as Avalon based GNS Science, is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year.  It was founded by Hector in 1865.

Nathan worked for many years at GNS and was aware of the impact Hector has as the father of science in New Zealand.

He had been thinking of writing a biography for some years and when Belich mentioned that he had ‘never heard’ of Hector, he knew it had to be written.

Born in Edinburgh, Hector qualified as a doctor.

After graduating he took part in a three-year expedition in Canada, looking for a road and rail route through the Canadian Rockies.

After arriving in New Zealand in the 1860's, Hector was appointed to set up the Geological Survey – now GNS Science.

He quickly became the dominant figure on the local scientific scene, setting up and running the Colonial Museum (now Te Papa) and the New Zealand Institute (now Royal Society of New Zealand) as well as becoming a trusted government advisor.  He set up a standardised time service for New Zealand and established the forerunner to the MetService.

Hector’s dolphin is named after him, as is the highest point in the Tararuas.

Although he initially rented a house in Wellington, Hector was concerned that the town was an unhealthy place, with regular outbreaks of typhoid and other diseases.  In 1881 he bought a block of land on the western Hutt hills where he built his family home, Ratanui, and commuted to Wellington by train.

Hector, who was knighted in 1887, was in demand to present prizes at local schools, to open fund-raising events and to give talks on scientific topics.

Nathan retired from GNS Science after a career as a geologist. Everywhere he went as a geologist, even the most remote places, he had found that Hector had been there first.

When he retired he discovered there wasn’t a biography of Hector and he was written a fitting tribute to a man who has had a huge influence on New Zealand.