Simon Nathan[1]

James Hector (1834-1907) was the dominant personality in the late nineteenth century scientific community in New Zealand. As the first professional scientist to be employed by the government, he founded the Geological Survey (now GNS Science), the Colonial Museum (now Te Papa) and the New Zealand Institute (now the Royal Society of New Zealand) as well as supervising weather forecasting, the time service, and the Colonial Botanic Garden.

As part of a forthcoming biographical study of James Hector, several collections of letters have recently been transcribed – more than 800 letters, mainly from the Alexander Turnbull Library, Te Papa archives, the Hocken Library, and the archives of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. This has been undertaken by a small team including Rowan Burns, Esme Mildenhall, Judith Nathan, Simon Nathan and Sascha Nolden. These transcriptions are potentially a useful tool for researchers in a variety of fields, so they have been published by the Geoscience Society of New Zealand as parts of GSNZ Miscellaneous Publication 133. They are available as free downloadable PDF files from the GSNZ website, www.gsnz.org.nz – Click on Publications, then Misc. Pub. Series.

So far the following seven volumes have been published:

As well as information on Hector’s scientific interests and his rivalry with Haast and Hutton, there is information on life in each of the four main centres, political gossip, comments on the ‘native problem’, and the workings of government. There are gloriously gossipy letters from R.L. Holmes (MP 133C) and Walter Mantell (2nd part of MP 133E), Hector’s concerns about industrial unrest in 1890 (MP 133A), and Hutton’s complaints about problems in the flax industry (MP 133F).

Hector kept Joseph Hooker up to date with developments in New Zealand (MP 133A), including notes on earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and other hazards. Hooker often sent extracts from Hector’s letters to the newly established scientific journal, Nature. One of Hector’s concerns was the extent of deforestation, and the speed with which native forests were being milled or burnt. Based on his experience in Canada he advocated planting imported conifers, and used the Colonial Botanic Garden as an experimental nursery to test out which species grew best in New Zealand.

Several more collections of letters are in preparation, including correspondence between Julius Haast and Joseph Hooker, and a bibliography of Hector’s publications, including a huge number of reports in the Appendices to the Journal of the House of Representatives. It is hoped that the biography will be published by late 2015, in time for the 150th anniversary of the founding of the Geological Survey and the Colonial Museum.

For more information, please contact Simon Nathan – [email protected]. We would appreciate feedback from readers, information on more letters that may come to light, and the inevitable corrections that will be discovered.

We gratefully acknowledge the award of the VUW-GNS summer scholarship that supported Rowan Burns, and funding from the Brian Mason Scientific and Technical Trust.


[1]Dr. Simon Nathan is an Emeritus Scientist with GNS Science. Following a long career as a professional geologist, he now pursues his interest in the history of science.