ASTON, Bernard Cracroft, C.B.E.
Agricultural chemist and botanist, Hector medallist, Royal Society of New Zealand.
A new biography of Aston, Bernard Cracroft appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.
B. C. Aston was born at Beckenham, Kent, son of Murray Aston, of a family well known in the Home Counties. Coming to New Zealand as a boy he attended Christchurch Boys' High School, Dunedin Technical College, and Otago University. He did not take a degree, but under Professor Black's teaching and influence was appointed chemist to a cement company; later, consulting analyst to the Government in Dunedin, and finally in 1899 the first chemist to the Department of Agriculture. Beginning in Wellington, practically single handed, Aston built up a service laboratory which eventually covered a wide field of analytical work. Meanwhile with Professor Easterfield of Victoria University College, he began researches into the active principles in several poisonous native plants in relation to stock ailments. Later he turned his attention to soils, fertilisers, and to field experiments, and his annual reports contain a wealth of data. He also inaugurated testing laboratories for export butter, and milling and baking tests for wheat.
One of Aston's most notable investigations was into “bush sickness”, a disease that rendered stockraising in many areas of pumice soils difficult, if not impossible. He discovered a cure for and the preventive of the disease in limonite, a natural oxide of iron. This led him to think that the cause of the disease was a soil deficiency of iron, though later it was shown that the actual deficiency was cobalt which the limonite contained as a minor element in greater or less degree. In 1926 Aston, visiting Britain, presented a paper on “Bush sickness” to the British Association for the Advancement of Science and, as a consequence, the Empire Marketing Board, influenced by Sir John Orr who regarded Aston's work highly, subsidised a programme of investigations in New Zealand into minerals in pastures in relation to stock nutrition. The reports (unpublished) contain a wealth of data for reference. Aston's work in this field may fairly be regarded as the starting point of the immense volume of modern research into soil micronutrients .
Much of the early field work in botany and zoology in New Zealand was done by enthusiastic amateurs without benefit of university training in the subjects. Aston illustrates the point. By profession a chemist, he was also a botanist and an active collector of plants, often in regions unexplored before his excursions. In a search for plants, he explored many parts of Otago and Southland in his early years. Coming to Wellington he made many ascents of peaks in the Tararuas and was among the first to traverse that range. In 1916, with J. A. Thomson, H. Hamilton, and A. F. O'Donoghue, he scaled Tapuaenuku (9,465 ft) in the Kaikouras. Altogether he made six excursions into the Ruahine-Kaimanawa Mountains. Perhaps his most interesting excursion was that in which, with R. A. Wilson and F. K. Hutchinson, he attempted to follow the route across the Ruahine Range from Waipawa to the Rangitikei River that Colenso travelled over six times between 1847 and 1852. Aston was also a member of the expedition to the sub-Antarctic Is. (q.v.) organised by the Canterbury Philosophical Institute in 1907. He always described his recreations as plant exploration and growing, and he is commemorated in the names of species belonging to several genera of native plants.
Aston was a member of the New Zealand Institute and the Royal Society of New Zealand for 55 years, and he contributed many papers to the Transactions. He was president of the Wellington branch, secretary of the New Zealand Institute, 1909–31, one of the 20 original fellows of the institute, and president in 1926–27. He was created C.B.E. in 1948. He died, unmarried, on31 May 1951.
by Leonard John Wild, C.B.E., M.A., B.SC.(HON.), D.SC., formerly Pro-Chancellor of the University of New Zealand, Otaki.
- Evening Post, 1 Jun 1951 (Obit).