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Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.


BUCK, Sir Peter Henry (Te Rangihiroa), K.C.M.G., D.S.O.

(c. 1877–1951).

Anthropologist and director, Bernice P. Bishop Museum, Honolulu, Hawaii.

A new biography of Buck, Peter Henry appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.

Buck was born at Urenui, on 15 December 1880, or 1877? (memorial cairn, unveiled 15 August 1953, marks the birthplace), son of William Henry Buck and Rina of the Ngati Mutunga tribe of Taranaki. His mother died a young woman and the boy Peter was reared by her cousin, Ngarongo ki Tua, and his great-aunt (kuia) Kapuakore. Through his father, Peter was descended from a line of Irish clergymen and professional men, which included at least one civil engineer, that has been traced back to one Andrew Buck, clerk in Holy Orders, who entered Trinity College, Dublin, in 1742. From his mother's only brother the young Peter took in his teens his Maori name of Te Rangi Hiroa, which he used as an alternative to his European name all his life. In his later years he seemed, in his purely scientific publications, to prefer to use his Maori name, keeping the name of Peter Buck as a parenthetical second name – a change in practice that may have symbolised a re-affirmation of his Maori ancestry as the principal source of his own personal identity.

Buck received his early education at the local Urenui primary school, thereafter for three years (1896–98) at a Maori secondary school, Te Aute College. From this school Buck went on scholarship to Otago University, where he graduated in medicine with his M.B., and Ch.B. degrees in 1904 (house surgeon, Dunedin Hospital 1905–08), M.D. 1910. He was later awarded honorary degrees in arts and science from Yale (M.A., 1936; D.Sc., 1951), New Zealand (D.Sc., 1937), Rochester (D.Sc., 1939), and Hawaii (D.Litt., 1948). Other honours awarded during his lifetime for distinguished service in war and to the science of anthropology included D.S.O., 1918; K.C.M.G., 1946; the Swedish decoration of the Royal Order of the North Star, 1949; the Hector Medal, Royal Society of New Zealand, 1936; Rivers Memorial Medal, Royal Anthropological Institute, 1936; and the S.Percy Smith Medal, University of Otago, 1951. During his lifetime Buck became a fellow of the American Anthropological Association, the Royal Society of New Zealand, the Royal Anthropological Institute, London, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He was also a member of such learned societies as the Polynesian Society, the Society of Sigma XI, Yale Chapter, the American Association of Museums, and the American Folklore Society. His interest in Pacific affairs inevitably linked him to educational, welfare, and scientific organisations of the Pacific: he was chairman of the Barstow Foundation for American Samoans, and of the Honolulu Committee, Pacific Science Board of the United States National Research Council, honorary consultant of the South Pacific Commission, and a member of the Advisory Committee on Educational Affairs of Guam.

In his youth he was as interested in field sports as he was in scholarship. Buck became senior sports champion, Te Aute, 1897–98; New Zealand amateur long-jump champion, 1900, 1904; Otago University long-jump champion, 1902, 1903, 1904.

In 1905 Buck married Margaret (M.B.E.) daughter of A. W. Wilson, of Milton, Otago. There were no children.

Buck's career after graduation from Otago falls into three fairly well-defined phases. The phases overlap to some degree, yet each is distinctive and the first two almost inevitably culminate in the final career of Buck the scientist. The first phase of Buck's life was largely devoted to public health work among his own Maori people and, perhaps as a tangent to this interest in Maori welfare, a rather brief political career in the New Zealand House of Representatives. The second phase, of necessity, was military; the third was largely scientific and administrative. The first phase began when Buck became associated with that group of Maori leaders, known as the Young Maori Party, which included the lawyer, Apirana Ngata, and another Maori doctor, Maui Pomare; the aim of this group was to improve Maori social conditions by political and other kinds of direct action in education, hygiene, and health. Buck joined the New Zealand Health Department as a Medical Officer for Maori Health, 1905–08, but soon went into politics when he was elected member of Parliament for the Northern Maori electorate, 1909. He retained this seat until 1914. By 1912 Buck had attained Cabinet rank as Minister of the Maori Race, Cook Islands, Public Trust, and Government Life Insurance. He resigned the Northern Maori seat in 1914, but failed by a few votes to win a European electorate.

The outbreak of war in 1914 led to the end of politics and the beginning of a military career. Accompanied by his wife, serving as a nursing sister, Buck went overseas with the New Zealand forces as medical officer to the First Maori Contingent serving in Egypt and Gallipoli, 1914–15. Transferring to the infantry, Buck became major and Second-in-Command, New Zealand Pioneer Battalion, 1916–17. He rejoined the medical staff in 1918 by becoming successively associated with the 4th Field Ambulance and No. 3 New Zealand Military Hospital, 1919. On returning to New Zealand, Buck resumed his career as Medical Officer for Maori Health, 1919, subsequently being appointed Director, Division of Maori Hygiene, New Zealand Department of Health, 1919–27.

Already by the end of the war the third phase of Buck's career was beginning to shape itself. Up to 1911 he had published at least six scientific papers on various aspects of Maori and Pacific island life. Returning to New Zealand with his army unit, he characteristically used the leisure of a long sea voyage to measure the physical characteristics of each Maori soldier under his command. The result, published in 1922 and 1923, was a major contribution to the physical anthropology of the Maori. A further series of important scientific papers on Maori topics followed rapidly in the years up to 1927. By this date Bernice P. Bishop Museum, Honolulu, was ready to begin a systematic anthropological survey of Polynesian societies. The director of the museum invited Buck to participate in this survey by joining the museum staff for five years as a full-time ethnologist. After some considerable heartsearching Buck resigned his position as Director of Maori Hygiene, and left the safe harbours of a New Zealand Government job in order to set out on a new voyage of scientific discovery that was to take him to almost every known part of the Polynesian Pacific. By 1936 he had achieved a second professional career that included a professorship of anthropology at Yale University and, successively, the directorship and presidency of the Board of Trustees of Bishop Museum.

Buck spent almost 25 years studying and recording the native cultures of the Polynesian Pacific. He produced a continuous stream of scientific articles and monographs of the highest order. He was a fascinating and inspiring teacher and an administrator of great skill and understanding. A succession of high honours and membership in distinguished scientific bodies showed that the world at large and his scientific colleagues in particular recognised his merits. The years at Honolulu brought to flowering a talent for scientific investigation that was largely self-nurtured and grown in a soil of patient determination. The later administrative years at Honolulu were not easy ones for Buck. Bishop Museum was not a wealthy institution. There was a continual scraping for funds to carry out the scientific programme that Buck planned for himself and his colleagues. The years of the Second World War brought many additional difficulties, but Buck patiently ploughed on, solving the difficulties as they arose with patience and unfailing good humour.

At the end of 1947 Buck underwent an operation for cancer. The disease should have killed him, but for three more years he fought a battle with himself to live a strenuous life. He made a return visit to New Zealand in 1949 on the occasion of the Seventh Pacific Science Congress, travelling from one end of the country to the other and undertaking what must have been an exhausting programme of professional and social consultations with colleagues and Maori groups. Returning to Honolulu he worked hard to finish his two unpublished monographs and to organise the miscellaneous notes that could not be immediately used. After his seventy-first birthday, he toiled on until he had cleared his desk for life. Then, and only then, did he re-enter hospital to die on 1 December 1951 in Honolulu, Hawaii. His ashes were brought back to New Zealand and placed in a vault sheltering under a giant symbolic Polynesian canoe prow at Okoki, Taranaki, on 8 August 1954. Buck often quoted an old Maori classical saying to stress his interest in the changing social conditions of the Maori people: “Ka pu te ruha The old net is laid aside” “Ka hao te rangatahi The new net goes a-fishing”

He would have appreciated the fact that at his own Okoki tangi the Governor-General of New Zealand neatly turned this into a challenge to his Maori audience by saying to them, “The old net is cast aside, but where is the new net?”

Buck was a man of two worlds. From his mother's culture he inherited the charm, the humour, the patience, the dignity of the Polynesian; and from his father and his European education came the capacity for hard work, the rigorous devotion to science, and the ability to move with an easy grace within and through a European world. Combining so readily these two usually divergent streams of social heredity, Buck became in his Hawaiin years what one of his scientific colleagues has aptly named “the Great Chief of Polynesia”, for native and European alike, in all matters relating to scientific research and native welfare. His advice was continually sought by politicians, scientists, and Pacific atoll chiefs. For them all, he had an apt story, wise advice, a twinkle in his eye, and a calm and spacious wisdom that may not have immediately solved all problems but at least could give his questioner a broadened horizon, and the zest to tackle anew his own problems that came from the happy enthusiasm of Buck's own personality. He demanded much from himself: a whole lifetime of hard, conscientious, slogging labour. From his friends and colleagues he also demanded much, but this much or more they were readily prepared to give in return for the charm, the friendliness, and the example of Buck's own work.

Buck's scientific work is contained in some 60 odd articles, 11 major monographs, and three more general books, no small output for a man who came to anthropology as a serious disciple when already the first half of his life and at least two different careers were behind him, and much detailed administrative work had to be fitted into the scientific programme he laid out for himself. Add to all this work a ceaseless round of committee attendances and speaking engagements, together with the fact that meticulous, but time-consuming, line drawing was both a hobby and a tool of his trade: add all this up and one has a good measure of a life literally filled to the end with an almost super-human industry. He came to Maori and later to Polynesian anthropology at a time and period in the development of this science when the careful recording of the artefacts of Maori and Polynesian material culture seemed to him to hold out the greatest promise for progress in the field. Buck commenced his work essentially untrained (or rather self-trained by reading and hard work) and relatively innocent of anthropological theory, in the sense in which training and theorising would have been taught him today in a university school of anthropology. Guided only by his own common sense, his capacity for hard work, and his ability to listen and learn from colleagues and students as his work went along, he slowly mastered the art of recording the intricacies of material culture and the more obvious aspects of social organisation. In his scientific monographs he left behind him a superb factual record upon which future students will more surely build a satisfactory scientific picture of the past and present of the Polynesian peoples. To New Zealanders, whether Maori, European, or of mixed ancestry, Buck's life is an example of his own belief that the blending of two races in New Zealand “will in time produce the future New Zealander who will have derived physical and cultural superiority from the intermixture of two bloods”: as doctor, physician, scientist – Buck combined three careers with his Maori ancestry. None of the careers was less than a masterpiece.

Buck's principal scientific monographs are as follows: The Evolution of Maori Clothing, 1926; The Material Culture of the Cook Islands, 1927; Samoan Material Culture, 1930; Ethnology of Tongareva, 1932; Ethnology of Manakiki and Rakahanga, 1932; Mangaian Society, 1934; Ethnology of Mangareva, 1934; Arts and Crafts of the Cook Islands, 1944; Introduction to Polynesian Anthropology, 1945; Material Culture of Kapingamarangi, 1950; Arts and Crafts of Hawaii, 1957. In addition, he published for the general reader a survey of Polynesian life entitled Vikings of the Sunrise, 1938; an account of Polynesian religion, Anthropology and Religion, 1939; and his final thoughts on Maori life published under the title of The Coming of the Maori, 1949.

For published works on Buck's life and scientific standing see the obituary by Roydhouse in Te Ao Hou, No. 1, 1952, with important corrections by Ramsden in the Journal, Polynesian Society, Vol. 61, No. 3 and 4, 1952; the best factual survey of his life and a good scientific evaluation is that by Katherine Luomala in Edmonson, Report of the Director [of Bishop Museum] for 1951, B. P. Bishop Museum Bulletin, 208, 1952. Additional material including the Roydhouse obituary may be found in “Tributes to and Speeches by Sir Peter Buck”, Journal, Polynesian Society, Vol. 60, No. 4, 1951, pp. 223–254. Buck's own article, “He Poroporoaki – A Farewell Message”, on the occasion of the death of Sir Apirana Ngata”, Journal, Polynesian Society, Vol. 60, No. 1, 1951, pp. 22–31, contains valuable information about Buck's own medical and political career. To commemorate the unveiling of the Okoki memorial, Eric Ramsden published A MemoirTe Rangihiroa, Wellington, Department of Maori Affairs, 1954, 38 pages. This memoir, brief as it is, is the best available account of Buck's life. Ramsden here gives his reasons for believing that the probable year of Buck's birth was 1877 (October 1877 is the birthdate given in the register entry on 22 January 1884 recording Buck's admission to Urenui primary school) rather than the year 1880 as Buck was accustomed to claim in his later years.

by Ernest Beaglehole, M.A., PH.D., LITT.D., F.R.S.N.Z. (1906-65), late Professor of Psychology, Victoria University of Wellington.


by Ernest Beaglehole, M.A., PH.D., LITT.D., F.R.S.N.Z. (1906-65), late Professor of Psychology, Victoria University of Wellington.