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CHEESEMAN, Thomas Frederic
Botanist and naturalist.
A new biography of Cheeseman, Thomas Frederick appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.
Cheeseman was born at Hull, England, in 1846, the son of Thomas Cheeseman, a Methodist clergyman. When Thomas Frederic was only six years of age, the family of four children and their parents emigrated to New Zealand in 1852 in the ship Artemisia, reaching Auckland in April 1853 – an Auckland of a mere 5,000 inhabitants. In this new and primitive environment both father and son soon found scope for their respective talents. The father took a prominent part in the public life of the community and at one time was a member of the Auckland Provincial Council. Thomas Frederic was educated at the Parneil Grammar School and later, until the age of 19, at St. John's College. Although we know little of his formative years, Cheeseman must have spent his time as a diligent observer of nature, for by the age of 26 he had acquired, unaided, so comprehensive a knowledge of the plants of the Auckland area that he was able to publish his first paper On the Botany of the Titirangi District of the Province of Auckland. Two years later (1874) Cheeseman was appointed secretary of the Auckland Institute and curator of the Auckland Museum, a position which he held and served with distinction for half a century.
In 1889, at Auckland, Cheeseman married Rosetta Keesing, by whom he had one son (Major Guy Cheeseman) and one daughter. Cheeseman died on 16 October 1923.
Cheeseman was one of the competent “all rounders” as a glance at his extensive bibliography shows for, although known primarily as a botanist, he could have achieved equal renown in the field of zoology had he chosen to make that subject his life work. He published (1876) a list of the species of mollusca (shellfish) found in Auckland Harbour, but of greater importance were three papers on the Opisthobranchiate and Nudibranch mollusca in which new genera and new species were described. These papers were so well done that the conclusions reached remain unchallenged to this day, and the treatment of the subject still serves as a model of how such work should be done. A glance at the Cheeseman bibliography reveals his wide range of interests for we find, apart from his very extensive botanical contributions, papers covering most phyla of the animal kingdom as well as items of ethnological interest.
Since Cheeseman's investigations frequently took him to remote and little-known areas, we find papers interpolated with narrative that provides useful sidelights, not devoid of humour, on the early history of the colony.
In assessing Cheeseman's great contribution to botany, no better tribute can be paid than that given by his eminent colleague and chief contestant in the botanical field, Leonard Cockayne:
“Cheeseman's botanical publications fall into several classes; many along with the work of others, paved the way for a complete flora of New Zealand. Then there was the actual flora he published in 1906, entitled The Manual of the New Zealand Flora, to which must be added his and Hemsley's Illustrations of the New Zealand Flora (1914). Then come his writings of a philosophical character which deal with the origin of the New Zealand sub-Antarctic flora and an early paper relating to the naturalised plants of the Auckland Provincial District. Finally, amongst his earlier writings also are several papers dealing with the pollination of certain species – a matter then receiving great attention through the influence of Darwin.
“There is not space available for a full account of the scope of the above writings; all, even the shortest, were distinguished by those characteristics which their gifted author possessed to an extreme degree – sound judgment, clarity of expression, and accuracy. Above all, he had the supreme gift of infinite patience; all views expressed were the result of much cautious deliberation; the hurried methods of the present day were not for him. And in this spirit he approached his classic work, The Manual of the New Zealand Flora, with the result that it can be used with all confidence in the certain knowledge that it contains the well-considered conclusions of a master mind.
“To a scientific worker in a far-away corner of the earth honours come slowly.… But Cheeseman was early elected a Fellow of the Linnean Society of London, and, a little later, of the Zoological Society also. But honours far more distinguished came to him – first of all, a Corresponding Membership of the Botanical Society of Edinburgh, and this year (1923) one of the highest science can offer, the Gold Linnean Medal of the Linnean Society, a distinction open to zoologists and botanists throughout the world; further had he lived, he would almost certainly have been elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. Then the New Zealand Institute made him its President in 1911, which is the highest honour a scientific man can attain in the Dominion, and in 1918 he was awarded the Hector Memorial Medal and Prize for his botanical researches, and the succeeding year he was made an original Fellow of the New Zealand Institute.”
Hand in hand with his scientific researches was the development of the Auckland Museum into an institution of high rank. Despite its having a small staff, never more than three, the museum was a model both for neatness and the orderliness of its displays – old-time standards certainly, of heavy dark wood cases, red baize and formal labels, but these labels were of textbook quality. Many of these informative and painstaking compilations still grace the present Auckland War Memorial Museum. Cheeseman's greatest contribution in the museum field was his early realisation of the importance of acquiring irreplaceable Maori artefacts and from this emerged the present ethnological collection which is second to none.
Cheeseman was no dry-as-dust scientist. In his austere sanctum at the front of the original museum building in Princes Street, he would give freely of his time in leisured discourse, no matter how seemingly trivial the inquiry. Not to all, however, for on occasion he could become abrupt, even to the point of rudeness, if confronted with pomposity. To adults he gave the impression of studious abstraction, but in the presence of youth his manner would relax, and an inborn – only lightly concealed sense of humour – would emerge.
The Auckland Institute and Museum, which owes so great a debt of gratitude to Thomas Frederic Cheeseman, is endeavouring to keep alive his name in two ways; one, by the holding of an annual exhibition, The Cheeseman Memorial Flower Show; and the other, by the award of a Cheeseman Prize in Natural History. But apart from these, there is that great botanical asset, the Cheeseman Herbarium, which is housed in the Auckland War Memorial Museum. This stands as a permanent monument to the diligence and genius of a great man.
by Arthur William Baden Powell, Assistant Director, Auckland Institute and Museum.
- Transactions and Proceedings of the New Zealand Institute, Vol. 54 (Obit), (1923)
- New Zealand Herald, 16 Oct 1923 (Obit).