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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.


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EASTERFIELD, Sir Thomas Hill, K.B.E.



A new biography of Easterfield, Thomas Hill appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.

Thomas Hill Easterfield was born at Doncaster, Yorks., on 4 March 1866, the son of Edward Easterfield, bank manager. He was educated at Doncaster Grammar School, Leeds Technical College, and Cambridge University where he was senior foundation scholar, Clare College, gaining a science tripos with honours in chemistry and geology. While at Cambridge he represented the university in the 1-mile race at the Cambridge-Oxford University sports meeting, 1886–88. He gained post-graduate experience at Zurich Polytechnical College, Switzerland, and then at Wurzburg University, Germany, where he worked under the famous organic chemist, Emil Fischer. He was awarded a Ph.D. (Wurzburg) in 1894 for a dissertation on citrazinic acid.

Easterfield began his teaching career at Cambridge as demonstrator in the university chemical laboratory and extension lecturer. In 1894 he was appointed lecturer in pharmaceutical science and in the chemistry of sanitary science. He filled these positions with great success until his appointment as one of the foundation professors of Victoria University College, Wellington, in 1899. At Victoria University College he held for some years the chairs of chemistry and physics, being relieved of the latter in 1909 by the appointment of Prof. T. H. Laby. He held the chair of chemistry with great distinction until he resigned at the end of 1919 to take up the directorship of the Cawthron Institute, Nelson. His notable record as professor of chemistry for over 20 years at Victoria University College was recognised by the conferment of the title, “Professor Emeritus”.

Easterfield was a member of and secretary to the Advisory Committee, set up by the original trustees of the Cawthron Institute, to report upon the best method of giving effect to the wishes of Thomas Cawthron who had bequeathed £240,000 for the establishment of a technical school institute and museum. The recommendations of the Advisory Committee were approved by the trustees, and Easterfield was thereupon appointed foundation director of the Cawthron Institute. In this capacity he was entrusted with the great responsibility of establishing the first privately endowed research institute in the Southern Hemisphere, and in guiding its policy and work. This required great leadership and vision, sound judgment and great enthusiasm for scientific research. He retained the directorship of the institute until he retired at the close of 1933.

His interest in science was not confined solely to his duties as professor of chemistry at Victoria College or as director of the Cawthron Institute. He was a life fellow of the Royal Institute of Chemistry (Great Britain). He assisted in the establishment of the New Zealand Institute of Chemistry, serving as president in 1933–34. He was elected an honorary fellow in 1946. In addition to his professorial duties at Victoria College he took a great interest in industrial chemistry. His services as scientific adviser were in great demand by private firms and manufacturing companies. He was noted as an inspiring lecturer and an enthusiastic advocate of research, in which he himself actively participated. Assisted by senior chemical students, he made important contributions to our knowledge of alkaloids and resins in New Zealand native plants and trees. The “higher fatty acids” and their compounds claimed his attention as did likewise the chemistry of mineral oils and of phormium tenax. He was a member of the Munitions Committee, 1914–18, during the First World War.

In recognition of his great services to the chemical profession in New Zealand, the New Zealand branch of the Royal Institute of Chemistry, Great Britain, established the Easterfield Medal for the best essay on original research in chemistry. The first award of the medal was made at Nelson in 1955 at the annual conference of the New Zealand Institute of Chemistry and the New Zealand branch of the Royal Institute of Chemistry. The Royal Society of New Zealand also claimed his strong interest. He was a foundation member of the New Zealand Institute, which at a later stage became the Royal Society of New Zealand. He was president of the Wellington Philosophical Society in 1903–04. He was awarded the Hector Medal for his research in organic chemistry in 1913, and became president of the New Zealand Institute in 1921–22. At Nelson he was a member of the Nelson Philosophical Society during the whole period of his residence there and served as president for several years. He was keenly interested both in the Pacific Science Association and the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science, and presented papers at conferences of these scientific associations. He was president of the Chemical Section of the latter society at the conference in 1909. For his services to New Zealand science he was awarded the Silver Jubilee Medal in 1935 and was created K.B.E. in 1938. He died at Nelson on 1 March 1949.

In a life notable for many valuable contributions to the development of science, Easterfield's work as professor of chemistry at Victoria University College and as director of the Cawthron Institute was outstanding, by virtue of the high standard which he set not only in the training of chemical students but also in the conduct of scientific research. As professor of chemistry he won early recognition for his wide knowledge, and stimulating lectures, by his devotion to all college interests and his enthusiasm for and success in scientific research. As director of the Cawthron Institute, he played an important role in its establishment and in the development of research programmes. The early phenomenal success of the Institute was due in large measure to his enthusiasm, broad vision, and sound judgment in selecting the pioneer staff.

As a man, Easterfield was held in high esteem and affection by his colleagues and students at Victoria College, by the staff of the Cawthron Institute, and by scientific colleagues throughout New Zealand and overseas. He had many friends among the primary producers of the Nelson district and was held in warm regard by the Nelson community.

Easterfield published some 50 original papers in various scientific journals. They dealt with a variety of subjects, the more important being connected with alkaloids and resins in New Zealand plants and trees, with the higher fatty acids and their derivatives, with mineral oils, and agricultural problems.

by Theodore Rigg, K.B.E., M.A.(CANTAB.), M.SC.(N.Z.), F.R.I.C., F.R.S.N.Z., HON.D.SC.(W. AUST. AND N.Z.), formerly Director, Cawthron Institute, Nelson.

  • Victoria University College — an Essay Towards a History, Beaglehole, J. C. (1949).


Theodore Rigg, K.B.E., M.A.(CANTAB.), M.SC.(N.Z.), F.R.I.C., F.R.S.N.Z., HON.D.SC.(W. AUST. AND N.Z.), formerly Director, Cawthron Institute, Nelson.