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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.


HECTOR, Sir James


Geologist, explorer, scientific administrator.

A new biography of Hector, James appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.

James Hector was born in Edinburgh on 16 March 1834, the son of Alexander Hector, conveyancer and Writer to the Signet. After attending Edinburgh Academy and High School, Hector briefly worked in his father's office. Interest in natural science led him to study medicine at Edinburgh University as the only avenue to a scientific career, but he attended extra-curricular lectures in natural science and later assisted the professors of botany (Balfour) and zoology (Edward Forbes, greatest naturalist of his generation).

After graduating M.D. (1856), Hector was selected by Sir R. Murchison as geologist and surgeon to a British Government expedition under the command of Captain John Palliser. Palliser's expedition was to investigate communications in western Canada, to explore unknown country, and to seek practical passes over the Rockies. Two years of adventure and hardship proved Hector an accomplished scientist and intrepid explorer. Kicking Horse Pass, which the Canadian Pacific Railway crosses, was named from his narrow escape from death and is now marked by his monument. After examining Vancouver Island and goldfields and mines elsewhere in western America, Hector returned to receive honours (F.R.S. Edinburgh, and in 1861 the Royal Geographical Society's gold medal) and two offers of appointment – geologist and political agent in Kashmir, and geologist to the Provincial Government of Otago, New Zealand. He accepted the latter.

Hector reached Dunedin in April 1862, bearing letters of introduction from Sir J. D. Hooker to von Haast and Buchanan. He immediately began examining the province and its developing goldfields, westward to Wakatipu, and in 1863 extended his exploration further west, making an arduous journey on foot up the Matukituki River and down the Arawata. Plans for a West Coast expedition by ship having been delayed, he made a dash from Wakatipu up the Von River, across the Mararoa Saddle to the head of the Greenstone, accompanied by N. von Tunzelmann, and following in the steps of McKellar and Gunn. This gave hope of a negotiable pass to a West Coast harbour. In May 1863 Hector left Dunedin in a schooner-rigged yacht Matilda Hayes, calling at Bluff. He explored the Waiau Valley, and rejoined the yacht at Riverton, engaging seven Maoris to accompany the expedition which then visited Stewart Island and the fiords from Preservation Inlet to Milford Sound. Failing to find a pass in the Cleddau, Hector proceeded to the Hollyford and Lake McKerrow. Leaving the yacht, and with two companions, he pushed up the Hollyford and Passburn, across to the Greenstone, and thus to Queenstown. He arrived at Dunedin on 7 October, where his reported discoveries (to some extent anticipated by Alabaster and Caples) were received with public enthusiasm. He rejoined the yacht by the same route and returned to Dunedin in January 1864.

During the heroic phase of his life, Hector was shy and self-conscious, “averse to premature conclusions only partly unfolded”, and his reports on the Otago survey are but brief commentary on the achievement represented by his unpublished geological map. In 1864 he was commissioned to tour the colony to prepare for the New Zealand Industrial Exhibition (Dunedin, 1865), and his success in this task marked a turning point in his career. When the seat of Government moved to Wellington, the Premier, F. A. Weld, late in 1864, established a Geological Survey for the whole of New Zealand and appointed Hector to be Director when his Otago engagement ended. In Wellington, Hector established his Geological Survey (including John Buchanan, botanist and artist; W. Skey, chemist; and R. B. Gore, meteorological assistant) in the Colonial Museum, which was founded as its headquarters, and included the Colonial Laboratory and, later, an observatory. In 1867 the New Zealand Institute Act set up an institute for the advancement of science and art, to which the Colonial Museum and Laboratory were transferred. Hector became Director of the Colonial Museum and Geological Survey and Manager of the Institute, and was recognised as the adviser of the Government on scientific matters of all kinds. The Geological Survey employed some outstanding officers, including Hutton, Cox, McKay, and Park, whose contributions to geology formed an annual volume, Reports of Geological Explorations, with a preface by Hector. The Colonial Museum issued catalogues and manuals of New Zealand plants and animals, and its annual report also dealt with the Colonial Botanic Gardens from 1883 to 1886. The Colonial Laboratory reported on analyses and assays of minerals, ores, and soils. The observatory, forerunner of the Meteorological Office, also provided a time service. The Transactions of the New Zealand Institute, edited by Hector for 35 years, enshrine the researches of New Zealanders in many sciences. Hector acted as a commissioner for the New Zealand court in several overseas exhibitions, and compiled a Handbook of New Zealand, published in four editions (1879–86). He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1866. In 1868 he married Maria Georgiana Monro, daughter of Sir David Monro. In 1870 the Otago Provincial Government unsuccessfully sued him for alleged breach of contract. He was appointed to the first Senate of the University of New Zealand in 1871 and served as Chancellor (1885 to 1903), rendering service to higher education. In 1874 he visited England and U.S.A., was awarded the Lyell Medal by the Geological Society of London, and the Order of the Golden Cross by the German Emperor, and in the following year received the honour of C.M.G. He was created K.C.M.G. in 1887.

Despite his busy public life, Hector maintained an interest in research, and his biological investigations (what he called his “side shows”) resulted in papers on whales, fish, moas, and other birds. His chief contributions to geology are The Outline of New Zealand Geology (1886) prepared for the Indian and Colonial Exhibition, geological maps of New Zealand, papers on glaciation, fossil reptiles, and belemnites. In middle age he showed an inability to concentrate on routine work, with the result that important researches were published merely as abstracts and official reports lay for months in proof awaiting the Director's preface. His dominance in New Zealand science won him critics among his colleagues and, according to Park, his association with successive Governors earned him enemies among Liberal parliamentarians. When the Seddon Government took office (1893), the Geological Survey was transferred to the Mines Department, though Hector remained nominally Director. By the New Zealand Institute Amendment Act 1903, the Institute was reorganised as an independent organisation, and the three institutions that had grown under Hector's management were sundered. Hector retired in 1903 and visited the scenes of his early achievements in Canada in 1904. He died at Lower Hutt on 6 November 1907.

In 38 years of service to the Government, Hector laid the foundations for New Zealand national scientific institutions, including several now grouped in the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, the Meteorological Service, Dominion Museum, and Royal Society of New Zealand. He had a finger in every pie and pursued his versatile interests with energetic drive and grave sincerity, but his activities were diffused so widely that many projects were never finished. His success as a generally tolerant and accessible administrator is amply shown by the record of younger men who served under his direction.

by Charles Alexander Fleming, O.B.E., B.A., D.SC., F.R.S.N.Z., Chief Paleontologist, New Zealand Geological Survey, Lower Hutt.

  • Transactions and Proceedings of the New Zealand Institute, Vol. 54 (1923)
  • New Zealand Journal of Science and Technology, Vol. 18 (1937).


Charles Alexander Fleming, O.B.E., B.A., D.SC., F.R.S.N.Z., Chief Paleontologist, New Zealand Geological Survey, Lower Hutt.