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HILGENDORF, Frederick William
Teacher and scientist.
A new biography of Hilgendorf, Frederick William appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.
Frederick William Hilgendorf was the fourth and youngest child of Karl Augustus Gustavus Hilgendorf who was born at Küstrin near Berlin in 1834, the eldest of the four sons of Johann Martin Hilgendorf, a merchant, and his wife, Henriette Adolphine Emile (born Michaelis). Their third son, Franz, became curator of the Natural History Museum in Berlin. After some years as a seaman and a brief period on the goldfields in Victoria, Karl Augustus Hilgendorf came to Otago in 1860 as a labourer for the contractor building the main south road from Taieri Ferry to Milton. He opened a store at Waihola, engaged in contracting work himself and, later, in gold-mine management at Waipori. In 1863 he married Elizabeth Benstead, born in 1835, the daughter of a London linen merchant, who had come to Dunedin in 1862 as assistant to a Mrs Alpeny in charge of a batch of immigrant girls from England, and who remained as governess to a family at Waihola Gorge. Frederick William, born on 23 January 1874, was the youngest of their four children. Seldom in affluent circumstances, the parents had a struggle at times in bringing up their family, but education was never neglected. They eventually retired to Waihola, Otago, where both died and were buried, the mother in 1906, the father in 1913.
Frederick William Hilgendorf was educated at Waihola and Dunedin primary schools, at Otago Boys' High School (1888–90), at Teachers' Training College (1891–92), and at Otago University where he graduated B.A. in 1895 and M.A. with first class honours in biology in 1896. Later, at the Auckland University College, he completed studies for the degree of B.Sc. (1898) and in 1905 he successfully presented a thesis for a doctorate in science. Hilgendorf's first experience of teaching was at the Taieri Beach Primary School in 1896; and then, after two years as mathematics and science master at Prince Albert College, a private school in Auckland, he was appointed in 1899 to a residential lectureship in natural science at the Canterbury Agricultural College. Here, except for the year 1903 when he was science master at the Southland High School, he spent the rest of his teaching career as lecturer, professor (1930), and finally as acting director till his retirement in 1936.
Hilgendorf was a born naturalist. As a boy he explored the hills and coastline of Dunedin, partly for the joy of tramping, partly for collecting birds' eggs and other specimens. As a student of the late Professor T. Jeffery Parker, he revealed a flair for natural science; his thesis for M.A. was on marine organisms and for his D.Sc., an unpublished paper on rotifers, collected by himself and numerous correspondents, in the ponds, streams, and lakes of southern New Zealand. The same restlessness of body and spirit was manifested throughout his life in his travels with students and friends up the river valleys and into the mountains of the South Island, which he traversed at various points, and in his inquisitive attitude to a wide range of natural phenomena. These inquiries ranged from the flow of artesian wells to the flight of bees, from insect pests to geomorphology, and from the theory of Gregor Mendel to that of probable error in field experiments. He was unusually versatile in his accomplishments even for a New Zealander accustomed to turn his hand to various tasks. He was a strong swimmer. In his year at Invercargill he spent two evenings a week firing a steam boiler to get his engine driver's certificate, and on his return to the Lincoln staff he took charge of the traction engine and threshing plant. At Invercargill he also lectured to teachers on astronomy and to farmers on agricultural chemistry.
Hilgendorf's service to Canterbury Agricultural College was distinguished by his skill as a teacher and lecturer, and by the pioneer work that led to the establishment of the Wheat Research Institute. He was by far the most successful of the early teachers, adapting his methods and material to the interests and capacities of students who came, no doubt, with a desire to acquire the art of farming but with little or no preparation in the basic sciences. He was equally successful as a public lecturer – lucid and logical, with a sense of humour and a nice judgment of the capacity of his audience. His field demonstrations and expositions were brilliant. His observations in the field led to the sorting out and propagation of large numbers of strains of grasses, especially of rye grass and cocksfoot, and in later years he completed a survey and map of the grasslands of the South Island – the first in New Zealand. He also made single plant selections among commercial varieties of wheat and oats from which were produced varieties that became widely distributed, such as College Hunters and College Algerians. Following a visit to Britain in 1922, whence he brought the variety White Fife, he began crossing this wheat with local sorts. One of the products – Cross 7 – became very important though later superseded. This work, and the propaganda of enthusiastic supporters, led to the establishment of the Wheat Research Institute in 1927. Hilgendorf became the first Director and remained so till his death.
Hilgendorf's researches, like his intellectual and other interests, were spread widely rather than pursued deeply. Hilgendorf undoubtedly opened up many avenues of inquiry, as was to be expected having regard to the times and the circumstances of his employment, but it is mainly on the brilliance of his exposition and on his ability to interest and inspire that his fame rests.
In 1903 Hilgendorf married Frances Elizabeth, daughter of F. C. Murray, of Lincoln, Canterbury. They had two sons. Mrs Hilgendorf died in 1930. Hilgendorf died suddenly on a visit to Wellington on 23 September 1943.
by Leonard John Wild, C.B.E., M.A., B.SC.(HON.), D.SC., formerly Pro-Chancellor of the University of New Zealand, Otaki.
- Transactions and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New Zealand, Vol. 73 (1944), Obit and Bibliography.