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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.


HOLLOWAY, Rev. John Ernest

D.SC., F.R.S. (1881–1945).

Botanist, churchman, university teacher.

A new biography of Holloway, John Ernest appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.

John Ernest Holloway, the son of John Holloway, bank manager, and Anna, née Thorpe, was born on 12 February 1881 at Christchurch and was brought up in Nelson, attending the Bishop's School (1891–95) and Nelson College (1896–1900). He shared his father's interests in the Anglican Church and in natural history and microscopy and, while a resident scholar at St. John's Theological College, attended Auckland University College. He graduated B.Sc. in 1904 and M.Sc. with a thesis on Lycopodium in 1905, working under A. W. P. Thomas. With a diploma of L.Th., he was ordained deacon in 1907 and priest in 1908 and held curacies in Hawera (1907–08) and Wanganui (1909). In 1909 he married Margaret Brenda North, daughter of the Rector of Wentnor, Shropshire. From 1909 to 1911 he worked in England, partly in slum parishes in London, but mostly as curate at Barnsley, Yorkshire. Spare time study of the rich carboniferous flora of the South Yorkshire coalfields deepened and widened his interest in the groups related to Lycopodium and he made a remarkable collection of fossils from the “coal-balls”. With typical modesty he did nothing to bring himself to the notice of British botanists.

On his return to New Zealand he was appointed Vicar at Oxford, where for three years he was near enough to Christchurch to derive encouragement from Leonard Cockayne and Charles Chilton and to use, at times, the laboratory at Canterbury University College. His first paper on Lycopodium had been published in 1909 and he now pushed ahead with an investigation of all 11 New Zealand species, including their prothallial stages. After his transfer to Hokitika, where he was vicar from 1916 to 1921, this work continued and was extended to the genus Tmesipteris, for which, by 1921, he had provided “a wonderfully complete account of the embryogeny”, an entirely new contribution to knowledge of the Psilotaceae. In Westland also, urged on by Cockayne, he studied filmy ferns, abundantly represented in the rain forest there. Parochial work involved many long journeys by motor cycle and he came to know the extensive flora of Westland intimately. The search for material, especially the small and partly buried prothalli, meant strenuous and exacting field work, and certain laboratory studies could be made only at Canterbury College during hurried mid-week visits between Sunday services. Recognition came with the award of D.Sc. in 1919, the Hutton Memorial Medal in 1920, and fellowship of the New Zealand Institute in 1921, but the double demands of parish and botany had exhausted his rather slight strength. He had to rest for some months before being appointed vicar at Leeston in Canterbury, where for two years he was again near to Dr Chilton's laboratory.

In 1924 Holloway became lecturer in charge of the botanical department of the University of Otago, but he continued to conduct services in Dunedin, often in the cathedral. The “one-room, one-man” botany department, with small numbers of students, produced a series of good investigations, many of them reaching publication, but conscientious teaching and direction of research meant that his own studies progressed only slowly. Cultures of filmy fern prothalli were tended for up to 10 years before they and the young sporo-phytes were described. Two most important works belong to this period: in Phylloglossum he published the first figures of the prothallus and antheridia, and he showed also that the facts established for Tmesipteris held for Psilotum; later American studies on more numerous specimens growing spontaneously in greenhouses have amply confirmed his results. He was awarded the Hector Memorial Medal and Prize in 1930, and was president of the Royal Society of New Zealand in 1939–40. “His election to the Fellowship of the Royal Society in 1937 was the appropriate recognition of the original work that had entered into the fabric of morphological botany”.

Teaching at Otago was interrupted by a trip to England in 1939, via the United States, South Africa, and Australia, with brief meetings with many famous botanists. In 1944 he lost his wife, whose help had made possible his continuous research. His own failing health forced him to retire in 1944 and he died in Timaru on 6 September 1945. His family consisted of three daughters and two sons.

Dr Holloway's personal influence was widely spread by reason of his parish and teaching activities, and many stories testify to his ability to generate affection wherever he went. His students were devoted to him and a number became professional botanists, including his son, John Thorpe Holloway, of the New Zealand Forest Service.

Holloway's fame will always rest on his work on the Pteridophyta. He used New Zealand plants, especially those of groups less well represented in older countries. He began with the plants in their natural habitats and displayed extraordinary skill and patience in locating, collecting, and growing the minute prothalli that were the basis of his most spectacular successes. His technique with notoriously minimal equipment yielded preparations that have been permanently preserved at Glasgow University as evidence of his discoveries. Rigorously interpreted, his results were reported against a world-wide background of evolutionary processes and theories. W. H. Lang wrote of his two papers on Tmesipteris: “They are classics in the importance and novelty of their subject matter; in the meticulous care with which each point is demonstrated and the complete reliability of the presentation of the results, and in the concise and adequate comparisons made with other plants, recent and extinct”. The same writer completes his review of Holloway's researches by saying: “Some of his work filled the last gap left in the comparative story of the life-histories of the Vascular Cryptogams, the main lines of which had been laid down in the middle of last century by a busy Leipzig bookseller (Hofmeister) working as an amateur botanist in his ‘spare time’… There are other parallels between them. Both were above all discoverers of new facts and described them so clearly and convincingly as to make it hardly necessary to discuss them at length. Holloway's work on the Vascular Cryptogams, though more limited in scope, has the same marks of permanence as that of his great predecessor”.

by Lucy Beatrice Moore, M.SC., Botany Division, Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, Lincoln.

  • Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society, Vol. 5 (1947) (with bibliography), Transactions and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New Zealand, Vol. 76 (1946) (Obit)
  • Cawthron Lecture 1936 – Links in the New Zealand Flora With the Remote Past, Holloway, J. E. (1937).


Lucy Beatrice Moore, M.SC., Botany Division, Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, Lincoln.