KIRK, Harry Borrer
Biologist and teacher.
A new biography of Biography appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.
Kirk was born on 9 March 1859 in Coventry, the third son of the botanist, Thomas Kirk, who brought his family to New Zealand in 1863. He was educated at Auckland College and Grammar School, and at Wellington College (where his father had been appointed lecturer in natural science in 1873, the college being then affiliated to the University of New Zealand). After taking his M.A. in 1883, with honours in botany and zoology, Kirk spent the next 20 years as assistant inspector of Maori schools. Travelling widely in the course of his duties, he was able to collect plants and animals, both for his father's and his own studies. During this period he published four important papers on the New Zealand spongefauna, as well as other contributions, all of them in the Transactions of the N.Z. Institute. In 1885 he married Nancy Lamont, of Dunedin; they had two daughters, Ethelwyn and Gwyneth.
In 1903 Kirk was appointed to the newly established chair of biology at the (then) Victoria University College, Wellington, where he rapidly proved himself to be an outstanding teacher. When his task ended with his retirement, in 1943, his successors inherited two large and active departments (of botany and of zoology) which Kirk had nurtured from their first humble beginnings. Over the same period Kirk contributed more than a score of research papers on Hydrozoa, Cephalopoda, vertebrate anatomy, zoological techniques, control of house flies, growth of trees, starch in timber, embryology, etc. This diversity of interests was typical, and characterised his teaching. He also served on the Senate and the Academic Board of the University of New Zealand, was for many years chairman of the Board of Management of the Dominion Museum, and was one of the original fellows of the Royal Society of New Zealand.
Kirk's self-effacing devotion to his work and his picturesque appearance (in later years enhanced by a shock of silver hair) were sufficient to make him a notable professorial figure; but what was more significant was the genius of the man, his outstanding personality, which made him not only a brilliant teacher, but a trusted – indeed revered – counsellor among his students. Merely to have known him was sufficient to be inspired by his ideals. His former students found ways to honour him during his lifetime, but it was the letters they sent him from all parts of the globe, to his last days, which best revealed the influence Kirk exercised on two generations of New Zealand scientists. At the present Victoria University of Wellington his memory is kept alive in other ways, by a Kirk Prize (in biological sciences), a Kirk Cup (for faculty rugby), and a fine bronze portrait plaque by Margaret Butler, subscribed for by his former students in 1940.
A classical background brought to his classes a Latin wit, making them something quite out of the ordinary. He gave up his weekends and evenings to part-time as well as to his fulltime students, who were inspired to work at all hours at research. These evening sessions were enlivened by anecdotes of older New Zealand naturalists whom he had known, and whose memory he could clothe with flesh and blood. Excessively modest, he seldom referred either to his father's or his own work. With the ingenuity of the pioneer, he could contrive complicated apparatus from such unlikely materials as plasticine, hose pipes, and string. Like Parker, he was entirely convinced that the Huxleyan “type-system” was the best method of instruction, basing his lectures and laboratory work on a limited series of representative species, from which generalisations were subsequently drawn. Whatever the limitations of the method – and they are many – the subsequent successes of his students in New Zealand and abroad demonstrated that his teaching was sound. Kirk's pedagogic principles were simple and practical – to train young minds to think independently, irrespective of what the textbooks stated, and to learn where to find information when required. Therein lay his genius, which was infinitely enhanced by his capacity for moderating a rigid mental discipline by that extra element which won the affection of his students. In Kirk's presence, science became an adventure into the unknown.
Kirk died at Hamilton on 15 July 1948.
by Howard Barraclough Fell, M.SC.(N.Z.), PH.D., D.SC.(EDIN.), F.R.S.N.Z., Associate Professor of Zoology, Victoria University of Wellington.
- Victoria University College, Beaglehole, J. C. (1949)
- New Zealand Science Review, Vol. 6, No. 2 (1948)
- Transactions of the Royal Society of New Zealand, Vol. 77 (1949).