PARKER, Thomas Jeffery, F.R.S.
A new biography of Parker, Thomas Jeffery appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.
Thomas Jeffery Parker was born on 17 October 1850, in London, the eldest son of Professor William Kitchen Parker, a noted zoologist and naturalist. The family background was cultural and intellectual, for the father's interests naturally brought the children into direct contact with movements which ultimately led to the establishment of many younger universities throughout the British world. Both he and his younger brother, William Newton Parker, became zoologists and university professors, though his earlier inclination seems to have been towards the field of literature and art. The family ties remained close, even after the brothers were separated by half the world, and it is significant that Parker's first published work was undertaken in collaboration with his father, whilst at the time of his death he was engaged upon a joint book with his brother, who was then professor of zoology at Cardiff.
Parker was educated at Clarendon House School, in London, at the Royal College of Chemistry, and the Royal School of Mines. Here he came under the influence of Thomas Henry Huxley, whose exposition of the “type-method” and the evolution theory made an indelible imprint upon his subsequent outlook. Recognising Parker's unusual talents, Huxley in 1872 invited him to accept the position of demonstrator to his classes at the institution which subsequently was to become the Royal College of Science. During this period, which Parker afterwards regarded as the most significant in his life, he developed his special skills as a teacher, and also collaborated with Huxley in his work on the crayfish.
In 1880 Parker was appointed to the chair of biology at the young University of Otago. For the next 17 years (ending with his untimely death) he was to bring great distinction to his university and to the country of his adoption, partly through his researches, but mainly through the media of a notable series of textbooks which remain standard references after 60 years, and are still widely used in the universities of the world. The first of these was Instruction in Zootomy, published three years after his arrival in New Zealand, though conceived during his apprenticeship with Huxley. It is regarded as the first such work specifically directed towards the laboratory teaching of zoology. This manual was widely used and ran through several editions, including a German translation. When H. B. Kirk established the Biology Department at the future Victoria University of Wellington he introduced Parker's system of instruction, and in later years liked to recall that he had received his own copy of the manual from Parker's hands.
In 1892 Parker began collaborating with a former colleague, W. A. Haswell, by then Challis Professor of Zoology at Sydney, in writing their famous Text-book of Zoology. The task involved five years of laborious correspondence, since the publishers were in London and the authors had no direct contact. Immediately after its publication, in 1897, universities throughout the world recognised what was – for those days – an achievement far in advance of its predecessors. Another colleague (in Britain) was afterwards to record “…the original plan of this beautifully illustrated book …”, and the clarity of the well-balanced descriptions placed it in the front rank of texts, not only in English-speaking countries, but also in Europe. The book, after 60 years, is still prescribed reading in many leading universities.
A lesser work, Lessons in Elementary Biology, had appeared in 1891 and had several editions in English and German. Apart from these, Parker interested himself in museum work (he was curator of the Otago Museum) and developed a method of demonstrating cartilaginous skeletons. He also contributed numerous papers to technical journals.
Parker did not live to see the publication of the Text-book, for although he had passed the final proofs, he died before the first dispatch reached New Zealand. Two severe illnesses in 1895 and 1897 had left him frail, and his last years had been saddened by the death of his wife. Whilst on the way to Shag Valley for a holiday, with his three young sons and his sister, he suffered a sudden relapse, and died on 7 November 1897 at Warrington, where he was buried.
Parker's unassuming manner and his artistic and musical talents endeared him to a wide circle of friends, and he was popular with his students and colleagues. He took part in the social life of Dunedin in the eighties and nineties, serving as president of the Savage Club as well as of the Otago branch of the (then) New Zealand Institute. His tastes were catholic, but discriminating; his acquaintances were drawn from many walks of life. Overseas honours came his way; he was elected F.R.S. in 1888, and F.L.S. shortly before his death; he also held foreign memberships in learned societies in Russia and elsewhere. His early death was widely recognised as a severe loss to science, but on the other hand his achievement far exceeded that of most of his contemporaries in the young colony, and his name remains a byword for meticulous and lucid presentation of anatomical data. He was a competent systematist, as many important papers witness, yet in after years the type-system which he so stoutly championed was to be blamed for the decay of systematic studies in the universities. In New Zealand at present there is a strong revival of interest in systematic zoology, with a consequent partial eclipse of the “type-system” of teaching, but few would deny that the good points of Parker's method can be combined with a broad systematic approach, provided that sufficient time be devoted to the laboratory study of zoology.
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.
- Transactions and Proceedings of the New Zealand Institute, Vol. 30, 1897 (Obit)
- Otago Daily Times, 8 Nov 1897 (Obit).