Page 1: Biography
Cook, Charles Henry Herbert
This biography, written by W. J. Gardner, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1993.
Charles Henry Herbert Cook was born in Kentish Town, Middlesex, England, on 30 September 1843, the son of Mary Roots and her husband, Charles Cook, a tailor. His parents emigrated to Melbourne, Australia, where Cook received his schooling. He entered the University of Melbourne in 1863, graduating BA in 1866 and LLB in 1868. Cook was recommended for two exhibitions, but could accept only one. From 1865 to 1868 he held the position of assistant university librarian. Cook entered St John's College, Cambridge, in 1868 in order to qualify for the English Bar. He was placed sixth wrangler in the mathematical tripos of 1872, was a foundation scholar of St John's, and was elected a fellow of the college in 1874.
In 1874, one year before he was due to be called to the Bar, Cook was appointed to the chair of mathematics and natural philosophy at the newly founded Canterbury College in Christchurch, New Zealand. University education in New Zealand was then in its infancy. After he took up his position in 1875 it was the task of Cook, and his fellow founding professors, John Macmillan Brown and Alexander Bickerton, to establish the new college on a sound footing. They made common cause with their Otago colleagues to raise the low standard of the University of New Zealand's BA degree. Cook and G. S. Sale, professor of Classics at the University of Otago, were the main architects of what became known as the 'Sale–Cook' degree. Latin and mathematics were to be compulsory, and three other subjects were to be taken in a three-year course. The main aim of the degree was to train teachers, who were desperately needed in a raw colony. For this reason breadth rather than depth of studies was stressed, and there was little emphasis on research.
Cook realised that a sound grasp of mathematics was essential to the study of science. He had to cope with ill-prepared students, yet he insisted on high standards and much book work. Students with poor numeracy skills were a sore trial to Cook and he to them. The awkward gap was bridged by his conscientious teaching and his assistance to individual students. His gospel of work was summed up in the often-repeated admonition, 'You must put your back into it.' Students who gave unsatisfactory answers would be warned, by Cook's tossing his chalk in the air, of imminent academic failure.
By one conspicuous test of results Cook was a successful teacher: the senior scholarship in mathematics was for many years won by Canterbury College students. When Ernest Rutherford accepted the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1908, he named Cook first among his old teachers, perhaps because his mathematical training had helped instil in him the necessity of methodological rigour. On his retirement in 1908 Cook was appointed the first professor emeritus of Canterbury College. The Cook Memorial Prize in Mathematics was later founded in his memory, and former students gave money to the Charles Cook Memorial Scholarship for research in science.
Cook made a notable contribution to university administration. In 1875 he was involved in the revision of the New Zealand University Act and he was a member of the royal commission on higher education from December 1878 to April 1880. He was a member of the senate of the University of New Zealand from 1884 to 1908, and was an advocate of the higher education of women. Cook also superintended the foundation of Canterbury College's department of engineering from 1887 to 1889.
A lover of music and prominent in the cultural life of Christchurch, Cook did much to promote both the Christchurch Musical Union and the Canterbury Society of Arts. He gave long service to the Anglican church as a member of the cathedral chapter and choir, and as a fellow of Christ's College, Canterbury, from 1891 to 1908.
Charles Cook played a vital role in the establishment of university education in Christchurch. Macmillan Brown and Bickerton have overshadowed him in the traditions of Canterbury College, yet Cook's more solid gifts were needed to complement the academic brilliance of the former and the flamboyance of the latter. His broad, impassive face concealed a kindly nature and lively sense of humour. Cook had married Emily Denman Peacock in Melbourne on 2 December 1876. He died while on a visit to Marton on 21 May 1910, and was survivied by his wife, three daughters and two sons.