Thomas Frederick Cheeseman was born in Hull, Yorkshire, England, on 8 June 1845, one of five children of Eliza Cawkwell and her husband, Thomas Cheeseman, a Methodist minister. The family emigrated to Auckland, New Zealand, arriving in April 1854. Thomas Cheeseman senior became involved in public affairs and was elected to the Auckland Provincial Council. Thomas junior was educated at the Church of England Grammar School in Parnell, then at St John's College, Tāmaki. At school he began collecting and studying native plants and read J. D. Hooker's recently published Handbook of the New Zealand flora. Because university training was then unavailable in Auckland Thomas Cheeseman educated himself, and by the time Auckland University College opened in 1883 he was already a recognised botanist.
In 1867 Cheeseman sent a native orchid to Sir Joseph Hooker at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, for identification; Hooker named the species Corysanthes cheesemanii. This was the first of many New Zealand plant species, discovered by Cheeseman, to be named after him by fellow botanists. Cheeseman continued to correspond with Hooker, who passed on his observations about orchids to Charles Darwin. Darwin later attributed the description of the unique pollination system of the native orchid Pterostylis to Cheeseman in a revised edition of his book The various contrivances by which orchids are fertilised by insects. Cheeseman's first publication was a paper on the botany of the Titirangi district, which appeared in the Transactions and Proceedings of the New Zealand Institute in 1872. Subsequently he published over 60 botanical papers, often containing detailed descriptions of new species.
Cheeseman was appointed secretary of the Auckland Institute and curator of the museum in 1874. At that time the museum was housed in the old post office building, but a new museum in Princes Street was planned and officially opened in 1876. Although he had few resources – there were never more than three staff members – Cheeseman developed museum collections of high quality. As well as maintaining natural history collections he saw the need to preserve and exhibit early Māori woodcarvings, tools, weapons and greenstone ornaments.
Cheeseman had a reputation for patience in dealing with enquiries from young and old and he was a skilled teacher. In 1879 he taught botany and zoology to boys from the Church of England Grammar School in Parnell, taking them on expeditions to the Auckland Domain ponds and Hobson Bay. Photographs show that he was fully bearded, bald headed, with a kindly face and a twinkle in his eye.
During his early days at the museum Cheeseman rode his horse to work, and also made botanical excursions on horseback. With his friend and fellow-botanist James Adams he obtained notable collections from the North Cape area, and also from the Nelson and Mt Cook mountain districts. In 1887 Cheeseman accompanied a government expedition to annex the Kermadec Islands, with the object of reporting on the flora and fauna. On the return voyage the ship called briefly at the Three Kings Islands; Cheeseman was probably the first New Zealand botanist to set foot there.
On 18 November 1889 at the Registrar's Office in Auckland Thomas Frederick Cheeseman married Rosetta Keesing, the daughter of a prominent Auckland Jewish family. Shortly after his marriage Cheeseman visited the Three Kings again with his wife, who helped to collect specimens. In 1899 they visited Rarotonga. As a result of this expedition, Cheeseman's The flora of Rarotonga, the chief island of the Cook group was published by the Linnean Society of London in 1903. At the request of the New Zealand government in 1900, Cheeseman began his magnum opus, Manual of the New Zealand flora, which was first published in 1906. In 1914 he edited the two-volume work Illustrations of the New Zealand flora. Cheeseman also published important papers on subantarctic flora.
While much of his attention after 1900 was given to botanical writing, Cheeseman was also concerned about the crowded conditions at the museum. In spite of two additions, the Princes Street building was still considered inadequate for a city the size of Auckland. In 1913 Cheeseman supported the museum council in their bid for government aid to build a new museum in the Auckland domain. Not until 1920 was a lease obtained for this site and Cheeseman then recommended that the museum be built as a war memorial. Sadly, he did not live to see the fulfilment of his plans. The Auckland War Memorial Museum was not opened until 1929 and Cheeseman died, after a heart attack, on 15 October 1923 at his Remuera home. He had directed the affairs of the Auckland Institute and Museum for nearly 50 years. His wife, a son and a daughter survived him.
During his lifetime Cheeseman was elected fellow of the Linnean Society of London and of the Zoological Society of London and was a corresponding member of the Botanical Society of Edinburgh. He was president of the New Zealand Institute in 1911 and later became a fellow. In 1918 he was awarded the Hector Memorial Medal and Prize and in 1923 received the prestigious gold medal of the Linnean Society.
Cheeseman bequeathed his herbarium and related papers to the museum. The oldest specimen in the collection is labelled May 1868 and the first field notebook is dated 1869. The Cheeseman Herbarium of more than 10,000 dried specimens is a lasting memorial to an influential botanist whose name is honoured by all interested in New Zealand plants.