Story: Easterfield, Thomas Hill

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Easterfield, Thomas Hill


Chemist, university professor

This biography, written by Brian R. Davis, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.

Thomas Hill Easterfield was born on 4 March 1866 in Doncaster, Yorkshire, England, the son of Susan Hill and her husband, Edward Easterfield, secretary and later manager of the local branch of the Yorkshire Savings Bank. He entered Doncaster Grammar School and during his time there won prizes in Classics, divinity, French, German and science. In 1881 he won a scholarship to Yorkshire College, Leeds, where he studied geology, physics and chemistry. While there he published two papers: one on photography, the other geological. In later years he looked back on this time with much fondness, but recalled the college's very primitive accommodation. From Leeds he gained an entrance scholarship to the University of Cambridge, entering Clare College as a senior foundation scholar. In 1886 he was awarded a first-class degree in the natural science tripos. He was a notable middle-distance runner, representing the university in the mile and three-mile events and gaining a blue.

From Cambridge Easterfield went to Zurich, to the federal polytechnic and the University of Zurich, and thence to work with the famous organic chemist Emil Fischer at Würzburg. At Fischer's suggestion he undertook studies of two topics: one relating to the structure of sugars and the other to the three-dimensional structure of carbon compounds. He also began work on the chemistry of citrazinic acid, for which he was awarded his PhD in 1894. During his time there he met Anna Maria Kunigunda Büchel, whom he married in Würzburg on 1 September 1894.

In 1888 Easterfield returned to Cambridge as a demonstrator in the chemical laboratory, became university extension lecturer and was, for a while, part-time science master at Perse Grammar School in Cambridge. He gained valuable experience in lecturing to lay audiences and in designing experiments using simple materials. From 1894 to 1898 he had charge of classes in the chemistry of sanitary science, in pharmaceutical chemistry and in physics. His researches covered various topics in organic chemistry and in natural products chemistry, particularly the components of Indian hemp resin ( Cannabis sativa ).

Easterfield was appointed to the foundation chair of chemistry and physics at Victoria College, New Zealand, in 1899. He arrived in Wellington on the Kaikoura on 1 April, accompanied by his wife and two daughters; there were to be two further daughters and a son. In his inaugural lecture, 'Research as the prime factor in scientific education', Easterfield enunciated a philosophy that he was to develop over the years. He believed that after a relatively brief initial training a student of science should begin an original investigation and be introduced to the primary scientific literature. He emphasised that pure research often had important unexpected commercial benefits.

Victoria College did not have a permanent home until 1906, and Easterfield's teaching began in makeshift premises at the Wellington Technical School using improvised equipment. Despite these primitive surroundings he began research on the chemical constituents of New Zealand plants, starting with the tutu ( Coriaria species). Working with B. C. Aston, a chemist with the Department of Agriculture, he isolated and purified the poisonous component, tutin, and reported on this in July 1900. This collaboration continued with studies of karaka ( Corynocarpus laevigatus ) and rimu resin. Easterfield worked on other topics in the chemistry of plant extractives and in physical chemistry.

With the appointment of T. H. Laby as professor of physics in 1909, Easterfield was able to concentrate solely on chemistry. In these years he inspired a group of young research students, most notably his eventual successor, P. W. Robertson. As a lecturer, likewise, he challenged his students, who were made to feel that a new aspect of civilisation was being explained to them.

In 1913 Easterfield was the second recipient of the New Zealand Institute's Hector Memorial Medal and Prize, in recognition of his scientific work. During his time at Victoria he published many papers reporting original research in the journals of the Chemical Society, London, and the New Zealand Institute. In this respect he was the most productive of New Zealand's chemistry professors at that time. He took a full part in college administration and in student affairs, and in the work of the university reform movement, acting as honorary treasurer in 1910. Despite the wartime hysteria surrounding Victoria's Professor George von Zedlitz, Easterfield's German-born wife does not appear to have aroused public concern.

In 1915 Thomas Cawthron died, leaving £240,000 for the establishment of a technical school, institute and museum in Nelson. Easterfield was a member of the establishment advisory committee, and in 1919 was appointed the first director of the Cawthron Institute. On his departure, Victoria appointed him professor emeritus, the first to be so recognised. As director he had the task of establishing the first privately endowed research institute in the southern hemisphere. This he did most successfully, giving the institute an international reputation, chiefly in agricultural science. Easterfield published a small number of research papers focusing on soil chemistry and animal husbandry. As he had done at Victoria, he trained and inspired a group of scientists, one of whom, Theodore Rigg, succeeded him when he retired from the directorship in 1933. Thereafter he retained a strong interest in chemistry as an honorary research chemist of the institute.

Thomas Easterfield took a leading part in the organisation and administration of scientific affairs. He was a member of the Wellington Philosophical Society and its president in 1903–4. He was also a member of the New Zealand Institute (later the Royal Society of New Zealand), was one of its 20 original fellows in 1919, and was president in 1921–22. Easterfield was keenly interested in the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science and was president of its chemical section at the 1909 meeting. He was a life member of the Royal Institute of Chemistry, London, and a founding member and president (1933–34) of the New Zealand Institute of Chemistry. Actively involved with the Nelson Institute, he served as president for several years.

Outside science, Easterfield had many other interests. He was a member of the Rotary clubs of Wellington and Nelson and of the Wellington Savage Club, a trustee of the Suter Art Society, and president of the Nelson Harmonic Society. An Anglican, he was a member of the Synod of the Diocese of Nelson and represented the diocese in the General Synod. He was awarded a King George V Silver Jubilee Medal in 1935 and appointed a KBE in 1938. The New Zealand branch of the Royal Institute of Chemistry established the Easterfield Medal in his honour, and Victoria University's chemistry building was named for him in 1958.

Thomas Easterfield died in Nelson on 1 March 1949, survived by his wife and children. Easterfield had made an outstanding contribution to science in New Zealand. Remembered for his high spirits and cheerfulness, he set high standards in the training of students and in the conduct of chemical research. He established two notable institutions in Victoria's chemistry department and the Cawthron Institute. It was his vision, sound judgement and enthusiasm for scientific research that brought the institute to the international position it was to hold at his retirement.

How to cite this page:

Brian R. Davis. 'Easterfield, Thomas Hill', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1996. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 18 February 2019)