Page 1: Biography
Morgan, Percy Gates
Geologist, science administrator
This biography, written by R. P. Suggate, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.
Percy Gates Morgan was born on 2 September 1867 at Richmond, near Hobart, Tasmania. He was the son of Charles Hackett Morgan, a schoolmaster, and Emily Louisa Downes, who had married in New Zealand. In Tasmania the family assumed the surname of Edwards, but dropped it on returning to New Zealand about 1873. Percy received his primary education at country schools in Otago, where his father was a teacher. Scholarships took him to Otago Boys' High School from 1881 to 1884, and then to the University of Otago.
When his father returned alone to Tasmania about 1889 Percy became the mainstay of the family, which included six other sons and two daughters. Nevertheless, he gained a BA in 1890 and MA with honours in English in 1891. He then trained for a certificate in mine and land surveying under Professor G. H. F. Ulrich at the Otago School of Mines. He became an associate on his graduation from the School of Mines in 1893, then acquired practical experience in the coal industry at Green Island until 1895.
Moving to the northern goldfields, he gained his battery superintendents' certificate in 1896, and was put in charge of a gold extraction plant at Waitekauri, near Waihi. In September 1896 he became assistant lecturer at the Thames School of Mines, only to leave in mid 1897 to become first director of the new Waihi School of Mines. He remained there for nearly eight years. On 27 December 1900 he married Mary Jane (Minnie) Gilmour, daughter of a local mine manager. His younger brother, A. H. V. (John) Morgan, succeeded Percy as director of the Waihi School of Mines, and married Mary Jane's sister Emily in 1911.
In 1905 Percy Gates Morgan accepted an appointment to the New Zealand Geological Survey, then being reorganised in Wellington by J. A. M. Bell. Bell's principal programme was systematic regional geological mapping, beginning with areas of known mineral resources. Morgan was soon assisting Bell mapping in the Hokitika area on the West Coast of the South Island. There he was to make his mark as a recorder and interpreter of geology and topography in some of the roughest country in New Zealand.
When Bell resigned in 1911 Morgan succeeded him as director. At that time the Geological Survey was part of the Mines Department, and in July 1916 Morgan took on the additional duties of under-secretary of mines. The administrative load was, however, too great and at his own request he was relieved of this position in October 1917.
As director of the Geological Survey Morgan endeavoured to enhance its status as an essential national institution. Systematic regional geological mapping was combined with examination of the geology of mineral deposits. Recognising the need for better knowledge of the ages of New Zealand sedimentary rocks, Morgan appointed J. A. Thomson as the Survey's first palaeontologist, although he also needed Thomson for his other skills, notably in petrology. After lean years during the First World War, Morgan was able to employ some extra field staff, who had to be 'prepared to work long hours, to endure cold and heat and wet and hunger, and at times risk life and limb (though not without consideration of the advantage to be gained)'. After the war Morgan succeeded in his ambition to improve the Survey's library.
Duties in Wellington prevented Morgan from taking part in regional mapping, but he personally made innumerable examinations of economic deposits throughout New Zealand and thus avoided diverting field staff from the crucial mapping programme. In 1926 he assigned H. T. Ferrar, who had earlier used knowledge of soils to assist geological mapping in Northland, to make a systematic soil survey of Central Otago. This important new endeavour foreshadowed the establishment of the Soil Bureau of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, of which another of Morgan's field geologists, L. I. Grange, became the first director. In 1926, when the Survey became one of the founding institutions of the newly established DSIR, it was a small but well-integrated organisation able to benefit from, and contribute to, the new developments in New Zealand science.
Morgan's most important publications were on areas of mineral potential in north Westland, the coalfields of Greymouth and Buller, and the Waihi goldfield. He made other valuable contributions in economic geology on coal, limestone and phosphate resources, and on mineral occurrences in general. In addition, he published on stratigraphic subdivision (particularly of late Cretaceous and Tertiary rocks), on the Quaternary sequence, and on aspects of geological structure (contributing, for example, to understanding of what is now known as the Alpine Fault).
Morgan's published writing was precise, showing the benefits of successive revisions. He expected a similar standard from his staff, whose work he personally edited. To meet publication schedules he regularly spent five nights a week at his office. Slightly over average height and of solid build, 'PG' had been a rugby forward at Otago University. He was kindly and reserved and these traits, coupled with a strong personality and definite ideas, made him highly respected by his staff, although somewhat difficult to approach.
Morgan was an active member of the Australasian Institute of Mining Engineers, the Wellington Philosophical Society, and other scientific organisations in New Zealand and overseas. He was elected fellow of the Geological Society of London in 1913 and of the New Zealand Institute in 1922.
Percy Gates Morgan remained director of the Geological Survey until his death at Wellington from a heart attack on 26 November 1927. He was survived by his wife and four daughters. One of his early appointees to the Survey, John Henderson, succeeded him. His was a life dedicated to both public service and scientific enquiry, fully in accord with the needs and aspirations of his time.