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Story: Marwick, John

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Marwick, John


Palaeontologist, geological consultant

This biography, written by A. G. Beu, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1998.

John Marwick was born at Maheno, near Oamaru, on 3 February 1891. He was the son of Hugh Marwick, an Orkney Islander trained as a wheelwright, and his wife, Jane Cuthbert. After attending Oamaru North School from 1896 to 1903 Jack Marwick enrolled at Waitaki Boys' High School. A set of fortuitous circumstances aroused an interest in geology. Because of a shortage of chemistry laboratories the rector, J. R. Don, began geology classes, and George Uttley, a well-known enthusiast of bryozoan invertebrates, taught at the school while completing his MSc on Oamaru geology. But perhaps the most important influence was fellow pupil Aubrey Horn. According to Marwick, Horn was the first to collect shells from the nearby Target Gully shell bed as fossils rather than fowl grit. Marwick helped with this and Uttley published the results. From Horn, he learned the rudiments of molluscan classification.

From 1907 Marwick was a pupil-teacher, and studied Latin and English as an extramural student at the University of Otago. In 1910 he attended the university and Dunedin Training College. He graduated MA with first-class honours in 1912, presenting a thesis on the geology of the Waihao Basin, South Canterbury. In 1910, while at training college, he met Marion Ivy Mary Keys. They were married at Mosgiel on 29 December 1915, by which stage Jack was teaching at Pleasant Point and Ivy at Herbert, North Otago.

Marwick applied for a position as palaeontologist in the Geological Survey of New Zealand in 1915, but no appointment was made because of the war. He entered the New Zealand Medical Corps training camp in Palmerston North in January 1916, and in June arrived in Egypt. He served as a medical orderly in the New Zealand Division in Egypt, Sinai, Palestine and Jordan, winning the Military Medal, and was kept on in Egypt until 1919. Back in New Zealand, in January 1920 he enquired in Wellington about the position as palaeontologist, was accepted, and on 5 May began work as an assistant geologist in the Geological Survey.

Marwick's career was one of brilliant science combined with a genial, calm outlook on life. He was a lasting influence on all staff: a gentle, wise, but intellectually acute personality. Very early in his career he realised the lack of critical discernment and rigour in Henry Suter's work on molluscs of the Tertiary period, and utilised the research of northern hemisphere leaders in the field to recognise critical taxonomic characters in local fossils. He was to name nearly all the common fossils and many of the rarer ones at most New Zealand Tertiary localities. From the 1920s, as the sole Geological Survey palaeontologist, his research was directed towards the subdivision and correlation of the enormous basins of Tertiary rocks exposed in New Zealand. His research aided mapping geologists in their interpretation of structure, as well as facilitating projects such as the search for oil. His publications on molluscs contributed substantially to the understanding of Cenozoic-era correlations and environments, and he continued to carry out extensive work in this field for oil companies long after his retirement.

Marwick soon realised that molluscs were inadequate for classifying the basins of thick, deep-water mudstone. He realised New Zealand needed to adopt the technique used by oil companies overseas of correlating strata by studying the kinds of foraminifera (microscopic protozoans known as 'forams') they contained. He convinced Harold Finlay to work on forams rather than the molluscs in which he had previously been interested. For 15 years from 1937 they were colleagues in the Geological Survey. In 1940 and 1947 the incisiveness and brilliance of Finlay's foram work was combined with Marwick's steady, wise influence and wide knowledge of stratigraphy and molluscs to produce a local subdivision scheme of Cenozoic rocks that has persisted almost unmodified to the present day.

In 1945 Marwick decided not to apply for the vacant directorship of the Geological Survey, leaving it to a former schoolfriend, Montague Ongley. He took early retirement in 1952, but continued working from home in perhaps the most productive period of his career. He reported on many collections for oil companies and completed long-delayed research projects on turritellid gastropods and regional faunal studies. His record of nine palaeontological bulletins (one jointly with Finlay) stands unique. He also made major contributions to Mesozoic palaeontology, and to stratigraphy, geomorphology and volcanology. However, his bibliography of 124 publications gives little indication of his wider contributions to the scientific community through scientific committees, his editing of the Transactions and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New Zealand from 1938 to 1946, and his kind, patient guidance to students and young geologists.

Many honours came Marwick's way. He and Finlay were jointly awarded the Hamilton Memorial Prize and he won the Hector Memorial Medal and Prize in 1933. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand in 1935 and chaired the geology section of the Wellington Philosophical Society in 1937–38. From 1944 to 1950 he was on the council of the Royal Society and served as vice president from 1950 to 1952. He received its Hutton Memorial Medal in 1953.

John Marwick 'loved a joke and hated pomp and humbug'. He was a lifelong socialist who enjoyed a warm family life. He and Ivy brought up two sons and two daughters (all science graduates), and Ivy's death in 1974 left him desolate. He moved to live with his daughter at Havelock North, and died in Hastings Memorial Hospital on 17 August 1978.

How to cite this page:

A. G. Beu. 'Marwick, John', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1998. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/4m44/marwick-john (accessed 27 May 2024)