Page 1: Biography
Druce, Anthony Peter
This biography, written by Kate Jordan, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2022.
Tony Druce was New Zealand’s pre-eminent twentieth-century field botanist. Over his lifetime he built up an extensive knowledge of New Zealand’s flora, through his many tramping trips, close observation of plants and their environments, and a remarkable memory. His comprehensive plant lists and herbarium specimens are of immense value to those studying botany. Tony freely shared his knowledge with students, colleagues and hobbyists, inspiring a generation of passionate botanists.
Anthony (Tony) Peter Druce was born on 18 June 1920 on the family farm in Kumeroa, 14 kilometres east of Woodville. He was the elder of Oscar Herbert Druce and Beatrice Helena Hindmarsh Bolton’s two sons. Tony boarded at Hereworth Preparatory School in Havelock North, where teacher Norman Elder introduced him to tramping and botanising, sparking in Tony a lifelong passion for both activities. After primary school, Tony attended Wanganui Collegiate School from 1933 to 1938. He was at school when his mother died suddenly in 1937.
Tony studied engineering at Canterbury University College from 1939 to 1942. He joined the university’s tramping club and led trips as a club captain, including several in tough winter conditions. Through the club he met his future wife, geography student Helen Hodgson. Helen was a fellow botanist and daughter of Dr Amy Hodgson, a world authority on liverworts.
Botany and the DSIR
After completing his Bachelor of Engineering (Civil), Tony moved to Auckland and worked on radar development as part of the war effort. He continued to develop his botanical knowledge, completing Botany I at Auckland University College. At the end of 1943, he moved to Wellington, where Helen was working at the Wallaceville Animal Research Station. Tony worked in the Dominion Laboratory of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR) as a draughtsman designing and constructing apple dehydrators.
In 1947, Tony moved to the DSIR’s Botany Division. Although he was acknowledged as someone who ‘really knew his plants’, without a formal botanical qualification he was only given a technician role.1 The Division sought to understand New Zealand’s native flora and its contribution to the nation’s economy and wellbeing. Staff could sometimes explore their interests and select their own projects, but requests from other government departments and the general public often took priority.
Tony and Helen married in Wellington on 22 December 1947 after a long courtship, and spent their honeymoon tramping in the north-west Ruahine Range. They built a house at 123 Pinehaven Road, Upper Hutt, where they raised their three children, Alison Claire (born 1949), Jean Fenella (born 1952) and Oliver John (born 1954). The section was flat at the bottom and rose steeply to the ridgeline. Tony used his engineering knowledge to construct terraces and paths, and they gradually removed the pines that covered the section. A garden flourished, with a productive vegetable garden and many native plants Tony had collected on trips.
Tony joined the Wellington Botanical Society in 1947 and soon became a prominent member. He and Helen organised many field trips throughout New Zealand, often bringing their children along. Other families joined them, and Tony made the children feel they were part of the society; many grew up with an interest in botany.
Life as a field botanist
For nearly 40 years, Tony worked and lived as a field botanist, with little separation between his professional and leisure activities. He loved to be in the mountains, and he had exceptionally good navigation and bush survival skills. He was constantly on the lookout for environments likely to produce unusual plants, such as dry banks, seepages, and protected cliffs. Fortunately, his work let him explore these interests.
In 1954 the Botany Division shifted to Lincoln, but Tony refused to move, as his family and home were established in Pinehaven. The DSIR offered him a botanical position in the Soil Bureau at the Taitā Experimental Station, where the director wanted the native vegetation documented as a baseline for future scientific studies. The resulting publication, Botanical survey of an experimental catchment, Taita, New Zealand (1957), was the most detailed study of the history and dynamics of a small catchment’s vegetation published to that time. It also outlined the succession of different plant communities, from early colonising species such as kānuka (Kunzea sp.) through to beech and other forest types. It was the first detailed account of how gorse can act as a nursery species that shelters regenerating native bush, a strategy that was later incorporated into revegetation projects.
In 1958, the Botany Division established a substation at Taitā and Tony was transferred there. Later that year, ecologist Ian Atkinson also joined the substation. Almost immediately, Tony took him out on an overnight tramp in the Ruahine Range, followed by a six-day tramp in the southern Tararua Range. He wanted to get the measure of Ian’s botanical and fieldwork skills, and was impressed by his knowledge and work, leading to a long, productive and collaborative friendship.
In the early 1960s, the Botany Division undertook vegetation surveys of New Zealand’s national parks and Tony was allocated Te Papakura o Taranaki (then Egmont National Park). Over the course of 32 field trips between 1959 and 1966, Tony botanised throughout the park, using the point interception method he had developed to assess the canopy cover. To better understand the vegetation, he surveyed past volcanic eruptions using tree ring dating and concluded that there had been nine ash falls in the past 500 years. In the previous 350 years, a fifth of the vegetation had been destroyed by ash falls, another fifth damaged, and the remainder affected by varying depths of ash and lapilli (rock fragments). Tony never published a monograph on the park’s vegetation, but he did contribute to information booklets. His tree ring dating provided a methodology for later studies and his plant lists and notes were very useful to later botanists.
In 1977, Tony and Helen’s 25-year-old daughter Fenella, recently graduated as a doctor, died in Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park. She and three other young trampers were sheltering in Three Johns Hut above Barron Saddle when it was blown off the ridge and everyone inside died. Fenella’s death affected Tony greatly. As a memorial, the Druces built Fenella Hut in the Cobb Valley, one of Fenella’s favourite places, and visited regularly for many years to maintain the hut and its surrounds.
Tony retired from the Botany Division in 1982. He was granted permission to continue using the facilities of the Taitā substation and continued to provide advice on the department’s behalf via other staff. This arrangement was later made official by his appointment to a research associate position. Little changed in practice, except that Tony had more freedom to pursue his own interests.
One area Tony wanted to botanise more extensively was the north-west Nelson region, particularly Kahurangi National Park and its incredibly diverse flora. The park contains the highest number of endemic plants of any national park, including 80 per cent of the nation’s alpine species. Tony conducted 64 trips in the Nelson region, compiling 75 plant lists, and another 43 trips in Marlborough, producing 49 plant lists. With his encyclopaedic memory of New Zealand flora and incredible eye for detail, Tony was particularly adept at recognising species that had not been identified before. In the Nelson-Marlborough region, he identified 135 taxonomic groups as distinctive.
In the 1980s and early 1990s, the DSIR underwent major changes as part of neoliberal public service reforms. It transitioned to a user-pays model, followed by drastic budgetary cutbacks and waves of redundancies, and was finally converted into a series of competitive Crown Research Institutes in 1992. Tony strongly opposed the implementation of a user-pays system for plant identification. He continued to use the Taitā substation until it was disbanded in 1993. The loss of routine, a workspace and camaraderie, along with ill-health, weighed heavily on him. While other colleagues and friends set up Ecological Research Associates New Zealand, he never became established at the new Wallaceville site and instead retreated into his garden.
Mentoring and impact
Though he could seem shy or abrupt, Tony did relate well to people and his encouragement of students and botanists was one of his major contributions to the study of New Zealand’s flora. Always willing to share his knowledge, Tony influenced and provided guidance to many botanists for over 50 years. The many students he encouraged and helped went on to work throughout the country.
He was reluctant to give talks, although these were fascinating and thought-provoking when he did, but he published frequently in the Wellington Botanical Society’s Bulletin, which he edited from 1949 to 1966. He served as the Society’s vice-president in 1954 and 1962 and as its president in 1960–61 and 1976–77. Among his notable projects was the assistance he provided to Audrey Eagle over 30 years for her versions of Eagle’s complete trees and shrubs of New Zealand. In 1987, Tony received the Allan Mere Award, an acknowledgement by the DSIR of outstanding work by botanists.
Most botanists are known for naming plants, but Tony very rarely did so. Influenced by the work of Karl Popper and John Offenberger, he thought that taxonomic identities should be working hypotheses, rather than accepted conclusions. Tony identified many recognisably different but unnamed plant species – usually recorded with ‘tag names’ – but rarely named plants himself (exceptions included his thorough treatment of Coprosma waima and native Crassula species). Instead of naming species, he encouraged young (and not-so-young) botanists to do so, providing them with information on the plant’s characteristics and growing environment. As a tribute to Tony’s work identifying new species, 10 plant species bore his name by 2021.
Tony was an avid collector of both dried herbarium specimens and live plants. His herbarium collections were deposited in the DSIR (later Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research) herbarium in Lincoln. At his retirement in 1982, the director acknowledged that he had increased the collection there ‘four-fold’; by the time of his death, Tony had submitted 37,794 plant specimens.2 In addition to the sheer number of collections, the information accompanying each specimen (such as a description of where it was found) was also superb. Live specimens were generally collected if Tony was not confident of an identification, or suspected it might be a new species. He would bring the plant home to grow and observe it closely. His live plant collection was donated to Percy Scenic Reserve, Lower Hutt and Ōtari-Wilton’s Bush, Wellington.
Perhaps Tony’s greatest achievement was his comprehensive, reliable plant lists. He had authoritative lists for 335 localities from the North Cape to Otago, which he continually updated from his and other people’s field trips, as well as taxonomic updates. These lists were freely available to all. From 1985 to 1992, he compiled them into a national list. The impact of Tony’s plant lists, diaries and notes is diverse and wide-reaching. They are used by conservationists looking for species that may be locally or completely extinct and to understand the impact of invasive species. Land managers and unitary authorities use the lists for identifying local indigenous species for restoration, assessing significant natural area status and deciding regional threat classification for species. The compiled plants lists were used to examine plant richness, radiation and endemism, studies that would have been impossible without Tony’s work.
After a long illness, Tony died on 15 March 1999 at Hutt Hospital, aged 78. He was survived by Helen and their children Alison and Oliver.