Page 1: Biography
Salmon, John Tenison
Photographer, entomologist, academic, conservationist, author
This biography, written by Ross Galbreath, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2019.
John Salmon was one of the most active New Zealand scientists of the mid-twentieth century. Working as an entomologist at the Dominion Museum and later Victoria University College, Salmon organised and led many scientific bodies, while becoming a leading conservation activist, and producing a series of popular books showcasing native trees and plants.
John Tenison Salmon was born in Wellington on 28 June 1910, the son of Mary Jane Paterson and her husband, Charles Tenison Salmon, a surveyor and civil engineer based in Palmerston North. Charles Salmon enjoyed the outdoors and was a strong advocate for the protection of the native forest and natural wilderness of the central North Island. As a boy, John Salmon went on excursions with his father, who, he later recalled, ‘taught me ... how to admire Nature and enjoy wilderness and all that such things mean to the human spirit.’1 From the age of 10 he also followed his father’s interest in photography. These became lifelong passions.
After primary school in Palmerston North, Salmon boarded at Wellington College. In 1928 he began work as a cadet in the Land and Income Tax Department in Wellington, and with the agreement of the department he began studying science at Victoria University College. He graduated MSc with first-class honours in zoology in 1934, with a thesis on Collembola (springtails – tiny organisms related to insects).
Dominion Museum and building science organisations
In 1934 Salmon was appointed entomologist at the Dominion Museum. He helped prepare exhibits for the move into the new museum building in Mount Cook, Wellington, continued his studies of Collembola and insects and, with the help of museum director Dr W.R.B. Oliver, joined local scientific circles.
Salmon also continued his interest in photography, first in Wellington College’s Camera Club and then in the Wellington Camera Club. He submitted photographs to the Royal Photographic Society in London and in 1937 was elected an associate of the society. He was energetic and organised and in 1938 was elected president of the Wellington Camera Club. In the museum he acted as both entomologist and photographer, and also took an educational role, organising popular film evenings in Wellington and Palmerston North. In 1938 he was elected secretary of the Wellington Philosophical Society, the local branch of the Royal Society of New Zealand.
The museum was abruptly closed in June 1942 when the building was requisitioned for wartime defence purposes, and it remained closed to the public until 1949. All display and educational work ceased during this period, but Salmon continued to establish himself in the world of New Zealand science. He published more on Collembola and insect groups, and in 1946 was awarded a DSc for his work and elected a Fellow of the Royal Entomological Society of London. In 1949 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand. He was also very active in scientific organisations. When the Royal Society held its first post-war science congress in Wellington in 1947, Salmon was the organising General Secretary. He was also president of the Wellington branch of the New Zealand Geographical Society and secretary of the Art Galleries and Museums Association of New Zealand. By 1948, when he became president of the new New Zealand Association of Scientific Workers, its journal was hardly exaggerating when it described him as ‘One of the most widely known and most indefatigable workers in N.Z. scientific circles’.2 In 1951, while Salmon was in Britain on a Nuffield Fellowship, he attended the assembly of the World Federation of Scientific Workers, the organisation’s parent body, and joined efforts to curb its leftist political leanings. When this was unsuccessful, he joined the moderate majority in disaffiliating the New Zealand association from the world federation. It later changed its name to the more neutral New Zealand Association of Scientists.
On 7 December 1948 Salmon married Pamela Naomi Wilton, who had been his technical assistant at the museum. They made their home in Karori, and later Karaka Bay, and raised four sons.
In March 1949 John Salmon left the museum to take a position as senior lecturer in the Zoology Department of Victoria University College, Wellington, where he taught for nearly 30 years. Along with his new teaching responsibilities he extended his studies of Collembola to become a world authority on the group, while also publishing on the taxonomy of various insect groups. He remained active in professional bodies: he was editor for the Royal Society’s Transactions and other publications (1952–64) and president of the Entomological Society (1955–57).
In the Zoology Department there were internal tensions over personalities and academic issues which culminated in 1964 with the resignation of the head of department, Professor L.R. Richardson. Salmon was appointed to succeed him. In his inaugural address in 1966 Salmon commented that ‘Science curricula need continuous reviewing and stripping of dead wood to keep abreast of the onward sweeping tide of new knowledge.’3 Where Richardson had held to a classical view of zoology based on morphology and taxonomy, Salmon, though a taxonomist himself, was open to the new developments in ecology, genetics and molecular biology, and in the following years he broadened the outlook and teaching of the department.
Environmental Conservation activism
However, Salmon’s real passions and most significant achievements were outside the confines of the museum or the university. His boyhood enjoyment of the natural world had led to a growing interest in conservation and the protection of nature. In the 1950s he became concerned, in particular, about the destruction of native bush and natural scenery caused by large hydro-electric power development schemes. When proposals became public for projects at Aratiatia Rapids near Taupo and at Lake Manapouri in Fiordland National Park, Salmon raised his concerns through his professional bodies. But his approach changed after he visited the United States on a Carnegie Fellowship in 1958. There he saw how national parks and scenic reserves were administered and protected, and how scientists were taking an active role in educating the public and advocating the importance of conserving nature. He returned to New Zealand in 1959 energised and with the confidence to take a more direct public approach.
Salmon wrote press statements arguing that the Aratiatia Rapids should be preserved as ‘part of our national heritage’ and for their value to tourism.4 He gave an impassioned address to a tourism industry convention arguing that the power projects were ‘extinguishing all those things which my father’s generation of New Zealanders regarded as our natural heritage and which made this country of ours one of the beauty spots of the world. Such is the price we are paying for electricity.’ He pressed for ‘some properly constituted authority to deal with conservation in all its aspects’ and with ‘power to prevent or modify the execution of unwise schemes of works’.5
The Aratiatia project went ahead despite the protests, but Salmon continued his campaign. He rewrote his tourism convention address as a book, Heritage destroyed: the crisis in scenery preservation in New Zealand (1960), which became a key text for New Zealand’s developing conservation movement. In 1962 the government responded to public pressure by establishing a Nature Conservation Council. Salmon accepted appointment to it though, as he noted, it had ‘only advisory powers to Government and is rather like a tiger with trimmed claws’.6 This did not stop him continuing his advocacy within the growing Save Manapouri campaign. When a national committee was formed, he was on it. He presented submissions to the Commission of Inquiry into the raising of the lake, and spoke at protest marches. He and his family had belonged to the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society for many years, but as it mobilised to Save Manapouri he became more actively involved, becoming deputy president in 1971. In that year he helped bring together a national alliance of environmental and conservation organisations, just as the Save Manapouri campaign finally won an undertaking to preserve the lake in its natural state from the Labour Party, which won the 1972 general election and put that policy into effect.
Books about native trees and plants
Alongside his conservation campaigning and his more academic writing on conservation and the human impact on the natural environment, Salmon had also been engaged in another avenue for publicising New Zealand’s natural heritage. From the 1950s he had tried colour photography, focusing especially on native plants and flowers. Family holidays and excursions were directed to finding and photographing particular species while they were in flower. With an idea for a book showcasing the native plants, Salmon turned to the publishers of Heritage destroyed, A.H. & A.W. Reed. His proposal fitted with Reed’s plans for a new style of book production and New Zealand flowers and plants in colour was published in 1963 as one of the first large-format full-colour New Zealand books. It was very successful and continued to be revised and reprinted for many years. It helped to change the way New Zealanders saw and valued their native plants, whether in the bush or in the garden. Salmon went on to produce a succession of illustrated books with Reeds, mainly on native plants and trees. The later books improved in technical quality as colour printing progressed, and in scientific accuracy following criticisms from botanists, but New Zealand flowers and plants in colour remained his best-known and most influential book.
Salmon was elected a Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society in 1965, and he was awarded the Loder Cup in 1967 for his efforts to publicise and preserve native plants. After his retirement from the university in 1976, he and Pamela settled in Waikanae. He still had the drive to get involved and was elected to Waikanae Community Council and Horowhenua County Council. He also completed his most substantial book, The native trees of New Zealand (1980). In 1981 he was made a CBE for his services to conservation. In 1983 health concerns led Salmon to resign his local body and Nature Conservation Council positions. He and Pamela moved to Taupō, where they had maintained a holiday home for many years. He continued writing, revising some of his earlier books and, with increasing help from Pamela, working on more. John Salmon died in Rotorua on 4 May 1999, aged 88. Pamela completed his last two books, and then published another under her own name. She died in 2011. Their son Guy Salmon in turn became a leader in conservation in New Zealand.