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Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.



Early History

The early history of science in any country may be pursued to the stage where organised knowledge merges into folk lore. Frequently the systematic collection, correlation, and transmission of empirical observations, leading eventually to clearly recognisable scientific endeavour, have been initiated within religious societies and establishments. In New Zealand one might look, therefore, to the work of the Maori priests (tohungas) for an indigenous contribution to science, and there did indeed exist recognisable schools of learning. The transmitted knowledge indicates a gift for precise observation and an accumulation of experience relating to such matters as agricultural practice and the effects of herbal remedies in the treatment of illness and disease. Beyond this, however, it is not possible to trace any threads of emerging science and it may be said that the history of science in New Zealand begins with the first visits of Europeans. It is equally clear that, inevitably, any such history will be largely a chronicle of scientific endeavour, as distinguished from the growth of scientific theory and law.

Because of the fertile unexplored fields for study, it was natural that botanists, zoologists, and geologists would show keen interest in a country such as New Zealand. It is altogether remarkable to find such a large number of well qualified, at times outstanding, scientists who, in fact, overcame the inherent difficulties of access and study in the years preceding and immediately following the establishment of government in 1840 to record the first impressions and conclusions of scientific investigation. Cook's voyages had important scientific objectives, and on his first visit to New Zealand in 1769 the company included Sir Joseph Banks and Dr Daniel Carl Solander, who collected 360 species of plants and ferns. On his second visit in 1773 Cook was accompanied by Dr J. R. Forster, a German naturalist, and his son, who did botanical work at Dusky Sound and, on his third visit, a scholarly surgeon, Dr Anderson, was present. Then, in 1791, coming with Captain Vancouver, Dr Archibald Menzies spent some time collecting botanical specimens, and, somewhat later, Dumont d'Urville's expeditions (1824, 1827, and 1840) did similar work at the Bay of Islands and, subsequently, in other districts. About the same time (1826 and 1838) the Cunningham brothers Allan and Richard – Allan being official botanist to the Colony of New South Wales — were engaged in botanical studies in the Bay of Islands, and in 1835 Charles Darwin in the Beagle spent a short time in the same area. In the years 1840–42 the British Association for the Advancement of Science promoted the Erebus and Terror expedition, bringing to the Bay of Islands Dr D. Lyall and Sir Joseph Hooker, the latter being assistant surgeon and botanist to the expedition. This visit had noteworthy consequences in that Hooker met the Rev. William Colenso with whom, on his return to the United Kingdom, he maintained active scientific contact. This collaboration was extended to include such naturalists as Sinclair, Travers, Hector, and Buchanan, and resulted in the publication of the two volumes of Flora Novae Zealandiae (1853 and 1855) and Handbook of the New Zealand Flora (1864). About the time of Hooker's visit, the French expedition to Akaroa (1840) brought the eminent botanist Raoul as surgeon on the Aube. He was able to spend three years studying plant life at Banks Peninsula and the Bay of Islands and thereby made a most valuable contribution in this field. Altogether, as may be seen, the botany of New Zealand had been quite extensively studied at a remarkably early stage of European colonisation.

As settlement progressed and the physical resources of the country assumed greater significance, geological studies were systematically initiated. Along with this trend there also appeared professional scientists engaged on a continuing basis. The first of these was Dr Ernst Dieffenbach, appointed by the New Zealand Company in 1838 as surgeon and naturalist of the Tory expedition. He was told that “general information relating to navigation, geography, geology, botany, and zoology, and the traditions, customs, and character of the natives will be highly appreciated and will be communicated from time to time to the scientific societies in England”. He left New Zealand in 1841 and his Travels in New Zealand, published in two volumes in 1843, is the first general scientific account of New Zealand.

One of the first of the geologists was J. D. Dana, who visited the Bay of Islands briefly in 1840 as a member of the United States exploring expedition under Charles Wilkes, but it was not until 1858, when Ferdinand von Hochstetter arrived, that fully systematic studies were initiated. He came as geologist to the Austrian scientific ship Novara, and, on arrival in Auckland on 22 December 1858, was instructed by his commander to carry out an examination of the coalfields of the province. On the strength of this report, the New Zealand Government obtained leave for Hochstetter to carry out further investigations into the geology, natural history, and physical geography of the country. Over a period of nine months, in company with Julius Haast, he travelled widely in the North Island and parts of the South Island, particularly Nelson, to lay the foundations of New Zealand geology.

At this stage, with the value of such work recognised, steps were taken to appoint provincial geologists. Haast himself became provincial geologist to Canterbury (1861–68) and then director of the museum (1870–87); he was also first lecturer in geology at Canterbury University College (1873) and, later, first professor. Hector proved equally effective as provincial geologist to Otago on his appointment in 1861 and, as will be seen below, was to exercise a profound influence on the development of science in New Zealand. A third notable scientist, who served as provincial geologist at Otago, was F. W. Hutton, appointed in 1873 and holding also the positions of lecturer in geology and curator of the Otago Museum. He held Chairs both at Otago (1877) and at Canterbury (1880) where he later became curator of the Museum (1893).

Of the professional scientists working in other fields, perhaps the most important was William Skey, who joined Hector in Otago to do analyses; he later became Colonial Analyst.

The early history of science in New Zealand may be conveniently taken as extending to the mid-sixties, by which time the cumulative impression is formed of a vigorous beginning, characterised by a natural emphasis on the biological sciences and geology and by the efforts of one or two outstanding men. Work done in isolation, however, is rarely as effective as effort expended within a framework of communication and, at least partly, administration. Such needs were felt both by individuals and by the legislature and the next period was marked by the emergence of a pattern of effort.

Growth of Institutions

By the sixties, with established government and settled communities which included numbers of able professional and scientific workers, it became possible to set about the three major tasks, common to all countries, which must be undertaken if isolated individual effort is to be replaced by a more systematic pattern. These are the founding of appropriate institutions, the setting up of some instrument for the formulation of a continuing programme of work, and the creation of learned societies. The year 1865 saw an important step being taken with the establishment of the New Zealand Geological Survey, with Hector as its first Director. This decision by the Weld Government testified to a determination that the economic development of the colony should be aided by systematic, properly endowed scientific effort, and the choice of Hector proved a fortunate one. In addition to his scientific ability he was an able and forceful administrator. His responsibilities included also the Colonial Museum and the Colonial Laboratory (where Skey, following him from Otago, became Government Analyst), both established in 1865. Shortly afterwards (1868) the taking of meteorological observations, which had been systematically coordinated by the Auditor-General from as early as 1861, was brought under his control. These arrangements held until Hector's retirement in 1903, when the Colonial Museum, with the Meteorological Office, was placed as a Department under the Colonial Secretary, the Geological Survey and the Colonial Laboratory remaining under the Mines Department.

In the provinces interest centred very largely on the development of the several museums, which acted as focal points for local scientific activity, their curators being men of great attainments. In Auckland the museum, now the Auckland Institute and Museum, had been founded in 1852 and was to achieve a high scientific reputation through the botanical genius of its curator, Thomas F. Cheeseman. Reference has already been made to the foundation of the Canterbury Museum under Haast in 1870, and in Otago the natural-history collection of material brought together by Hector for the New Zealand Exhibition, held in Dunedin in 1865, served as the genesis of a museum which, through the Otago Museum Act of 1877, became intimately linked with the University of Otago. Its first three curators, Hutton, Parker, and Benham, were or became Fellows of the Royal Society – a remarkable record.

In the history of science generally the growth of institutions has been paralleled by the development of scientific societies, and these have played a part out of all proportion to the costs of their establishment and maintenance. Often starting almost as informal clubs they have provided a forum for debate and have served to focus attention from time to time on matters of importance to the nation's scientific endeavour. Above all, they have been the common medium for the dissemination of the results of investigation and research, and their learned journals and publications constitute the true record and history of science.

In an age when the distinction between amateur and professional was less important or obvious than it now appears, and in a small isolated community whose very existence was witness to physical stamina and mental resilience, the influence of individuals and the interplay of personalities were clearly marked. There was also a catholicity of interest, reflecting the urgent need for all who possessed intellectual interests to share with others the fruits of special knowledge and study. The earliest society was the New Zealand Society, established in 1861, with Sir George Grey as president, Walter Mantell as secretary, and a distinguished list of vice-presidents and members. The flame thus kindled flickered fitfully over the next 15 years, with the society being reconstituted in 1867, again under Grey's chairmanship. It was renamed the Wellington Philosophical Society in the following year, and at the same time became incorporated with the New Zealand Institute. In the south, Haast founded the Philosophical Institute of Canterbury in 1862 and, even earlier, the Nelson Institute had taken root. The Literary and Scientific Institution of Nelson was born in 1841 on the New Zealand Company's ship Whitby, with Captain Arthur Wakefield as the chairman of its committee of management, at a stage when “Nelson” was a name only, with even the location of the settlement undecided. Meetings were held in 1842 and an immediate start made with the erection of a library and reading room. By 1858 plans were formulated by the provincial government to incorporate a literary and mechanics' institute within its jurisdiction, and the foundation stone of a new building laid by Hochstetter the following year. Its subsequent fortunes were mixed and it did not function as a learned society, but along with the smaller museums, mechanics' institutes, and so on of its day, its influence must have been considerable. Its history is typical of the high courage with which the early settlers embarked on their new life.

The founding of the New Zealand Institute in 1868 marked an important development, giving for the first time a well-constituted basis of scientific communication. The institute, owing its inception largely to the interest of Sir George Grey and Hector, was established under the New Zealand Institute Act of 1867, and Hector was appointed to the position of manager, which he occupied for 35 years. It was inaugurated in August 1868 by Sir George Bowen, the Governor, at a conversazione held in the Colonial Museum. In the same year the Auckland Institute was established, largely through the efforts of Hutton. The Wellington, Auckland, and Canterbury bodies, along with the Westland Naturalists' and Acclimatisation Society, constituted the societies incorporated in the institute, the Otago Institute being added in 1869. It was provided with a Government grant of £500, enabling it to proceed immediately with the major responsibility of publishing the Transactions, which it has done with vigour over the years of its existence.

The Act was important, not only in the setting up of the institute as a learned society, but also in bringing about the association with it of the Geological Survey and the Colonial Museum. As has been seen, with Hector's retirement in 1903 the grouping was changed and, under the New Zealand Institute Amendment Act of that year, the institute was established as an independent organisation under the Colonial Secretary's Department, with an elected president. A further change in the constitution was made in 1933 through the Royal Society of New Zealand Act, the present title of the body being the Royal Society of New Zealand.

First Academic Foundations

The universities have traditionally fulfilled the twin functions of teaching and research and it was to be expected that the growth of such institutions in a new country would have a most important influence, both direct and indirect, on the course of its scientific development. They arose first in the south — the University of Otago in 1869 and Canterbury College (now the University of Canterbury) in 1873 — and their genesis may be found in the minds of those who planned the early settlements. It would have been understandable and excusable if ventures of this magnitude, undertaken in isolation with every conceivable difficulty to contend with, had been abortive, burdened alike by insufficiency of resources and inferior staff. Fortunately, the early professors proved to be men of great academic attainment and remarkable personal qualities. From the start it was decided in Otago – and the pattern was adopted elsewhere — that the teaching of science should feature prominently in the activities of the University and, of the four foundation chairs, two were concerned with science, the Chair of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy, and the Chair of Chemistry. These were filled by the appointment of John Shand and James Gow Black respectively, with Hutton following a little later as Professor of Natural Science. In Canterbury, physics and chemistry were placed in the charge of Alexander William Bickerton, and mathematics with Charles Henry Herbert Cook; Haast followed a little later in the Chair of Palaeontology and Geology.

In Auckland (1882) and Wellington (1897) the beginnings were equally well made. In the former institution Frederick Douglas Brown held the first Chair of Chemistry and Physics, Algernon Phillips Withiel Thomas (later K.C.M.G.) the first Chair of Biology and Geology, and George Francis Walker the first Chair of Mathematics, the latter being succeeded on his untimely accidental death by William Steadman Aldis.

Victoria College had as its foundation Professors of Chemistry and Mathematics Thomas Hill Easter-field and Richard Cockburn Maclaurin, with Harry Borrer Kirk and Thomas Howell Laby following later in the Chairs of Biology and Physics.

Functioning together as the component units of the University of New Zealand, these four teaching institutions, together with the special schools which were attached to them, have constituted the seed beds for indigenous science.


McLintock, Alexander Hare