Thomas Alexander Hunter was born on 28 February 1876 in Croydon, Surrey, England, the son of Louisa Jane Harton, a woman of force and character, and her husband, William Hunter, a banker's clerk. The third of five children, Thomas was influenced especially by his brother Irwin, seven years his senior and a formidable battler for what he saw as right.
Thomas arrived in Otago, New Zealand, with his parents in 1880. After attending Port Chalmers District High School he went on to the University of Otago where he made his mark academically and on the rugby ground, playing at half-back for the university and for his province. He did some exploring and climbing in the Southern Alps and Fiordland. He was awarded a Senior Scholarship and in 1899 first-class honours in mental and moral philosophy.
After teaching briefly at Waitaki Boys' High School, Hunter was appointed in 1904, for one year only, as lecturer in mental science and political economy at Victoria College, Wellington. He rapidly gained 'the respect of the hard-working, and the confidence of the muscular element'. He coached rugby as well as playing for the college XV, and sought help with his German from his colleague, George von Zedlitz, in order to read untranslated writers on psychology. Hunter quickly revealed his lifelong conviction that veracity is the heart of morality, and his readiness to say what he thought. Council, as well as the students, was impressed; his appointment was renewed. The future seemed secure and on 14 March 1905 he married Isabel Zella Pope at Dunedin.
The new subject of experimental psychology caught his attention, and in 1906–7 he visited universities in Europe and the United States. He was decisively influenced by William Wundt at Leipzig, William Rivers at Cambridge, and especially by E. B. Titchener at Cornell; the main lines of his subsequent thinking about psychology were established. He was aware at all times of new ideas and trends, but an experimental approach to problems of perception and learning was to remain his major interest.
Following his return to Wellington in 1907, Hunter gave a demonstration in his room of equipment brought back from Cornell, and persuaded the college's council to provide an additional £50 to establish the first psychological laboratory in Australasia. Later, working with his colleague W. H. Gould, professor of education, he established a psychological clinic for problem children. At the end of 1907 he was made professor of mental science and economics, redefined in 1909 as mental and moral philosophy, a subject area which evolved into the two fields of psychology and philosophy.
Despite his inexhaustible energy and a promising start, Hunter's development of experimental psychology was gradual. Psychologists continued to hold posts in philosophy departments and Hunter also taught ethics and logic. It was not until 1949 that it was compulsory to take laboratory work as part of a psychology course. Hunter's brilliance as a teacher and capacity to inspire research from others stemmed from the breadth of his interests rather than the depth of his scholarship. It is clear, none the less, that the development of psychology both in New Zealand and Australia owed much to his keenness and initiative.
From his arrival at Victoria, Hunter had an impact on almost all aspects of life in the small and intimate college. Possessing a vigorous practical mind, great powers of work, strong common sense and a profound belief in applying the intellect to social and educational issues, Hunter rapidly won a following and made an enemy or two as well. He worked with a number of able colleagues – Thomas Laby, George von Zedlitz, Harry Kirk and David Picken – in the New Zealand University Reform Association, formed in 1910. As its secretary he showed a capacity to manage a diverse group of allies. They sought to place more responsibility for the curriculum, for teaching and for examining in the hands of the academic staff rather than the remote Senate of the University of New Zealand – a body that never saw a student – or examiners in Britain. This was to be a long fight, and it was not until a royal commission sat and reported in 1925 that a somewhat more satisfactory system emerged.
Long before that, in 1912, Hunter had become a member of the senate and carried the struggle to the stronghold of reaction. Here he revealed the tactical and strategic skills that made him such a formidable advocate and administrator. Forceful, but disinterested, and willing to compromise, he was concerned with principles not with personalities, and the ablest of his opponents were willing to concede that he had mastered their argument as a step towards controverting it.
In 1929 Hunter became the first working vice chancellor of the University of New Zealand; he held the position until 1947 and faced squarely the responsibility of getting the best out of a system he believed to be still fundamentally flawed. In 1938 the part-time office of principal was created at Victoria. Hunter was appointed. When in 1948 the position was made a full-time one, Hunter was again appointed and was succeeded in his chair by one of his old pupils, Ernest Beaglehole.
Hunter's passion for education as a social and liberalising force drew him into a wide range of activity outside the college. When the Workers' Educational Association was founded in 1915 Hunter became actively involved. Among his early students were Harry Holland and Peter Fraser, soon to be Labour MPs. When Fraser served a prison term for sedition, Hunter ensured that he was well supplied with books. Hunter was the obvious choice for chairman of the Council of Adult Education from 1938 to 1947. He was appointed chairman of the New Zealand Council for Educational Research at its foundation in 1933, serving until 1953. He served a term (1936–38) as chairman of Massey Agricultural College. He was a member of professional organisations in psychology and philosophy and also of the State Schools' Protection Society, an association that opposed the Bible in schools movement. A vice president of the New Zealand Rationalist Association, he was also an associate of the Rationalist Press Association, a distinction that only two New Zealanders, John Ballance and Sir Robert Stout, had held before him.
Hunter was made a KBE in 1939. In 1946, to mark his 70th birthday, his colleagues presented him with a volume of essays, The university & the community, the first time such a tribute had been paid in New Zealand. In 1950 the University of New Zealand conferred on him an honorary doctorate of literature. At the beginning of the following year he retired as principal and two years later, on 20 April 1953, he died. His wife had predeceased him on 16 February 1950; he was survived by two daughters and a son.
Thomas Hunter was almost 75 when he retired and he had served Victoria University College for almost 50 years. He had his intellectual limitations: his interests clearly did not include the aesthetic or literary. But as a teacher, a reformer and an administrator his influence had been profound. His belief in education as a force for good matched a consuming and consistent hatred of ignorance. At the same time he had a fierce distrust of mere good intentions. He wanted his students to think for themselves, to stand on their own feet. If one result was that the college came to have a radical reputation, to be seen as a dangerous place for the more conservative or conventional to entrust their young, this could be seen as evidence his hopes were being realised. Described as 'Free, independent, and courageous of thought, of great acuteness and fertility of mind, he was for very many people, both student and public', the 'very essence' of his college. A portrait by Evelyn Page painted in 1949 captures the alert figure but does not fully convey Hunter's humour, kindliness and questioning nature. The painting hangs in the original university building that now bears his name.