Hans Heinrich Suter, known in New Zealand as Henry Suter, was born on 9 March 1841 near Zürich, Switzerland. He was the son of Heinrich Suter, a silk manufacturer, and his wife, Susanna Mahler. After training in Zürich as an analytical chemist, Suter joined his father's firm, which he later managed. His first published paper was on analyses of wine. On 1 October 1867 he married Barbara Julia Ida Naef at Altstetten, Zürich. The couple were to have 10 children, seven of whom survived childhood. Suter and his wife, known as Ida, seem for a period to have combined their surnames as two papers published in 1880 refer to him as H. Suter-Naef. In the 1880s Suter's business activities failed. Facing bankruptcy and with seven children to support, Suter decided to seek 'a new existence' in New Zealand.
The Suter family arrived in New Zealand in January 1887. Soon after, Henry took up five acres near Hastwell's Clearing in Forty Mile Bush, Wairarapa. He intended to clear the forest and grow vegetables but found the task beyond him. In November 1888 he became assistant manager at the Hermitage, Mt Cook, a temporary position arranged through the scientist F. W. Hutton.
Around Wellington and Wairarapa and while at Mt Cook, Suter collected the highly diverse fauna of tiny forest snails. In 1890 he published in the Transactions and Proceedings of the New Zealand Institute the first of many papers describing new species of snails; in a later paper he reported their anatomical details. This accurate microscopic work established his credentials with the New Zealand scientific community.
For some years Suter restricted his studies to forest and freshwater snails in New Zealand and to related snails in Brazil, Africa and Tasmania. However, he was persuaded by Hutton to abandon work on foreign snails and to concentrate on the marine molluscs of New Zealand. From then on Suter earned an uncertain and meagre income from identifying and arranging the collections of the major museums. He was also a prolific trader of natural history specimens. He lived in Auckland from around 1900 to 1910 and in Christchurch from 1911. He had been naturalised in 1890.
In 1906 he approached the New Zealand Institute for support in preparing a successor to Hutton's 1880 Manual of the New Zealand Mollusca, a work long superseded by additions made, in the main, by Suter himself. Augustus Hamilton, director of the Colonial Museum, persuaded the government to finance the manual and work commenced in 1907. The project was an enormous undertaking, considering the scarcity of relevant library resources in New Zealand at the time. However, years of patient compilation resulted in the publication of Suter's Manual of the New Zealand Mollusca in 1913, with an atlas of plates in 1915.
The 1,120-page Manual described 1,079 species compared with the 447 in Hutton's work. It is the single most important publication on New Zealand molluscs and a lasting monument to Suter's knowledge, patience and perseverance. It not only projected the study of molluscs in New Zealand to the highest international level but also had an enormous influence on Australasian molluscan taxonomy for at least 40 years. Two major commentaries on the Manual, in 1915 and 1927, corrected errors (which were largely bibliographical). In many ways its successor, A. W. B. Powell's 1979 New Zealand Mollusca: marine, land and freshwater shells, did not have the same impact or fill the same role as Suter's Manual, which has remained a valuable reference tool.
Suter spent the last five years of his life identifying and describing Cenozoic fossil shells for the New Zealand Geological Survey. The results of this work appeared in four palaeontological bulletins, the last posthumous. Failing eyesight, a rather broad interpretation of specific divisions and perhaps a lack of appreciation of geological time meant these last works were not as revolutionary as the Manual. Suter's main significance in this field is that he commenced the modern period of accurate scientific study of New Zealand fossil shells, starting the long job of sorting out the complex miscorrelations of Cenozoic rocks.
Henry Suter died in Christchurch on 31 July 1918, aged 77. Ida Suter had died in 1910. Suter's small but important collection of snails, marine shells and fossils was purchased after his death by the Wanganui Public Museum. In 1946 it was acquired by the Geological Survey, which is now incorporated in the Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences. His manuscript catalogues and bound volumes of reprints are also in the institute at Lower Hutt and his non-marine shells are in the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa in Wellington. The collection of European land and freshwater shells from his European period is in the Australian Museum in Sydney.