Harold William Wellman was born in Devonport, Devon, England, on 25 March 1909, the son of May Kinglake Hoare and her husband, Evan Edward Wellman, an engineer in the Royal Navy. He went to primary school in Chard, Somerset, and at the age of 10 entered Ilminster Grammar School. In 1927 the family came to the naval base at Devonport, Auckland, where his father had been assigned a three-year tour of duty.
Harold Wellman started work as a clerk for the Union Steam Ship Company of New Zealand, but early in 1928 apprenticed himself to Felix Kelly, an Auckland surveyor. In 1931 he qualified as a registered surveyor, but jobs were hard to get during the depression. By this time his family had returned to England. Unemployed, Wellman went to the West Coast and prospected for gold with varying success at Ross, Waiho Beach, Gillespies Beach, Paringa and Haast. He then walked to Karamea and across the Heaphy Track to Collingwood, where he taught gold prospecting to unemployed men.
During the mid 1930s the DSIR began new geological and geophysical surveys for mineral resources. Wellman wrote to Ernest Marsden asking for a job and was directed to join a geophysical team at Otama in Southland, prospecting for copper. Regular work continued with geomagnetic surveys at Reefton and elsewhere, but he was advised to obtain a university degree if he wanted to succeed in geology. Through Robin Allan, lecturer in geology at Canterbury University College, he began part-time study, later transferring to Victoria University College, Wellington.
In November 1937 Wellman took a year’s unpaid leave from the DSIR to work on a seismic survey in central New Guinea, where he contracted malaria and tropical ulcers. Returning to New Zealand in October 1938, he joined the permanent professional staff of the Geological Survey Branch of the DSIR and was sent to Glenorchy with Dick Willett (a future director of the survey) to find scheelite, which was needed to harden steel. In 1939 Wellman completed a BSc at Victoria. On 28 November that year he married Joan Evelyn Butler, an accountant, in Dunedin.
After seismic surveys in 1940 at Orepuki, Southland, prospecting for oil shale, Wellman returned to Wellington and completed his MSc (1941) with a thesis on the Early Tertiary erosion surface of north-west Nelson. Geological and geophysical surveys in Nelson and on D’Urville Island followed, and early in 1943 he was posted to Greymouth to survey coal resources.
Wellman brought energy and innovation to the geological work on the West Coast, developing new ways of handling the enormous volume of analytical data being produced. Never short of ideas, he gained a reputation as a maverick with a sharp eye for the significant. He developed a geological history of the West Coast region, helped to clarify the Cretaceous–Tertiary sedimentary succession of northern Westland and named four glaciations in south Westland.
Between 1937 and 1952 Wellman published 36 papers and reports, mostly on Nelson and Westland geology. His most famous, and a landmark for New Zealand geology, was based on a discovery he and Willett made during a trip in 1940 to south Westland to find mica, needed to make electronic components for radio equipment. They noticed that the Southern Alps were associated with a fault line, which laterally displaced land on either side of it. By the following year they had traced it as far south as the Fiordland coast and north to the Nelson Lakes and Marlborough, a distance of around 400 miles. Based on observations of landforms that had been wrenched apart by the fault, Wellman made the astonishing suggestion at the Pacific Science Congress at Christchurch in 1949 that there had been a lateral displacement of 300 miles. The name ‘Alpine Fault’ was formally adopted in 1942 and by 1948 it was included on geological maps. However, definitive explanation of the initially controversial notion of the displacement was delayed until publication of Wellman’s monograph Structural outline of New Zealand in 1956.
In 1952 he returned to the Geological Survey’s head office in Wellington. During the next five years he published 16 papers, with those on Quaternary tectonics and the stratigraphy and palaeontology of the New Zealand Cretaceous rocks being his most outstanding contributions. He received major awards for his work, including fellowship of the Royal Society of New Zealand (1954), a DSc from the University of New Zealand (1956) and the Royal Society’s Hector Memorial Medal and Prize (1957).
At the end of 1957 Wellman left the Geological Survey to work for British Petroleum on oil exploration at Gisborne, and early in 1958 he joined the Department of Geology at Victoria University of Wellington as senior lecturer. His extensive first-hand knowledge had a dynamic effect on teaching, and he established an instant rapport with students with his often irreverent behaviour and sense of humour. Geological interpretation based on close observation and solving problems using first principles were hallmarks of his teaching. These qualities were recognised by the professor of geology, Robin Clark, who strongly supported Wellman’s promotion to a personal chair in 1970. He retired in 1975 and was given emeritus professor status.
Academic life gave Wellman ample scope to develop his wide research interests. His 52 publications between 1958 and 1990 included work on loess in Manawatu, Maori coastal occupation layers, Antarctic geology, sea-level changes, active faulting, Recent crustal movements of the southern North Island, and the origins of the Southern Alps. In the 1960s he was the first to realise the importance to New Zealand geology of the new theory of plate tectonics. In 1964, at the International Geological Congress in India, he proposed that the horizontal displacement on the Alpine Fault had occurred within the last six million years, a revolutionary idea that was later vindicated by plate tectonics. Wellman’s contribution to earth science received international recognition in a 1992 BBC Horizon documentary on the Alpine Fault and Southern Alps.
Harold Wellman died in Karori, Wellington, on 28 April 1999, after a long illness. He was survived by his wife, two daughters and a son. A relentless observer and an original thinker with an unusual ability to understand relationships between time and space, he is generally considered the most influential New Zealand geologist of the twentieth century.