Monday, September 21, 2015

Something New

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We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“JAMES HECTOR – Explorer, Scientist, Leader” by Simon Nathan (Geoscience Society of New Zealand, distributed by Potton and Burton $NZ45)

The photograph on the cover of Simon Nathan’s James Hector – Explorer, Scientist, Leader is very striking and has often been reproduced. Taken in about 1874, it shows James Hector and his staff at the Colonial Museum, in Wellington, gathered around the skeleton of a pygmy right whale. It’s a very evocative photograph, with most of the ten males in view (but not Hector) be-hatted and still looking somewhat formal as they pursue the natural sciences. At once we get a whiff of an exciting age for science, when it was still practised as much by enthusiastic amateurs as by professionals, and when the professionals didn’t hesitate to explore more than one branch of science.
But it might have been a mistake to choose this striking image for the cover. James Hector is now remembered mainly for giving his name to the small Hector’s dolphin (Cephalorhynchus hectori), which has led some to assume that Hector was primarily a naturalist. The cover could reinforce this view. In fact, as Simon Nathan’s sprightly and readable biography makes clear, while Hector did make contributions to botany, zoology, astronomy and other sciences, he was always, by both training and interest, primarily a geologist.
The publication of James Hector – Explorer, Scientist, Leader is timed for the 150th anniversary of Hector’s becoming (in 1865) the first professional scientist employed by the New Zealand government. As Nathan says in his introduction, this is not a book for specialists, but is deliberately “a relatively short biography, concentrating on the main events in Hector’s life and his place in late nineteenth-century New Zealand”(p.12). In other words, the target audience is the general, non-scientist reader, like this reviewer. The book’s 240-odd pages of texts are extensively illustrated, and many of the illustrations are reproductions of Hector’s own sketches of land which he explored and surveyed. It is clear that, along with his other accomplishments, Hector had considerable artistic skills.  One of the book’s many pleasures consists of comparing, on p.60, Hector’s sober sketch of Milford sound with the more dramatic and stylised image, made from the same viewpoint, by Hector’s fellow-scientist, the artist John Buchanan.

So who was this James Hector and why should we remember him?
Scots-born James Hector (1834-1907) was the man who, in the later nineteenth century, came to dominate science in New Zealand as both an administrator and the editor of scientific journals. One historian of New Zealand science refers to the years from 1865 to 1903 as the “Hector hegemony” (p.10). When Hector became Chancellor of the University of New Zealand, a Wellington newspaper referred to him as “a man who knows everything” (p.12). In his time he had been the head of New Zealand’s first Geological Survey, conductor and supervisor of the Colonial Museum, the Colonial (now Wellington) Botanical Gardens, the Colonial Observatory, and the New Zealand Institute which he was instrumental in founding and whose voluminous Transactions he edited. He was knighted in 1887. It is interesting to learn that when the young Scot took his degree at the University of Edinburgh, the only way to gain entry into scientific studies was to qualify first in medicine – so Hector was also a doctor of medicine as well as a geologist.
This extra skill came in handy to him on a number of occasions. To be a geologist in the field was evidently a perilous business in the nineteenth century, when geological parties ventured into the wilderness far beyond lines of communication.
Young Hector’s first venture outside Scotland was as part of a geological survey of what we would now call western Canada (it was then still called British North America). Led by John Palliser, the expedition was tasked to survey the Canadian Rockies with the aim of finding a suitable pass over which a railway could be built to the Pacific coast. At one point in the journey, a pack-horse panicked at a river crossing and kicked Hector in the chest, throwing him to the ground where he was knocked so deeply unconscious that his companions thought he was dead. They began digging his grave and ceased only when feeble groans told them he was still alive. Hector himself had to direct the others on how to care for him in his wounded state. The geologists immediately called the river where the incident happened Kicking Horse River and the pass they were surveying Kicking Horse Pass. The names are still used. They are names which many visitors probably assume were invented by Native Americans.
Before he was 30, on the back of his scientific report on this Canadian expedition, Hector was elected to both the Royal Geological Society and the Royal Geographical Society.
Later in this book, Simon Nathan gives other examples of serious mishaps Hector had to endure. Hector first came to New Zealand in 1862, commissioned by the Otago provincial government to do a systematic geological survey of the province. Part of his brief was to find a pass to the west coast through Fiordland. (At this time, the Otago provincial government still dreamed of having access for exports to a port on the Tasman Sea). On an exploration of Fiordland aboard the Matilda Hayes in 1863:
“attempts to leave Chalky Inlet for Dusky Sound were thwarted by bad weather. In one incident the ship rolled unexpectedly and the main boom struck Hector, dislocating his left shoulder joint. He recorded briefly in his journal that he managed to reset it with the aid of a seaman who had suffered a similar mishap – undoubtedly an agonising process – and he was partly disabled with his arm in a sling for several weeks. It was an injury which was to trouble him in later years.” (p.57)
Later still (Chapter 5) there is the story of Hector having to take a long journey overland, through the trackless mountains, to get help when a ship on which he was travelling with Governor Bowen hit a rock and was in danger of sinking.
Perhaps fortunately for Hector’s health, after he married a wealthy young woman in 1868, he settled down in Wellington and tended more to supervise fieldwork rather than participate in it.
If the physical hardships of working geologists make one implicit theme in this book, another is the developing state of science in the Victorian age. Innovator though he was in many ways, Hector could be quite conservative in others. Hector took a long time to accept that there had been extensive prehistoric glaciation (in ice ages) shaping the land and carrying boulders to incongruous places. In this matter, he was behind the man who became his great rival in New Zealand science, Julius Haast.
 Where there are differences in scientific thought, there are often rivalries between scientists. Hector’s relationship with Haast began cordially enough. Unbeknown to each other, they were both engaged at the same time in the fruitless task of trying to find a pass through Fiordland (Hector’s party working from Otago and Haast’s from South Canterbury). Haast became the big scientific identity in Christchurch at the same time that Hector was establishing himself in Dunedin. It was Hector, however, who won the government’s nod of approval when they wanted the administration of scientific endeavour to be centralised in Wellington.
The sharpest exchanges between the two men came in the “Sumner Cave Controversy”, centring on moa bones found at the site. Haast insisted that moa had been rendered extinct by an ancient race far predating Maori. Hector and some of his associates took the view (still supported by scientific orthodoxy) that moa were indeed rendered extinct by Maori in relatively recent times. Haast’s anger over this difference was fired by his suspicion that one of his subordinates in the exploration of the cave, Alexander McKay, had been encouraged by Hector to undermine Haast’s views in public.
Simon Nathan judges Haast to have been a more volatile and flamboyant figure than the quiet and methodical Hector, and notes that until very recently it was Haast who gained the attention of biographers rather than Hector. In his summary, he says
Perhaps the main reason for Hector’s supposed anonymity is the fact that he lacked obvious character defects.  There is not a whiff of scandal associated with his name. He appears to have been a genuinely nice person, respected and liked by most. Being ambitious, he achieved his dominance in late nineteenth century science largely by hard work and obvious competence, aided by the lack of scientific rivals in Wellington, the seat of government, who could challenge him.” (p.233)
This seems a just judgment.
In some obvious ways, we can see that Hector was a man of his times – a Victorian. On one journey:
Hector and his crew were embarrassed by what they felt was the inadequate dress of the Maori family. Once the Matilda Hayes was secured on the lower Hollyford River, Hector instructed the crew to unpack some old tents and make skirts for the women.” (p.58)
Later, Hector was called up to give his views on an industrial dispute on the west coast, and to write a report on the Brunner mining disaster. In both cases, his attitudes seemed to show him siding with management and the bosses, and therefore against the miners. By the 1880s he was, as Nathan says, an “establishment” figure.
At the same time, Hector represents the collaborative nature of scientific research, often corresponding with, endorsing and sometimes collaborating with such figures as the ornithologist Walter Buller, the director of Kew Gardens in London, Joseph Hooker, and talented scientific amateurs like the missionaries Richard Davis and William Colenso. There is also the polymath nature of his work. He used the expanding telegraph network to help establish the reliable recording of the intensity of earthquakes, and to set up a system of meteorological reporting. His interest in fossils and in ornithology led him to do much work as a naturalist. He set up a temporary observatory to write a report on a transit of Venus. But it was his grounding in geology that led him to be commissioned to look for gold reefs in the North Island; and inevitably it was to Hector that the government turned when it needed a scientific report on the eruption of Tarawera in 1886.
James Hector – Explorer, Scientist, Leader does give some details of Hector’s domestic life – a long and happy marriage with many children; the family home which was for years in the house attached to the Colonial Museum in Wellington, before the Hectors moved out to a house in the Hutt valley; the death by appendicitis of Hector’s most promising academic son, when the elderly Hector was on a return visit to Canada.
But the book’s focus is on the scientist and his achievements. As Simon Nathan remarks, a “generalist” like Hector tends to be underrated or even dismissed as a dabbler in our own times, when scientific specialisation reigns. But you cannot close James Hector – Explorer, Scientist, Leader without feeling at least some envy for a time when one man could embrace with enthusiasm so many branches of science, and contribute fruitfully to many of them.

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