Friday, October 31, 2008

The hero of Kicking Horse Pass –
New book reveals the astonishing story of New Zealand’s ‘Mr Science’

James Hector was one of New Zealand’s first celebrities. A Scottish doctor, geologist and explorer, he arrived in the country in 1862 at the age of twenty-eight, fresh from a daring three-year expedition in Canada. Despite cold, hunger and constant threat of attack by Indians, he and his four companions had mapped a large swathe of Canada’s southwest, and in the process Hector had nearly lost his life at a place now famously called Kicking Horse Pass.

In New Zealand, James Hector’s job for the Otago provincial government was to survey a vast area of the South Island, look for gold and other minerals, and find a route through the Southern Alps. He did this and much more: in less than eight years he had founded all New Zealand’s major scientific institutions, and was in charge of them all.

Today these institutions – under their modern names the National Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, the Royal Society of New Zealand, and GNS Science – still form the scientific backbone of New Zealand.

James Hector was a brilliant organiser but he was also a passionate scientist, who researched and wrote on numerous topics, from the geology of coal fields to the fossil skeletons of whales. He was an avid botanist – thirteen New Zealand plant species bear his name – and as a geologist he produced maps of enduring quality.

In November 2007, a symposium was held at Te Papa to commemorate the centenary of Hector’s death. Awa Press has collected the talks from this event into a modest but fascinating book, The Amazing World of James Hector (Awa Press, $25). The impressive list of contributors includes Montana award-winning scientist George Gibbs, Victoria University chancellor Tim Beaglehole, former Geological Survey head Ian Speden and museologist Conal McCarthy, as well as two of Hector’s great-grandsons, Chris Hector and Peter Hector.

Since Hector’s time, New Zealand scientists from Rutherford to MacDiarmid have gained international fame. If you want to find out how it all began, read this absorbing book.

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