Hector's Teaching Garden 1885


The name of James Hector is part of the history of the Wellington Botanic Garden.

The following notes from a number of sources cover the life and contribution of this important pioneer scientist.

Illustration from
The Botanic Garden Wellington

by Shepherd and Cook

From NZ Geological Society

James Hector in 1863

James Hector was a pioneer explorer, geologist, and natural scientist, who founded many of New Zealand's scientific organisations and was closely involved with the establishment of the Wellington Botanic Garden, as well as many institutions in the Capital.

Born 16 March 1834, Hector entered Edinburgh University as a medical student in 1852, medicine being the only avenue for scientific study then. He also attended lectures in geology, botany and zoology. In 1856 he graduated MD (Doctor of Medicine) with a thesis on the Antiquity of Man.

His abilities were recognised at an early stage. In 1857 he was appointed surgeon and geologist on a Government expedition for the exploration of western Canada from June 1857 to January 1860, lead by John Palliser. Hector made an outstanding contribution to the success of the expedition. Working in rugged conditions, he established himself as a field geologist, natural historian and explorer. One of the accounts of the expedition notes that "Young and eager, the tough little Scot proved a heroic traveler who left a legendary reputation behind in western North America".

He did not limit himself to Canadian geology. He made observations on mammals, reptiles, insects and birds, and reported on the customs of the Indians and their language settling the approach for future years.

Hector left his mark on many geographic features. He is particularly remembered for the discovery of Kicking Horse Pass, high in the Rockies. One of his most important geological studies was here, which later became the route of the main Canadian Transcontinental Railway. It was this study that led to his general recognition. As the name implies, he was injured by a horse completing this work, and assumed by his companions to be dead. They were about to bury him when he regained consciousness and winked at them.

Based on his success with the expedition, Hector was appointed Geologist of Otago, soon after the discovery of gold. From 1862 he carried out pioneer exploration and geological reconnaissance Otago, including the inaccessible mountainous area in the west. By September of that year Hector had explored the eastern districts of Otago, visited Central Otago, and accumulated a collection of 500 specimens of rocks, fossils and minerals. During 1863 he extended his investigations to the West Coast, carrying out a double crossing between Milford Sound and Dunedin, a pioneering effort in exploration and geological reconnaissance.

In early 1860s, that colonial, gold-rich Otago should publicly exhibit a representative collection of its diverse rocks in what became the Otago Museum. When Provincial Geologist James Hector's collection of 5,000 rocks and minerals went on display at the trade-promoting New Zealand Exhibition in Dunedin in 1865, the Provincial Government of Otago decided to act on the suggestion, by then enlarged to envision a museum of natural history.
In July 1868, the impetus for a museum was revived, and this time rooms were made available in the Post Office building in Dunedin's Exchange area. On 15 September that year the Otago Museum was opened to the public. The following year the University of Otago moved into the same building - the beginning of a long-standing link between the two institutions.

Hector believed that reconnaissance surveys should include all facets of science, and he assembled a small group of staff, who stayed with him for many years: William Skey to analyse rocks and minerals, John Buchanan as draftsman and botanical artist, and Richard Gore as clerk and meteorological observer.

His work in Otago brought Hector to the attention of the New Zealand Government, then considering the establishment of a colonial Geological Survey to establish the mineral resources of the country. Hector proposed that it should include a scientific museum and analytical laboratory. His ideas were largely accepted, and in 1865 he was appointed Director of the New Zealand Geological Survey and Colonial Museum. Skey, Buchanan and Gore accompanied him to Wellington.

As the only scientist working for the Government, Hector became the official adviser on all matters of science and higher education. In addition to his designated duties, he became Chancellor of the University of New Zealand, and at different times was responsible for the Meteorological Department, the Colonial Observatory, the Wellington Time Ball Station and Botanical Gardens, the Patent Library, and for custody of the official Weights and Measures.
One of Hector's most enduring contributions was the development of the New Zealand Institute (now the Royal Society of New Zealand) as an independent scientific organisation. From its inception in 1867, Hector was its Manager and Editor for the next 36 years.

Kicking Horse Pass,  Canadian Rockies

Plaque at top of Kicking Horse Pass
recording Hector accident
and discovery of the pass

John Palliser and James Hector
Hector family collection

Hector and Kicking Horse Pass
Plaque details

"First recorded in the report of the Palliser expedition of 1857-60, this pass takes its name from an incident in which Dr. James Hector, surgeon for the expedition was kicked by a horse while exploring this vicinity. The pass was virtually unused until after 1881 when the Canadian Pacific Railway decided to adopt it as their new route through the Rockies, foregoing the earlier preference for the more northerly Yellowhead Pass. This decision altered the location of the line across western Canada and dramatically affected the development of the West."

Hector published 45 scientific papers in the Transactions of the New Zealand Institute on geology, botany and zoology. He prepared a Handbook of New Zealand in 1879 (revised 1882, 1883, and 1886) that is the forerunner of the New Zealand Yearbook. In 1886 he published his "Outline of New Zealand Geology", a summary of the first 20 years of work of the New Zealand Geological Survey.

Hector also oversaw the production of a series of publications by the Colonial Museum covering birds, fishes, echinoderms, mollusca, crustacea, beetles, flies, wasps, grasses and flax. These were pioneer works, in some cases not replaced by more authoritative works for many years. Hector's dolphin was named in honour of Hector who examined the first specimen

Hector stamp

Hector medal

Hector was predominant in the New Zealand science scene for over 20 years, and received many honours. He was knighted in 1887. Inevitably he had disagreements with other scientists and politicians. From the late 1880s his position at the centre of an official scientific empire began to wane, and several organisations were removed from his control. From 1892 Hector was only Director of the Colonial Museum and Manager of the New Zealand Institute, with a greatly reduced staff and budget. He retired from Government service in poor health aged 69 in 1903.

After retirement, Hector returned to Canada as a guest of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Official recognition of his part in the Expedition 40 years earlier was marred by the sudden death of his son Douglas who had accompanied him. He returned to New Zealand alone, and died on 6 November 1907.

Although Hector's death was marked by obituaries in may overseas scientific publications, he received little recognition in New Zealand. To its shame, the New Zealand Institute took 16 years to publish an obituary (and even this appears to have been at the request of the Hector family). Hector is now remembered with more respect for the enormous contribution he made to setting New Zealand science on a solid foundation.

Hector and the Wellington Botanic Garden

When the City of Wellington was being planned in London, in the instructions to the Superintendent of the NZ Company for the establishment of the colony in 1839, he was directed to establish a city of some 1000 acres. Separating the urban from rural activities, a strip of land was to be set aside, which we now know as the Town Belt. In addition he was instructed to set aside land 'as a botanic reserve'.

Thirteen acres of land for the Wellington Botanic Garden were broadly identified in a City Plan dated 1840, the site of the current Main Garden, although it was some time later for the exact area to be formally delineated.

The Governors of the NZ Institute, which was the forerunner of the Royal Society of NZ, together with Dr. James Hector, who later became Sir James Hector, as Manager, formed the Botanic Garden Board, and administered the Botanic Garden for the next 22 years. Appointed by the new central Government set up in Wellington in 1865 as its 'scientific adviser', it is interesting to note that government consultants are nothing new!!. He actively encouraged the Government to establish the Garden (1869) utilising the land previously identified, with the following three objectives.

Firstly, as a trial ground for the Government to examine the economic potential of plants, especially for forestry.
as a scientific reserve, for the collection and study of indigenous and exotic plants,
and thirdly,
as a place of recreation and enjoyment for the public.

Except for the nursery beds near the entrance the Garden was completely unformed, except for some tracks. William Bramley was the first Superintendent, and he immediately commenced fencing the Garden, cutting paths, and removing gorse and commencing planting. The original area was 13 acres, and in 1874 the Wesleyan Reserve of 58 acres was added to give a total area of 25.5 ha. (68 acres). Unlike the original 13 acres, this reserve still had areas of native forest remaining on it

Much of the Garden was covered in native Bush
This photo shows part of the renmant.

With what was to be great foresight, Dr Hector recognised that the nationally early settlers had been removing forest so rapidly from the land to provide grazing for animals, that it might not be long before NZ began to run short of timber for building. The large scale removal of forest also meant that farmland was exposed to wind and that shelter belts were required, especially in the areas of tussock land in Otago and Canterbury, Wairarapa and Hawkes Bay. He was also aware in some areas trees were becoming scarce for firewood. With these requirements in mind the Botanic Garden Board imported timber and shelterbelt species of tree from around the world, especially from Europe, North America, India, China and Japan. The Government provided their funding. The Government also provided funding for trials of other species for their economic potential, for example, cork oak, sorghum, sugar beet, hops, mulberry, black walnut, pecans, hickory, plums and olives. By 1875 127 different types of conifers had been planted, some 34 of which remain in the Garden today.

After the trees had been trailed in the Botanic Garden, those that showed potential were sent to all parts of NZ for further trials. One timber species proved to be extremely successful, ahead of all the others, in all parts of NZ, for its rapid growth and good timber, and that of course is the Monterey Pine, or Pinus radiata. The species that proved to be very successful as a shelter tree was the Monterey cypress, or Cupressus macrocarpa. Both of these trees come from the Monterey Peninsula in California, where with their stunted and windswept appearance they bear little resemblance to the massive pine and macrocarpa trees we see in NZ today.

Monterey Pine comes from three distinct unconnected areas of central coastal California, named from one locality, the Monterey Peninsula. It is now rare in its natural habitat because of fungal disease and the encroachment of towns and cities. In recent years genetically improved trees have been imported back into California from New Zealand, and these are now cross hybridising with the native stock, raising questions of the status of the native genotype in its natural habitat. The Garden trees, being from wild collected natural stock, are therefore important as a store of this natural genotype, and effort is required to preserve this important resource for future generations.

Material on the life of James Hector can be found in the following references:

Burnett, R. I. M. 'The life and work of Sir James Hector, with special reference to the Hector Collection'. MA thesis, Otago, 1936
Burton, P. T
he New Zealand Geological Survey, 1865--1965. [Wellington], 1965
Dell, R. K. '
The first hundred years of the Dominion Museum, 1865--1965'. MS. WMU
Fleming, C. A.
Science, settlers and scholars. Wellington, 1987
Kirk, H. B. '
James Hector, 1834--1907'. Transactions and Proceedings of the New Zealand Institute 54 (1923): ix-xii
N.Z. Colonial Museum. Letterbooks, 1865--1903. MS. WMU
Dell, R. K. '
Hector, James 1834 - 1907'. Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, updated 16 December 2003
http://www.dnzb.govt.nz/ The original version of this biography was published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography Volume One (1769-1869), 1990 © Crown Copyright 1990-2005. Published by the Ministry for Culture and Heritage, Wellington, New Zealand. All rights reserved.
James Hector NZ Geological Society http://www.gsnz.org.nz/gshector.htm   NO LONGER AVAILABLE
The Botanic Garden Wellington by Winsome Shepherd and Walter Cook

Timeline - James Hector

1834    On March 16, James Hector was born in Edinburgh, Scotland..  His father was a lawyer and writer, a friend of Sir Walter Scott, for whom he would transcribe and translate old manuscripts. His mother was a niece of Dr. Barclay, founder of the museum of the Royal College of Surgeons, Edinburgh and teacher of medicine.  He would later attend Edinburgh Academy and High School.

1848    At 14 he started articling as an actuary at his father's office.

1852   Having developed an interest in natural science he gave up office work and entered the University of Edinburgh as a medical student. Taking medicine was the only way he could get the science courses he wanted. During his training, geology claimed the largest share of his time, his holidays being devoted to long walking expeditions in search of geological and botanical specimens.

1856    Received his medical degree (MD).

1857   Hector was selected by Sir Roderick Murchison, Director General of the Geological Survey of Great Britain to be surgeon and geologist with the Palliser scientific expedition to western Canada  He reached Lake Superior in June and travelling west he mapped and named many of the physical features and described the geology, noting deposits of coal and other occurrences of possible economic value.

1858     In January he arrived at Rocky Mountain House where he saw the Rockies for the first time.   In August he headed into the Rockies in search of passes that could be used for a railway. He mapped and compiled the first scientific study of what is today Banff, Kootenay and Yoho National Parks in the Canadian Rockies.Many landmarks of the area were named by him on this journey. He discovered five mountain passes, one of which, named the "Kicking Horse Pass" after an accident that nearly cost him his life, is now the route of the Canadian Pacific Railway.

1859     He followed the Columbia River to the Pacific Ocean and went on to study coal deposits on Vancouver island and gold fields in California and northern Mexico.

1860    Returned to England, via Panama and the West Indies and was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

1861     Expedition awarded the Royal Geographical Society's gold medal for geographical discoveries.He was then offered geological positions in Kashmir, India and Otago, New Zealand.Taking the New Zealand appointment he spent three years exploring Otago province.

1865     Appointed commissioner of the Dunedin Exhibition and appointed the first Director of the Geological Survey of New Zealand.

1866      Elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.

1868    Set up the New Zealand Institute to accumulate, edit and manage scientific papers.

1874     Received the Order of the Golden Crown from the Emperor of Germany

1875   Made a trip to England and continental Europe.Received the Order of C.M.G.(Companion of the Order of St. Michael and St. George) in recognition of his services in America.   The Geological Society awarded him the Lyell Medal.

1876    Represented the New Zealand colony as commissioner at the Philadelphia Centenary Exhibition in United States.

1879     Represented the New Zealand colony as commissioner at the Australian Exhibition in Sydney and the next year Melbourne.

1885      Appointed chancellor of New Zealand University.

1886    For distinquished services, Dr. Hector was Knighted (K.C.M.G.) by Queen Victoria.

1891     Hector was awarded the Founders gold medal of the Royal Geographical Society which was the greatest distinction possible for geographical research.

1903     Returned to Canada to revisit the scene of his explorations.

1907   Sir James Hector died in New Zealand on August 16, 1907.

Hector book review

The Amazing World of James Hector

For a long time James Hector 's contibution to colonial New Zealand has been largely ignored. Many will not even recognise his name, but what he did still reveals its relevance today.

On the centenary of his death in 2007 a symposium was held in Wellngton honoring James Hector. As a result of that event the papers presented have been compiled into a small book. Some 14 authors discuss his life and times and the significant contribution he made to development of colonial scientific studies in this country,

Cover of the Hector book

As summarised on the back cover of the book “James Hector was a phenomenon As a young man he stuck out for the wilds of Canada on a daring surveying expedition that succeeded in its goals but nearly cost him his life. Three years later he sailed to the young colony of New Zealand. His task: to survey a vast area of the South Island and find gold and other minerals, and a route across the Southern Alps to the remote west coast. He was twentyeight whn he arrived in Dunedin on an autumn morning in 1862. Within seven and a half years he would have founded all the country's major scientific institutions and be in chare of them all. Today these institutions...........still form the scientgific backbone of New Zealand. But James Hector was not only a brilliant organiser, he was an inspired scientist who researched and wrote on numerous topics from the geology of coal fields to the fossil skeletons of wales. He was an avid boanist – thirteen plant species bear his name - and as a geologist he produced maps of enduring quality. James Hecor's extraordinary life and work come vividly alive in this collection of writings by leading New Zealand scientists and his descendants.”

Anyone with an interest in extraordinary people will find this book of interest. Hovever those interested in the Colonial Botanic Garden, subsequently named the Wellington Botanic Garden, recogniing the substantial role he played in its establishment, should regard this as essential reading. Responsible for the introduction and trial of local and exotic trees, the appearaance of the Garden reveals his hand, and the pines, so much of this countrys prosperity today, is one of the most important legacies he left for prosperity.

I obtained my copy from Friends member Roger Smith at Geographix, his business in the Hector Observatory, now known as the Dominion Observatory Building, near the Cable Car entrance. Cost $25.00

The Amazing World of James Hector ed. Simon Nathan and Mary Varnham, by various authors, published by AWA Science ISBN 978-0-9582750-7-1