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Hector Day

Hector Day: 16 March
James Hector was a pioneer explorer, geologist, and natural scientist who founded many of New Zealand's scientific organisations. Geologists annually commemorate Hector Day, the anniversary of his birthday on 16 March 1834, with field trips in different parts of New Zealand. Picnics, quizzes, cricket matches etc have also been known to break out.

Hector Day picnic anyone?


  1. In recognition of the contribution of past geoscientists to the earth sciences in New Zealand and to encourage social interaction between their modern counterparts, the Geological Society of New Zealand shall, through its branches, establish and organise an annual national geosciences day.
  2. The day shall be known as Hector Day, in honour of Sir James Hector, and should be held as near as possible to 16 March, Hector's birthday.
  3. Activities organised shall be at the discretion of individual branches, with the recommendation that informal, non-academic gatherings be favoured. These may consist of, for example, barbeques, picnics, sports, tours or social field trips.
  4. Participation of as many local people involved in the earth sciences as possible, whether they be members of the Society or not, should be encouraged.
Who was James Hector?

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, and in 1857 he was appointed surgeon and geologist on a Government expedition for the exploration of western Canada. It started in Detroit in June 1857, and ended at Vancouver Island in January 1860.

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 traveller 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.

Hector left his mark on many geographic features. He is particularly remembered for the discovery of Kicking Horse Pass, high in the Rockies. As the name implies, he was injured by a horse, and assumed to be dead. His companions were about to bury him when he regained consciousness and winked at them.

Based on his success with the expedition, Hector was appointed Geologist to the Province of Otago, New Zealand soon after the discovery of gold. From his arrival in April 1962, he carried out pioneer exploration and geological reconnaissance Otago, including the inaccessible mountainous area in the west.

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.

The work of the Geological Survey followed a regular pattern. In the summer months, Hector worked strenuously in the field with assistants. For the rest of the year he was based in the Colonial Museum (close to the site of the present Parliament Buildings) writing reports, classifying specimens and arranging displays.

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.

Hector published 45 scientific papers in the Transactions of the New Zealand Institute on geology, botany and zoology, and produced catalogues of material in the Colonial Museum and Library. He prepared a Handbook of New Zealand in 1879 (revised 1882, 1883, and 1886) which 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 catalogues, manuals and handbooks by the Colonial Museum. Between 1871-81 these covered 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 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, to some of whom he appeared autocratic and conservative. 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). Almost 100 years after his death, Hector is now remembered with more respect for the enormous contribution he made to setting New Zealand science on a solid foundation.

Simon Nathan
(with acknowledgement to R.K. Dell and Alan Mason)