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The right man

On November 7, 2007, the centenary of James Hector’s death, a symposium was held in his honour at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. GNS Science, the Royal Society of New Zealand and Te Papa—all descendants of institutions founded by Hector—sponsored the event. Now, a year after the symposium, Awa Press’s most recent contribution to New Zealand science literature is a record of the event in the form of The Amazing World of James Hector.

If Hector were around today, most of us would likely tire of hearing about him. We would knock him about, cut him down to size and probably suggest to decision makers that there might be other people around who could fill some of the top dog positions. But Hector arrived to a sparsely populated New Zealand in 1862 at age 27, having already completed medical training and three years exploring the wild frontiers of Canada. He was, as Simon Nathan describes him in the book, “a scientist with a broad general knowledge” who in five years “set up a small but powerful scientific empire”.

Indeed, in addition to the trio of accomplishments mentioned above, Hector was responsible for the botanical and geologic exploration of much of New Zealand, for establishing Wellington’s Botanic Gardens, for being a founding father of the University of New Zealand and for leading New Zealand to become the first country to adopt an official national time.

Hector was, as Victoria University researcher George Gibbs says in the book, “the right man at the right time for New Zealand science. The second half of the nineteenth century in New Zealand offered outstanding opportunities for scientists with an adventurous spirit.”

Clearly, Hector fit the bill and this book is a pleasant insight to the New Zealand of another time. Given that the chapters are individual conference presentations, each is short, quick and conversational, and the book would make a good stocking filler for anyone interested in New Zealand science or history. It’s a great little book that would make a welcome addition to any guest room bedside table or to take to take on holiday and dip in and out of between swims in the sea or walks in the bush.