Thomas Frederic Cheeseman, 1846–1923.
By the death of Thomas Frederic Cheeseman on the 15th October, 1923, the New Zealand Institute has lost a highly distinguished Fellow whose name must be added to that select band—Colenso, Kirk, Haast, Hector, and Hutton—who, with himself, working in this country, have laid a lasting foundation on which is being erected the splendid edifice of New Zealand natural history.
Cheeseman, though nominally an Englishman through being born at Hull, in Yorkshire, in 1846, was in reality a New-Zealander, since he came to the colony with his parents when only eight years of age, and was educated first at the Parnell Grammar School and later at St. John's College, Auckland. His father, the Rev. Thomas Cheeseman, was at one time a member of the old Auckland Provincial Council, and took a prominent part in the public life of the day.
It is not easy to say what led Cheeseman to commence a serious study of our flora, but probably the stimulus to a natural bent was Hooker's Handbook, together with the founding of the New Zealand Institute. At any rate, by 1872—fifty-one years ago—he had acquired, unaided in any way, so sound a knowledge of the plants of his neighbourhood that he was able to publish an accurate and comprehensive account of the plant-life of the Waitakarei Hills. This paper is far from being obsolete, for it is the sole record of a vegetation which is now profoundly modified.
In 1874 Cheeseman was appointed Secretary of the Auckland Institute and Curator of the Museum, then in its early infancy. How far-reaching for the scientific advancement of New Zealand, and indeed for the general benefit of the country, this apparently unimportant appointment was, no one could possibly foresee; yet it has led to the gathering together of the invaluable collections of the Auckland Museum, and to botanical studies, not academic only, but of high significance for agriculture, horticulture, and forestry. These studies were carried on diligently up to his death, hardly a year having passed without some communication appearing from his pen. Primarily a botanist, he belonged nevertheless to that class of naturalists, common enough before these days of specialization, who took an interest in all branches of natural history. Thus, of his 101 papers and books, twenty-two deal with zoological or ethnological subjects; indeed, it was this wide knowledge which fitted him so eminently for his museum activities.
But it was as a botanist that Cheeseman stood pre-eminent, and it is his work in floristic botany which has made his name widely known in all lands. At the time his researches commenced, the greater part of New Zealand was almost unknown botanically, so that a keen search for plants in all directions was demanded; fresh material was also essential for the accurate study of many species admitted by Hooker. During his vacations, therefore, Cheeseman assiduously sought to remedy this state of affairs, and many were his excursions. The most important communications from his pen on this head concern the Nelson Provincial District, the Kermadec and Three Kings Islands, and the area from Mangonui to the far north; but these by no means reflect all his activities in the field, nor give any
idea of the number of species he discovered or specially investigated. All this is better reflected in his Manual, wherein are indicated the many localities he visited and the species he described. In some of his excursions he was accompanied by his friend the late Mr. J. Adams, of the Thames High School, and the names Senecio Adamsii and Elytranthe Adamsii, bestowed by Cheeseman, are a fitting memento of their comradeship.
Cheeseman's explorations were not confined to the New Zealand Botanical Region; he also visited Polynesia, and published in the Transactions of the Linnean Society a comprehensive account of the flora of Rarotonga, the chief island of the Cook Group. His general botanical knowledge was wide, especially of systematic botany; he also had the greatest sympathy for other branches of the science, and perceived plainly the present-day trend—for had he not closely watched the botanical development of fifty years' unparalleled activity? Thus, in his own domain, although during the greater part of his career he based his work on the Linnean conception of species, in recent years his opinion changed in no small degree in this regard, and he accepted, or defined, groups of individuals as species which he would previously have merged. In other words, he possessed the true scientific spirit, in that he was open to conviction, and would deliberately follow a new path, even if so doing clashed with his former opinions.
Cheeseman's botanical publications fall into several classes; many, along with the work of others, paved the way for a complete flora of New Zealand. Then there was the actual flora he produced in 1906, entitled The Manual of the New Zealand Flora, to which must be added his and Hemsley's Illustrations of the New Zealand Flora (1914). Then come his writings of a philosophical character which deal with the origin of the New Zealand subantarctic flora, and an early paper treating of the naturalized plants of the Auckland Provincial District. Finally, amongst his earlier writings also are several papers dealing with the pollination of certain species—a matter then receiving great attention through the influence of Darwin.
There is not space available for a full account of the scope of the above writings; all, even the shortest, were distinguished by those characteristics which their gifted author possessed to an extreme degree—sound judgment, clarity of expression, and accuracy. Above all, he had the supreme gift of infinite patience: all views expressed were the result of much cautious deliberation; the hurried methods of the present day were not for him. And in this spirit he approached his classic work, The Manual of the New Zealand Flora, with the result that it can be used with all confidence in the certain knowledge that it contains the well-considered conclusions of a master mind. As for this flora, it stands out the equal of any of that brilliant series of floras dealing with various parts of the British Empire which were conceived, and in part executed, by Bentham and Hooker.
Hand in hand with his botanical research went on the development of the Auckland Museum, which, during the fifty years of his direction, developed into an institution of high rank, especially distinguished—such was his many-sided knowledge—by what is probably the most extensive collection extant illustrating Maori ethnology. A peculiarly important addition will be Cheeseman's almost complete herbarium of the flowering-plants and vascular cryptogams of the Dominion, which some short time ago he presented to the Auckland Institute—a splendid gift, invaluable for all students of the flora.
To a scientific worker in a far-away corner of the earth honours come slowly. Nevertheless it would have been astonishing had Cheeseman's many claims for recognition been overlooked. For many years New Zealand itself had nothing to offer. Even the University does not honour itself, as do other universities, by conferring degrees upon distinguished men. But Cheeseman was early elected a Fellow of the Linnean Society of London, and, a little later, of the Zoological Society also. But honours far more distinguished came to him—first of all, a Corresponding Membership of the Botanical Society of Edinburgh, and this year one of the highest science can offer, the Gold Linnean Medal of the Linnean Society, a distinction open to zoologists and botanists throughout the world; further, had he lived, he would almost certainly have been elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. Then the New Zealand Institute made him its President in 1911, which is the highest honour a scientific man can attain in the Dominion, and in 1918 he was awarded the Hector Memorial Medal and Prize for his botanical researches, and the succeeding year he was made an original Fellow of the New Zealand Institute.
After all, the gaining of honours is far from being the crown of the gifted man of science: rather is it the admiration of those who best know his work, and, above all, the knowledge that such work is influencing his fellow-workers, old and young. It is indeed difficult to estimate how great has been the influence of Cheeseman upon botanical research in New Zealand. His works must perforce be in the hands of all pursuing studies concerned either with the flora or the vegetation, and must be consulted daily. Nor will this influence lessen with his lamented death; it will vastly increase. Happily, the great botanist lived to round off his life's work—the revised edition of his flora. How greatly do we botanists of this country, if I may speak for my friends and colleagues, rejoice that he had the satisfaction of finishing his task! How greatly do we deplore that he did not live to see his labours materialized, and to receive our acclamation!