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Volume 64, 1935
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George Malcolm Thomson (1848–1933).

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George Malcolm Thomson

By the death of the Hon. G. M. Thomson, M.L.C., F.L.S., the New Zealand Institute loses one of its oldest members, one who was held in high esteem not only for his genial personality, but also for his keen and active interest in science, especially Natural History.

Born at Calcutta in 1848, he came to New Zealand when he was twenty years of age, and, except for three years, spent the rest of his life in Dunedin. He joined the teaching staff of the Otago High Schools in 1871, and a few years later became the Science Master, teaching both Botany and Chemistry, a position which he occupied from 1877 till 1903. He cared nothing for syllabus or for examinations; his method was such as to excite the real interest in his subject; his aim was to awaken in his pupils a love for Nature, and this he succeeded in doing, both by his work in the classroom and in his walks round the Town Belt. But he had many other interests: he was at a younger age an active football player; and he became a

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member also of the B Battery, in which he was a captain. It was during his time at the High School and while he was supervising the target shooting by the cadets that he received a shot in his foot, which had to be amputated. Nevertheless, though sadly hampered for the remainder of his life, this did not seriously interfere with his taking part in botanical excursions.

Another and a more lasting hobby was music, and for several years he was an active member of the Dunedin Orchestral Society.

But these interests did not satisfy G.M.T.; he took a very keen and very active share in a variety of social work, for the betterment and education of the young people, and for the provision of evening classes for those who had not had the opportunity of atending the High School; for this was long before the system of Free Places. He was the founder in 1889 of the Technical School in Dunedin, where night classes were provided; and was its superintendent and chairman for some ten years, and even after that remained on the committee. He was one of the chief founders of the City Mission, of which he was likewise president; and for twenty years was president of the Y.M.C.A.

There are few men who spent themselves so ungrudgingly, and without fee or reward, for the public weal.

After resigning from the High School, he carried on the business of analyst for some years, but relinquished it on being elected to the House of Representatives for North Dunedin, in 1908; and he remained a member of the House till 1914. Four years later he was appointed a member of the Legislative Council, in which he sat till his term expired in 1932. During his parliamentary career and as a Governor of the New Zealand Institute he was constantly advocating the introduction of Natural History into the school curriculum, but this was one of the few things that he had at heart which he did not see fulfilled.

But he will be known best and for the longest time for his work in science. Mr Thomson was the last of the old-fashioned naturalists, in the widest sense. He was, too, an amateur naturalist, and I do not use this term in any derogatory way, for in the past much of our knowledge of zoology and botany was built up by men who took up the study of plants and animals out of pure love of the subject, and as a hobby, apart from their daily work, and unconnected with any university appointment; men who have received no training such as is provided now in universities and colleges. To-day everything is organised, and amateurs are fewer and fewer as the sciences become more and more specialised; all is worked according to some syllabus. Thomson was not shackled by such chains; he worked along his own lines.

Mr Thomson was elected in 1872 a member of the Otago Institute, which had only been founded in 1869, so that he was practically co-temporary with it. He was elected to the Council of the Institute in 1875, and remained a member of it till the last. He acted as secretary on three occasions: in 1878–80, in 1887, and again in 1902.

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He was president three times: in 1881, 1901, and lastly in 1919. He was one of our representatives or Governors of the New Zealand Institute from 1905 to the last; he was president of that body in 1907–8. When the Fellowship was established in 1919, he was naturally one of the Original Fellows of the New Zealand Institute. He was editor of the Transactions in more than one year. Indeed, last year he saw the work through the press. He was awarded the Hector medal in 1930 for his botanical work.

In 1884 he was elected a Fellow of the Linnean Society of London, and was a member of other scientific societies.

In addition to a number of zoological articles contributed by him to the “Annals and Magazine of Natural History,” Mr Thomson published some thirty-three papers in the Transactions, the first in 1874, the last in 1927. Of these fourteen related to the crustacea. But his interests were almost equally divided between animals and plants; and we might divide these papers into three periods. The earliest dealt with plants, then come the crustacea, and his later ones with fishes and fisheries; but each period overlaps the other.

His first paper in 1874 dealt with introduced plants in the neighbourhood of Dunedin. He emphasised the importance of cataloguing these naturalised foreigners. He returned again and again to this subject, in 1900, and in his large work on the “Naturalisation of Plants and Animals in New Zealand.” He was interested in the gradual change in the vegetation of New Zealand, the gradual disappearance of the native plants and the invasion of the introduced ones. Another problem that he tackled was the origin of our flora, a subject which he took as his presidential address in 1881. He explained the similarity of our flora with that of South America and Tasmania by an appeal to the former existence of an extensive Antarctic Continent “which had in all likelihood alternations of climate … and during some of its warmer epochs it would be invaded by plants from South America. These would become spread round the south pole, from thence to be distributed radially to the countries lying north, as the climate again altered.” And some of these would have reached New Zealand. The suggestion is in accord with that held by zoologists to account for the occurrence here and in South America of similar animals.

A third subject which attracted Thomson was the fertilisation of flowers. In 1878 appeared his paper on “The Fertilisation of Our Orchids,” flowers in which the apparatus for pollination has undergone extraordinary modifications. He describes the arrangements in ten species.

In the same year he studied the Violas. It has long been known that in the violet there are, in addition to the bright and fragrant flowers to which insects are attracted, and so cross-pollinate the flowers, several small, colourless flowers closed so that self fertilisation alone is possible. Thomson examined two species of native Viola as well as the “cleistogamic” flowers of some other genera, such as Melicope simplex. In 1880 he published a paper of forty-seven pages

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in which he enumerates the species actually examined by him in the attempt to ascertain by what agencies the transference of pollen was effected. Of the 433 species he studied, he found that 30 per cent. had conspicuous flowers; 21 per cent. of the flowers were conspicuous “by association” such as the Compositae; and 49 per cent. were inconspicuous, including the grasses. He then tabulated the flowers according to colour, to fragrance, and to honey secretion, and so on. He proceeded to examine one by one the representatives of the natural Orders, describing the structure of the flower and noting any arrangement of the stamens, etc., that are pertinent to the matter in hand. The paper illustrates his methodical and careful work. In 1927 he returned to the subject, and in a much more extensive paper gives a summary of all that was known or has been recorded as to the fertilisation of our native flowers by birds and insects. The accumulation of the facts must have involved a great amount of reading of papers relating to the plants, and others relating to insects. He remarks: “Botanists do not trouble themselves with the insects that visit flowers which they are collecting; and entomologists are seeking the insects themselves and seldom note the plants they are found upon.” Yet Thomson was able to dig out of the scattered literature and to tabulate some 60 species of insects of different groups —Diptera, Coleoptera, Lepidoptera, Hymenoptera—as visitors of flowers. He enumerates the flowers so visited, or which are constructed in such a way as to attract insects, and quotes always the observations of others; it is a very valuable paper, and indicates the industrious and painstaking method he followed.

This sort of Botany is now out of favour and, indeed, unnecessary, but we must remember the date at which Thomson was making these investigations. The “Origin of Species” had been published late in 1859 and had shed a new light on the study of natural history; Darwin had raised it from an arid collection of unrelated facts to a real science of living things in which each one is adapted in some way to meet the effects of the environment. Both zoologists and botanists were, during the ‘sixties and’ seventies, stimulated to look at nature from a new aspect. Darwin had published in 1862 his book on “The Fertilisation of Flowers,” and showed the variety of modifications presented by them to effect cross pollination; and in 1876 there appeared his work on the “Fertilisation of Orchids.” So Thomson, being a staunch follower of Darwin, was applying to the New Zealand flora what Darwin had done for the European, and he found that the generalisations then made held for our flowers. To-day, botanists having assimilated these generalisations, apply themselves to more complicated relations of plants to their surroundings—they study Ecology.

In 1898 Thomson wrote a paper on the Study of Natural History in which he referred to the lack of powers of observation of natural phenomena in most people, and in order to stimulate this and an interest in his favourite subject, the Otago Institute, on his suggestion, offered prizes to pupils of the primary schools for the best diary

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or other record made throughout a year of such observations by the pupils themselves.

In 1909 Thomson published a little book, “A New Zealand Naturalist's Calendar,” which was a reprint of a series of articles which he wrote for the Otago Daily Times. In the introduction he wrote: “I have tried to keep my eyes open to the beauties of nature. I have recorded facts and incidents which interested me; … they do not profess to teach anything new.” A charming little work it is; he tells in his excellent English of his walks about Dunedin, the Town Belt, and even further afield at Moeraki … and tells of the plants and insects and birds that he sees. The diary is divided into months so that one may find what plants are in flower at any time of the year.

But Thomson had not confined himself to botanical problems, for already in 1878 he commenced that series of papers on Crustacea which was to prove his real life work, by which his name will be remembered by zoologists. In 1878 he had four papers on the group in the Transactions for the year.

He first tackled the lower forms, minute fresh-water crustacea—the Daphnids, Cyclopids, Cyprids. It was a new ground; no one had done anything for New Zealand Entomostraca till he studied them and introduced to naturalists here a new realm of beautiful and active little animals. Unfortunately, the editor of that time ruthlessly reduced Thomson's excellent drawings to so small a size in these early papers as to lose much of their value. In later papers the figures were reproduced on a satisfactory scale.

In 1882 there appears his memoir on Parasitic Copepods, in which the females are so changed in form as to lose all resemblance to their class.

And so he went on, dealing successively with each of the larger groups included in the Crustacea. They are remarkable for the lucid description of external form, and the excellence of the illustrative drawings. It is impossible to do justice to this work. It is purely systematic descriptions of new genera and species, valuable to zoologists, but containing nothing profoundly new. Many of these crustacea he obtained by tow netting in the waters of the harbour and by dredging. Not only did he describe a number of these lower crustacea, but he sent home to the distinguished zoologist Sars, of Norway, dried mud from the ponds. This contained the eggs, and from this mud Sars reared a number of forms in addition to those Thomson had described. Throughout his crustacean work, he was in communication with specialists in Europe and America, thus keeping in touch with what was being done outside New Zealand.

Early in his life he had influenced the late Dr Charles Chilton to take an interest in this same group, and they collaborated in certain papers. Thomson also published in the Transactions of the Linnean Society an account of our crabs.

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In 1892 Thomson discovered in the waters on Mount Wellington, near Hobart, a small shrimp-like animal which he noted was different from any crustacean hitherto known. He called it Anaspides, as it lacks the shield or carapace of the related forms. When his paper appeared in the Transactions of the Linnean Society, zoologists recognised that it was not only a very primitive type, but that it stood alone, and a special Order was made for it. It was an astounding and outstanding discovery to have made. It is now recognised that it has most intimate relations with a small group of Palaeozoic crustacea: and like the tuatara is a “living fossil.”

We pass now to the third period, or rather line of work, for each of these varied subjects overlap in time. He turned his attention to fishes and fisheries in 1891, and though he published only four papers, they contain very valuable contributions.

The first one consists of notes compiled from records kept by light-keepers round the coast, for which the Minister for Marine supplied the men with printed forms; this paper is merely a list of those fishes and the dates and localities at which each was observed. It does not add much to our knowledge, but is an example of the kind of methodical work Thomson carried out. In 1897 his second paper refers to the proposed establishment of a fish hatchery, which at that time was to be situated at Purakanui. He indicated the great value such a station would be, especially in connection with the fishery industry, and with necessary legislation. He wrote: “Fishery legislation, to be of use, must be based on knowledge, i.e., observation and experiment; we are ignorant of such fundamental matters as the time of spawning, the localities in which spawning takes place, the changes undergone during the life history, the migration of fishes, the character of the food, etc.” He makes some severe comments on the absurdities of many of the regulations drawn up in ignorance of these facts. In 1905 he gives the complete history of his attempts to get the Marine Fisheries Investigation Station established. It was to Thomson that the present station at Portobello owes its existence. He approached the Ministers to get grants, as well as the Acclimatisation Society and the Institute. At last he got the approval of the Minister and the promise from the societies, and the station was opened in 1904. The first meeting of the Board, which was appointed by the Minister, was in 1902. George M. Thomson was elected chairman, and occupied that position up to the time of his death.

In this paper details are given of the investigations already carried out and of those commenced; the history of the trial shipment of lobsters, which was unsuccessful till later in 1912. In Vol. 45 he published the first part of what was intended to be “The Natural History of Otago Harbour.” In it he gives a list of all the fishes recorded from the harbour and its immediate vicinity, and all the crustacea. He hoped for the collaboration of other specialists so as to make a complete biological survey of the harbour; but lack of enthusiasm, lack of men to carry out the work, has left the survey for future naturalists to carry out.

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In his capacity of chairman of the Portobello Station, Thomson has sent in an annual report to the Minister of what has been done. And throughout the years during which the station was being hatched, and during most of the time since, Thomson bore the expense of postage, stationery, and other expenses. No one could be more generous of his time, labour, and money in any effort to bring to fruition his attempts for the benefit of others. In the case of the station, he always had in mind the help it would give to fishermen. In these later years it has been his greatest pleasure to spend time at the Hatchery working in the laboratory, and the decision of the Government to reduce the annual grant and thus to deplete the staff was a genuine grief to him. He was up to the last trying to persuade the Minister to increase it even by a small amount so that the work of the station should be continued.

In 1900 he accompanied the Inspector of Fisheries on a voyage on s.s. “Doto” to investigate suitable trawling grounds, to find out where marketable fishes were most numerous, and so on. Mr Thomson made extensive collections of marine animals, which were later described by various zoologists in New Zealand. As the “Doto” travelled up the east coast of this island and entered Cloudy Bay and Golden Bay by Nelson, and as dredgings were made all the way, quite a good assortment of rare forms were, through his agency, brought back.

I must refer to Thomson's magnum opus, “The Naturalisation of Plants and Animals in New Zealand,” which was published by the Cambridge University Press in 1922. Such a work has never been attempted for any country, and, indeed, New Zealand seems to be the only country in which it could be attempted with anything approaching success.

The history of European invasion of plants and animals dates back no further than to Cook's time, when in his second voyage he landed at Dusky Sound and later at Queen Charlotte Sound. At each place he seems to have left some few animals and seeds or plants. The compilation of such a work involved an immense amount of labour, so vast that any other man but G. M. Thomson would have been appalled, as indeed he was, and they would have given up the work. But Thomson, with that persistence so characteristic of him when once he had undertaken a thing, went through with it. He studied the records of all the Acclimatisation Societies, going as far back as possible; he got into communication with many individuals who might have knowledge of the facts or who could help him to get the facts.

The record consists of a complete list of all the mammals, birds, fishes, and invertebrate animals that have been intentionally or accidentally introduced—more than 600 species of animals from the “Red Deer to the oyster,” and as many plants, if not more. It is not merely a dry catalogue, but for each animal and plant he notes the date of introduction, the place, and the person or society

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responsible, and details as to whether it succeeded or died out. He quotes from people who knew the facts. For instance, he gives seven pages to the Red Deer, and nine pages to the Brown Trout.

He took the greatest pains to get the nomenclature correct and the classification, adopting the most authoritative views on such matters. He spent hours in the Museum library consulting books in order to be as correct as possible, so that the book could be used by zoologists anywhere. The work is a monument to Thomson's patience and thoroughness.

During the last few years he had been at work on a complete “List of the Crustacea of New Zealand,” with outline drawings of all the species recorded in any publication in any part of the world. Had he been able to complete it, such a work would have been invaluable to naturalists the world over. He was in correspondence with crustaceologists in Europe and America, seeking their aid in tracing down to their source the description of such forms as had been described by zoologists outside New Zealand in journals which we do not see. He spared no pains to get this list complete and accurate. Even the week before his death I spent an evening with him in consultation over the work, much of it nearly ready for printing.

In addition to all this original investigation, Thomson published, in 1891, an “Introductory Class Book of Botany for Use in High Schools.” It followed on the lines of what at that date was the well-known method of studying plants, but has long been discontinued. Also he wrote a handbook of the Ferns of New Zealand, founded on the specimens he had gathered.

In 1882 he founded and edited the New Zealand Journal of Science, and although his name does not appear on the title-page or elsewhere, it was known that he bore the cost of any deficit due to lack of subscribers. Its intention was to provide more frequent means of publishing original papers than the annual volume of the Transactions, and to form a means of communication amongst the scientific workers in the Dominion. It contained original articles, abstracts from scientific papers from outside the Dominion, and so on. After running for four years, 1882–85, it ceased, owing to the failure of 60 per cent. of the subscribers to pay up. But Thomson with his enthusiasm not a bit dulled, resumed the publication in 1891, when six parts were issued. But it had to die. In the first period G. M. Thomson bore the whole brunt of the cost and editorship, but in the second appearance he was aided by some six or seven others.

When the A.A.A.S. met at Dunedin in 1904, G. M. Thomson was the local secretary, and the success of the meeting was due to his energy and geniality and his organising ability.

The Dunedin Field Naturalists' Club owes its inception to the same gentleman, who in the early days accompanied members on their excursions, which were rendered fruitful and interesting by

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his knowledge, always freely given. Though the original club died, yet it was revived more than once, and quite recently Mr Thomson gave an address at an indoor meeting of the members.

It was he who was instrumental in cataloguing the native plants, and having published a list of all those to be found in and around Dunedin: a comparison of later lists with the first list will indicate what changes in the flora have taken place,

Such is the record of work during nearly sixty years carried out by a conscientious and enthusiastic naturalist, equally interested in problems of botany, in systematic zoology, and in economic zoology, and in the facts of acclimatisation. And though he made no definite contribution to Evolution, he was a firm believer in that philosophical aspect of biology. His life was a full one, and in spite of domestic losses he never faltered in his ideal of public service. His high courage never failed, his faith never wavered. G.M.T. gained the affection of all who knew him, and the esteem of everyone with whom he came in contact, whether in business, in his scientific, his social, or political activities.

Wm. B. B.