Professor Sir Algernon Phillips Withiel Thomas, 1857–1937.
Professor Thomas, an original Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand, died on the 28th December, 1937, in his eighty-first year and thus closed a long lifetime devoted to the cause of education and science.
Son of J. W. Thomas, of Illogan and Falmouth, best known in connection with the flotation of the Manchester Ship Canal, Sir Algernon was born at Birkenhead, Cheshire, on the 3rd June, 1857. He attended the Manchester Grammar School, whence he went to Balliol College, Oxford, as the holder of a scholarship in natural science. He graduated B.A. in 1877 with first class honours in natural science and also second class honours in mathematics. He won the Burdett-Coutts Scholarship of the University and took his M.A. in 1880. In 1880 he was appointed a demonstrator in biology on the staff of the University Museum, and it was while holding this position and still a very young man that he carried out his important research into the life history of the liver-fluke “long the despair alike of zoologists and agriculturists” and which, at that time, was causing enormous losses to British flocks of sheep. He made discoveries in this connection which were largely responsible for the success of efforts to subdue the pest.
When provision was made for establishing Auckland University College the young scientist, then aged 25, was selected as one of the original Professors of the College. Within his province were the chairs of Geology as well as both the branches (Botany and Zoology) of Biological Science. This tax on his energies did not prevent him also sharing in the teaching of mathematics during his first year in the emergency arising from the accidental drowning of the first Professor of Mathematics on the day of his arrival in Auckland, but it must have handicapped his efforts to achieve useful work outside his actual teaching. He was, however, a man of tireless energy and devotion to his work, and that his teaching was highly successful is attested by the successes of his students in all the subjects for which he was responsible.
Immediately after the great Tarawera eruption in 1886, Professor Thomas was engaged by the Government to make a full scientific report upon it. This publication is still regarded as the chief source of information on the eruption and its effects. Mr. Harry Lundius, of the Survey Department's Auckland District staff, who accompanied him on his journeys, is reported as saying: “Professor Thomas was one of the gamest little men I have ever met, a real plucky sort, and as dogged as they make them. He was ready in those days to tackle any difficult journey.”
Another public service Professor Thomas rendered was as a member of a joint Australian and New Zealand commission on the rabbit pest. Prior to the establishment of the School of Mines, and the Bacteriological Department at the Auckland Hospital, he did an immense amount of gratuitous work in these departments.
Another activity that made Professor Thomas widely known was that of gardening. He was one of the first to carry out successfully the hybridising of narcissi. He raised many new varieties of daffodils, and in the season his display of daffodils drew visitors from far and near to his beautiful garden at Mount Eden.
Professor Thomas retired from his professorial duties at the end of 1913. He had become a member of the Auckland Grammar School Board in 1899. In 1916 he was elected Chairman of the Board and thenceforward a large portion of his time was taken up with the affairs of the Auckland Grammar Schools. During his association with the schools their number increased from one to five and the number of pupils increased from 250 to over 3000. The successful establishment of the additional schools and especially the lay-out of their grounds owed much to Professor Thomas' energy, skill and foresight. Amongst other positions Professor Thomas filled, it may de mentioned that he was a member and vice-chairman of the Dilworth Trust Board, an original member of the Board of Science and Art, a member for over 50 years of the Council of the Auckland Institute and Museum, President three times and Chairman of their Trustees for many years, and for some time a member of the Auckland University College Council and of the New Zealand University Senate. In his private life he was a keen and constant reader of the best literature in several languages and was perhaps equally interested in both Music and Pictorial Art. He had a remarkable memory and soundness of judgment, but there is no doudt that his work for the Grammar Schools was a major influence in creating a -desire amongst his friends and co-workers that he should be honoured in the way that ultimately came about. In the Coronation Honours of May last he was made a K.C.M.G. and this tribute was warmly approved by public opinion and created enthusiasm amongst his friends. His investiture took place on December 14, only a fortnight before his death. Between the two events he had presided and spoken at no less than three prize-givings in a single day, as well as others before and after. Then his system seemed to decline to maintain further such activity and he sank peacefully to rest.
H. W. S.