OBITUARY Thomas Hill Easterfield (1866–1949)
A new and as yet undeveloped country and a new University College offer an enthusiast an unrivalled opportunity for development to the individual professor and for variety of research subjects for his students. Such was the position when Thomas Hill Easterfield landed in Wellington in April, 1899, to become the first Professor of Chemistry and Physics in the newly founded Victoria University College. His inaugural address, “Research as the Prime Factor in a Scientific Education,” indicated clearly the line that he intended to follow. In this address he expressed his belief in early specialisation so that the student could enter upon research work as soon as possible, having entered into the spirit of research by the reading of original memoirs. Easterfield later summarised his lecture as follows: “It is equally the duty of a scientific teacher to make new knowledge as to teach what is already known; every science student should be regarded as potentially a research student if given the opportunity and encouragement; research is a great educator in itself; research habits carried into practice are of fundamental value to the human race.” How fully those sentiments were carried out was shown by the quality of his teaching, by his investigations into the chemistry of the native plants of this country, and by his valuable contributions to industry and commerce, not only in Wellington, but in other parts of New Zealand.
Thomas Hill Easterfield was born in Doncaster, England, on March 4, 1866, and died in Nelson, New Zealand, on March 1, 1949, just three days before his eighty-third birthday. He entered the Yorkshire College (now the University of Leeds) and he often described the primitive conditions of work in scattered and unsuitable buildings, which state of affairs was to be repeated in his early years at Victoria University College. While still in his teens, in 1883 he published two papers, one chemical, the other geological. Later he became a Senior Foundation Scholar of Clare College, Cambridge, and in 1886 was awarded a First Class in the Natural Science Tripos, with Chemistry, Physics, Geology and Zoology. During this undergraduate period Easterfield was a prominent miler and three-miler, gaining his athletic blue. After graduation he went to the Continent and worked in the Federal Polytechnic, Zürich, the University of Zürich, and later in the University of Würzburg under the famous organic chemist, Emil Fischer. A Ph. D. degree of the latter University was awarded him in 1894 for a dissertation on citrazinic acid. In 1888 Easterfield had returned to Cambridge to become a lecturer under the University Extension Movement and he worked in the Organic Chemistry laboratory of the University. The experience of lecturing to lay audiences developed in him the ability to explain technical matters in simple language and to design experiments using apparatus of the simplest form. He often said that these years were later of inestimable value in his university and public lectures. Moreover,
an aptitude for creating useful laboratory gadgets found full opportunity for development not only in Cambridge, as is evidenced by early notes in scientific journals, but especially under the difficult conditions of the early years before permanent laboratory accommodation was available at Victoria University College. Workers in the Cawthron Institute laboratories also remember his dexterity in glass blowing and the mechanical arts.
Professor Easterfield's training as a first-class organic chemist and in the then newer field of physical chemistry was shown in his earlier papers published in the Journal of the Chemical Society, the Transactions of the New Zealand Institute, and elsewhere. The researches in organic chemistry ranged not only over items of pure chemistry, but also of natural products such as the constituents of Indian hemp and the characteristic substances of New Zealand native shrubs and trees such as tutin and coriamyrtin, karakin, and the resins of the Podocarpi (miro, kahikatea, matai, totara). His interest in physical chemistry was reflected in the description of simple apparatus for demonstration and use of the laws applying to solute and solvent. In 1908 he was relieved of the Chair of Physics and was thus enabled to give his full time to chemistry.
After a long period at Victoria College, during which he took a very full part in the administration of the College and in student affairs, Professor Easterfield came to feel that he had given to the College as much as he could with satisfaction to himself. For some time he had been looking at the position of the primary industries of the country and had come to consider that there was a crying need for more research in this field and had felt that he would like to do something to fulfil that need. At this time, in 1915, Thomas Cawthron had died in Nelson, bequeathing a large sum of money for the founding of a Technical School. Following on the report of a Commission, of which Professor Easterfield was secretary, the Cawthron Institute, as a research institute whose interests were to be in agriculture, was founded in 1919 and he became the first Director. On retiring from his University work he had been made Professor-Emeritus, being the first professor of Victoria College to be so honoured. By reason of his broad outlook, energy and enthusiasm the Cawthron Institute developed rapidly to become a well-known research organisation. He remained as Director until 1933, when he was succeeded by one of his old students (now Sir) Theodore Rigg. After his retirement, Professor Easterfield worked as Honorary Research Chemist at the Institute, his special interests being renal calculi and the reactions of permanganates in concentrated sulphuric and phosphoric acids, the latter being a return to the subject of an early paper, published in the Proceedings of the Cambridge Philosophical Society in 1887. Although he published little after leaving University work, a measure of his influence on agricultural research is to be seen in the number of papers which have emanated from the Cawthron Institute during and since his term of office as Director.
Besides being an enthusiastic chemist, Professor Easterfield took a leading part in the organisation and administration of scientific affairs in general. He was a foundation member of the New Zealand
Institute, which later became the Royal Society of New Zealand. He was President in 1921–22 and was a Hector Medallist for his researches in chemistry. Throughout his twenty-nine years of residence in Nelson he was a member, being President on several occasions, of the Nelson Philosophical Society. An active member of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science, he was President of the Chemistry Section in 1909. The New Zealand Institute of Chemistry, of which he was a foundation member and its second President, owed a great deal to him in its formative years. Later he became an Honorary Fellow of this Institute. He was also a Life Fellow of the Royal Institute of Chemistry of Great Britain and Ireland.
For his services to science in New Zealand he was created K.B.E. in 1938.
Sir Thomas had many interests in the life of the community and will be missed by many who valued his cheery and friendly, helpful manner. An afternoon walk with him was an education and a pleasure as he spoke of the wonders of nature. He was in truth all that is included in the highest meaning of the words “an English gentleman.”
H. O. Askew.