Walter Reginald Brook Oliver was born in Tasmania in 1883, and arrived in New Zealand with his parents in 1896. His family settled in Tauranga, and Oliver continued his education at the Tauranga District High School. Upon leaving school he entered the service of the Customs Department, being first settled in Wanganui. He served at various New Zealand ports, and rose to be Senior Examining Officer.
While stationed in Christchurch his great interest in natural history developed from the earlier hobby to an active participation in scientific affairs, largely through association with other enthusiastic amateur scientists of that city. About this time he commenced recording in notebooks what ultimately grew into a series of records of his observations upon everything botanical and zoological. These notes, along with publications and extracts from magazines, gradually developed into what he called his “system”, which was, in its final form, an extensive and magnificent classified record of every aspect of biology both in New Zealand and abroad with which he had come in contact. This and his herbarium occupied two rooms full of shelving in his home. His shell collection, which he had commenced during his boyhood in Tasmania, was housed in a shed at the back of his house.
In 1908 Oliver, together with Iredale, from Christchurch, F. S. Oliver and W. Wallace, took part in an expedition to Sunday Island of the Kermadec group, the party remaining there for approximately ten months. It was probably this experience more than anything else that developed Oliver's ability as a naturalist. Following this expedition he began to produce scientific papers and other articles on the derivation and inter-relationships of the fauna and flora of several of the subtropical islands of the South Pacific.
During the First World War Oliver served overseas in the N.Z Expeditionary Force. To him this was an unfortunate interruption to his scientific studies which in later life he dismissed, and of which he rarely spoke. On his way home from the war in 1919 he spent five weeks at Tahiti, getting together a large collection of botanical and zoological specimens for the Dominion Museum.
On his return to New Zealand he rejoined the Customs Department as a Senior Examining Officer, but in 1920 he applied successfully for a vacancy on the staff of the Dominion Museum, and was transferred to that institution as Senior Scientific Assistant. During his first years in this position he undertook the revision of Cheeseman's Manual of the N.Z Flora, a work which was brought to a successful conclusion in 1925 with the issue of the second edition of this major reference book on New Zealand botany. About this time the commenced studies at Victoria University College, graduating B.Sc., securing a senior scholarship in zoology, and taking his M.Sc. with First Class Honours in 1928. In the previous year he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of N.Z.
Following the death of Dr. J. Allan Thomson, Oliver was appointed Director of the Dominion Museum in 1928. During this and the ensuing years he was very active scientifically, playing his part in the then Wellington Philosophical Society, and publishing numerous papers in the Transactions of the N.Z. Institute and overseas journals. In 1930, the first edition of “New Zealand Birds” appeared. This was to become the standard reference book on this subject for New Zealand. It was superseded in 1955 by a second revised and greatly enlarged edition, which is likely to remain the standard reference work on New Zealand birds for a considerable time.
For his paper “Revision of the Genus Coprosma” Oliver was awarded the degree of D.Sc. of the University of New Zealand in 1934, and in 1936 he was awarded the
Hector Medal and Prize for botanical research by the Royal Society of New Zealand. In 1950 he was awarded the Hutton Memorial Medal in recognition of his zoological and botanical attainments.
Dr. Oliver was honoured for his scientific work by election as an honorary member to many overseas scientific institutions, including the Swedish Plant Geographical Society, the Royal Australian Ornithological Union, the British Ornithological Union, and the Fiji Society. He also was a Fellow of the Linnean Society and of the Zoological Society of London. He was a member of the Malacological Society of London.
When Oliver became Director of the Dominion Museum he entered with great enthusiasm into the schemes for the rebuilding of that institution and its housing in modern fireproof quarters. When the final scheme for transferring the museum and art gallery to Mt. Cook was approved, although he was disappointed that the Dominion Museum would be moved away from the centre of the city and associated with an arts institution, he nevertheless accepted the decision and worked with tremendous vigour in the planning of the new museum, serving as a very active member of the first Trust Board charged with the erection of the new group of buildings on Mt. Cook. He put in long and tedious hours planning the arrangement of the new institution and it is very much to his credit that in this work he consulted freely and regularly with the then members of the staff of the Dominion Museum It was perhaps during this period and the subsequent moving of the collections from behind Parliament Buildings to the new site on Mt. Cook that his extraordinary capacity for organisation and attention to minute detail were best displayed. From this period emerged in 1936 and subsequent years the splendid new institution which now plays such an important part in the scientific activities of Wellington City.
Following the successful opening of the new Dominion Museum, Dr. Oliver was awarded a Carnegie Travel Grant to visit and study museums overseas, and during 1937–38 he spent approximately nine months visiting all the major museums of the world, returning to New Zealand with many ideas and notes on improvements to be instituted in the Dominion Museum.
With the onset of the Second World War and the subsequent taking over of the museum and art gallery buildings by the military authorities, his far-reaching plans for the development of a really scientific institution in New Zealand comparable in its scope and functions to the British Museum of Natural History were shattered, and all the major educational activities of the Dominion Museum which Oliver had introduced ceased for the time being. Although he was deeply disturbed by the closing down of the museum's activities, Oliver profited by the temporary lull in administrative duties and turned his attention again to research, working on a revision of the systematics of the New Zealand moas. This work, “Moas of New Zealand and Australia”, was published in 1949. While the museum was closed he also gave considerable thought to its future re-establishment and crystallised his ideas on New Zealand museums in a small pamphlet, “N.Z. Museums: Present Establishment and Future Policy”, published in 1944. When the time for the refurbishing and re-opening of the Dominion Museum arrived, Dr. Oliver again rose to the occasion, and until his retirement from the directorship in 1947 he put all his energy into the re-establishment of the institution.
In all his scientific work Oliver had a great sense of duty, and his work was highly methodical and disciplined. He spared himself no pains to secure accuracy in all his published papers, and to those who knew him he was a proven source of knoweldge in all his chosen fields, and was always willing to assist his colleagues in any way he could. He was modest and retiring in disposition, but to those who knew him and worked with him, and particularly those who had the opportunity to go into the field with him, he was always kindly, helpful in the extreme, and good company. In spite of his somewhat slight physique, he never lost an oppor-
tunity to work in the field, and continued to do so from his retirement until some three months before his death, his last expedition being to Norfolk Island. During his tenure of the directorship of the Dominion Museum the activities of that institution were stimulated by splendidly organized expeditions to various parts of New Zealand and the outlying islands, in which all members of the staff willing to participate took part. In addition to these expeditions, Oliver at various times took part in expeditions or visits on his own account to the Subantarctic Islands of New Zealand, Stewart Island, the Chatham Islands and Lord Howe Island. The publications resulting from his field experiences embraced the entire field of botany, and in zoology birds, whales and molluscs. He also wrote extensively in the field of ecology, and one of his most notable contributions in this regard is his study of the raised seafloor following the Hawke's Bay earthquake in 1931.
A bibliography of his scientific publications is appended.
In spite of his great output of scientific work, Dr. Oliver always found time to play his part actively in the many scientific societies in New Zealand and Australia in which he was interested. He was the N.Z. Secretary of the Royal Australian Ornithological Union for 40 years, and President of the Union in 1944. He was President of the Wellington Philosophical Society from 1929–30; Government Representative on the Council of the Royal Society of New Zealand for many years, and President of the Society 1952–54. He was the first President of the N.Z. Association of Scientific Workers, which later became the N.Z. Association of Scientists, and was active in the formation of this Association. He was Chairman of the Botany section of the Seventh Pacific Science Congress in Auckland in 1949 and the Eighth Congress in Manilla in 1953. In 1953 he was also President of the Eighth Royal Society of N.Z. Science Congress. He served on the Council of the Wellington Branch of the Royal Society for many years, and was Editor of the Transactions of the Royal Society of N.Z. from 1948–51.
In 1920 Oliver was married to Miss I. A. Cardno, and on numerous occasions, to those who knew him well, he mentioned the support and encouragement given him in his scientific work by his wife. He suffered a great shock when Mrs Oliver died suddenly in 1954. In 1956 Dr. Oliver married Miss Helen Laing, of Masterton, whose interest in botany was a great help and stimualtion to him. Dr. and Mrs. Oliver made expeditions to different parts of New Zealand, collecting and studying the native flora, and in November, 1956, together visited Norfolk Island, commencing a large-scale botanical survey of the island. During this visit approximately two-thirds of the total plants listed from Norfolk Island by R. M. Laing in 1914 were rediscovered, and it had been Oliver's intention to return to the island in 1957 to complete this survey.
The extensive “system”, the very large herbarium, and the mollusca collection which Dr. Oliver had built up during his scientific career, passed to the care of the Dominion Museum following his death on May 16, 1957.