Scoop Review of Books

Pioneer Biologist

Book Review
A Colonial Naturalist: Henry Suter’s life of discovery and hardship in New Zealand by Pamela Hyde (Sphenodon Publishing, Eastbourne. $35)
Reviewed by Simon Nathan

suter-001_webIn 1927, eleven-year-old Charles Fleming was thrilled to be given a copy of Henry Suter’s two-volume Manual of New Zealand Mollusca as a Christmas present. They were volumes he had coveted, and was to treasure and refer to throughout his scientific career. Copies are now rare collector’s items, and the author is one of the forgotten men of New Zealand science. Apart from his Manual, little was known of Henry Suter’s life and wide-ranging research. This book, thoroughly researched from family records and world-wide archives by his great-granddaughter, is a fascinating account of the difficult life and eventual success of one of our pioneer biologists.

Born into a prosperous Swiss family, Heinrich Suter studied science subjects at the Federal Polytechnikum in Zurich. While he would have liked a scientific career, as the only son he was destined to follow his father into the silk business. As the years passed he maintained his scientific interests as an amateur biologist, specialising in land and freshwater mollusca. Unfortunately Suter’s business ventures were unsuccessful, and after 25 years he was heavily in debt and eventually declared bankrupt. His comfortable lifestyle ended abruptly in 1886, and Suter was faced with emigrating to start a new life, with a wife and seven children to support.

It is not clear why Suter chose to come to New Zealand, so distant from his homeland. He hoped to find employment as a professional scientist in the young colony, but New Zealand was in the throes of a long depression in the 1880s, and there were very few opportunities for paid employment in science. For the next thirty years Suter had a precarious existence, between ‘starving and living’ as he described it. He chose to be known as Henry, the anglicised version of his first name.

His initial attempt at growing vegetables on a remote block of land at Forty Mile Bush was a failure, but with the assistance of biologist F.W. Hutton he obtained a post as assistant manager at the Hermitage near Mt Cook. The whole family worked – Suter and his older sons as guides, his wife Ida and the girls involved in cooking and housekeeping. He was in an ideal location for collecting alpine plants and animals, and was soon involved exchanging specimens with naturalists in New Zealand and overseas.

When Suter arrived in New Zealand the terrestrial molluscan fauna was almost unknown. Although he had little time for scientific work, he immediately started collecting and describing shells. His first paper appeared in volume 22 of the Transactions of the New Zealand Institute (published 1890), and was followed by almost annual papers describing his new discoveries. Pamela Hyde includes a list of the 106 New Zealand publications he produced – all the more impressive as he did not start publishing until he was almost fifty – and these gradually built up his reputation as a biologist.

By 1890 the Suter family had moved to Christchurch, and Henry Suter was looking for whatever work he could find. Hutton arranged for him to work on a short-term contract at Canterbury Museum, and  Cheeseman employed him for two periods at Auckland Museum, but he was mostly unemployed. Over the years Suter made sporadic income by trading natural history specimens and Maori taonga with local and overseas naturalists and museums. Although he specialised in mollusca, he broadened his collecting to cover whatever his clients requested, including lizards, plants and fossils.

In 1905 Suter wrote to Augustus Hamilton, Director of the Dominion Museum, saying that as there was no work in sight he wanted to start work on a definitive manual of New Zealand mollusca that  would include all the research done by himself and others. Hamilton was supportive, and managed to obtain a small amount of funding – just enough for Suter survive on. It was the start of a decade of intense work by Suter, with the prospect of a publication that would summarise his New Zealand research. There were also frustrations while Suter tried to obtain material and overseas publications, difficulties about the layout of the publication by the Government Printer, and a loss of impetus after  Hamilton’s sudden death. The first volume of the was published in 1913, but the more elaborate second volume of illustrations was delayed until 1915 – and perhaps was lucky not to be further delayed as World War 1 was underway.

The two volumes of Suter’s "Manual of New Zealand Mollusca", with illustrations all painstakingly drawn by the author.

The two volumes of Suter’s “Manual of New Zealand Mollusca”, with illustrations all painstakingly drawn by the author.


The appearance of the Manual confirmed Suter’s reputation, and ironically led on to offers of paid work at a time when he could have been thinking of retirement. Under the leadership of P.G. Morgan, the New Zealand Geological Survey was starting a long-overdue revision of fossils collected over the preceding 50 years, and Suter was offered the opportunity to describe fossil marine mollusca. Aged 70 when he started, his eyesight was failing, and he found the careful work increasingly difficult. By the time of his death in July 1918 he had completed three monographs that were published as Paleontological Bulletins by the Geological Survey, and a further volume was published after his death.

The story of Suter’s battle for survival so that he could pursue a scientific career is heroic, but much of the hardship was borne by his long-suffering wife, Ida. It is also an illuminating view into the small, interconnected New Zealand scientific community in the late 19th and 20th centuries. Although money was always tight, Suter was helped by a number of supportive colleagues, including Colenso, Hutton, Cheeseman and Hamilton and Thompson. I had previously regarded F.W.Hutton as a curmudgeon after reading his correspondence with Hector and Haast, but Suter clearly found him a generous friend and mentor.  Although he had a hard life, Suter was ultimately successful in achieving recognition for his scientific work, and I think that he would be delighted with this comprehensive and beautifully produced biography.

The Suter collection of marine mollusca, an important reference collection now held at GNS Science.

The Suter collection of marine mollusca, an important reference collection now held at GNS Science.