Journal Number 100
August 2006


James Hector (1834-1907)
Prasophyllum hectori

By Val Smith

James Hector was born in Edinburgh, the son of Alexander Hector, a conveyancer and Writer
to the Signet (solicitor) and his wife Margaret Macrosty.  

After attending Edinburgh Academy and High School, he worked briefly in his father's office.  
An interest in natural science led him to study medicine at Edinburgh University as an avenue
towards a scientific career, and he graduated in 1856.  

In 1857 he was recommended by leading Scottish geologist Sir Roderick Murchison, for the
position of surgeon and biologist on an expedition under John Palliser to explore and map
western Canada.  Two years of adventure and hardship established Hector as an accomplished
scientist and intrepid explorer.  

Kicking Horse Pass, discovered by Hector and named after an accident that nearly killed him,
is now crossed by the Canadian Pacific Railway, and marked by a monument to his work.

Hector returned to Edinburgh and, again on the recommendation of Murchison, was appointed
director of the Geological Survey of Otago, New Zealand.  He arrived here in 1862 with letters of
introduction from Sir JD Hooker to Haast and Buchanan, and set about assembling the nucleus
of a staff and exploring the terrain and resources of Otago.  He organised displays of maps and
collections showing the work of the survey at the NZ Exhibition in Dunedin in 1865.

When his three-year appointment as provincial geologist expired in April 1865, he accepted the joint appointments of first director of the New Zealand Geological Survey and director of the newly formed Colonial Museum and Colonial Laboratory in Wellington.  His responsibilities included the Botanical Gardens, Meteorological Department and Colonial Observatory, custody of standard weights and measures, and the Patent Office library.  

When the New Zealand Institute was set up for the advancement of science, Hector became its manager as well.  He was often asked for official advice, and wrote a prodigious number of scientific papers and reports, but also continued to do fieldwork with Buchanan in many parts of the country.

In 1868 he married Maria Georgiana Monro, daughter of David Monro, speaker of the House of Representatives; they had three sons and three daughters.  He retired in 1903 and travelled to Canada, where official recognition of his work on the Palliser expedition was blighted by the sudden death of his son Douglas, who had accompanied him. James Hector died at Lower Hutt three years later.  

During his lifetime he received many honours, and in 1911 the New Zealand Institute honouring
him by establishing the Hector Medal and Prize as its major award for excellence in research.  
His name is also commemorated in an alpine cushion plant, Hectorella, first discovered by him,
and at least seven other plant species.

Prasophyllum hectori
(Buchanan) Molloy, D.L.Jones & M.A.Clem. Orchadian 15: 41 (2005).

John Buchanan named a plant that he took to be a Gastrodia, after his friend James Hector
(Gastrodia hectori Buchanan. Trans. & Proc. New Zealand Inst. 19: 214 [1886]).
Buchanan wrote that it had been collected near Picton, and had been seen on the Conway River.

Thomas Cheeseman was sent plants from the Maungatapere swamp near Whangarei by Harry
Carse, and from Great Barrier Island by Thomas Kirk, and found it himself at the Ngaere swamp
in Taranaki; he identified these plants with the Australian Prasophyllum patens in 1906, and
noted that Gastrodia hectori was a Prasophyllum, "probably P. patens R.Br."

The NZ plant was later recognised as different from P. patens, was known for some years as
P. aff. patens, until eventually Brian Molloy and colleagues used Buchanan's specific epithet
in naming it Prasophyllum hectori.

Prasophyllum hectori

Prasophyllum hectori is a wetland plant, in swamp or even flowing water; up to a metre tall, the
flowers flushed red/purple (though as with many orchids, a form lacking the red-blue pigment
occurs in some regions).

The labellum is uppermost on a short claw, sharply bent at the middle, with a smooth rather
narrow callus that reaches just around the bend; its margins are undulating and white.

The flowers are strongly perfumed, and a range of insects swarm around it in late summer

It is acutely threatened, and nationally vulnerable, hanging on in a number of North, South
and Chatham Island wetlands.


* eponym, n. 1 a person (real or imaginary) after whom a discovery, invention, place, institution, etc,
is named or thought to be named. 2 the name given. (Oxford English Reference Dictionary) -
e.g. Leornardo da Vinci Airport, von Willebrand disease, Ho Chi Minh City, Charcot joints, Mt Hector,
the Pasteur Institute, the Merck Manual, Sullivania minor and Prasophyllum hectori.




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