Academic journal article Alberta History

The Contributions of Sir James Hector to the Natural Sciences of Canada and New Zealand

Academic journal article Alberta History

The Contributions of Sir James Hector to the Natural Sciences of Canada and New Zealand

Article excerpt


James Hector, geologist, was one of the most knowledgeable, broadly trained, and prolific natural scientists on the 19th century. His scientific career began in British North America ten years before Canada's confederation (1) when he was appointed to the Palliser expedition to explore the western prairies and mountains from 1857 to 1860. There he made major contributions as a geographer, surveyor, geologist, botanist, and sometime physician, and later in New Zealand as a paleontologist and astronomer, when he accepted an appointment to make a geographical survey of the South Island province of Otago (1861-1865). In 1865 he was appointed the first director of the New Zealand Geological Survey where he established seven major scientific organizations and directed them until his retirement in 1903.

Hector was twenty-three years old when he arrived in western Canada, one year after graduating in medicine from the University of Edinburgh. He had studied medicine because it was the only way he could get a grounding in the natural sciences. After a year working under Dr. James Simpson, Hector was appointed by Roderick Murchison, the president of the Royal Geographical Society, as a member of the Palliser Expedition, because of his medical and natural science training. It was a great opportunity for Hector and switched his life-work from medicine to the natural sciences. Through training, astute observations, self-teaching, and an unrivalled stamina, Hector became the field leader of the expedition, directing its activities whenever John Palliser was absent.

The goal of the five-man expedition--Palliser, Hector, Blackiston, Bourgeau and Sullivan--was to map the transportation routes to, from, and through the Rocky Mountains, to assess the potential of the prairies for settlement and agriculture, and to locate any natural resources. (2) By the time Hector arrived in Edmonton as one of the "scientific gents," he had already identified the three prairie steppes, or roughly one per province. Surveying, locating, traversing, and mapping the passes through the Rocky Mountains, from the Yellowhead pass, 600 kms south to the 49th parallel turned out to be a demanding task and resulted in the expeditions most significant geographical contribution.

Initially approved as a one-year expedition, field surveys did not begin in what is now Alberta until the summer of 1858, one year after the members had left England. The expedition initially concentrated on a 500 by 500 square km area of southern Alberta, the undocumented hunting grounds of the Blackfoot. Over the next 18 months, Palliser and Hector completed the survey of southern Alberta, and searched for a navigable mountain pass. During this time, Hector travelled over 3,000 kms, or more than the rest of the members combined. The mainstay of the expedition, he was the only member to remain with it from the beginning to the end, completing the report and drafting the maps. Aside from the Palliser Report itself, Hector was the only member to publish the expeditions observations and findings in the literature.

In its one and one-half years in the West, Palliser expedition members made five trips to and into the Rocky Mountains. They began in 1858 with Blackiston's study of the southwestern section of the Rockies down to the 49th parallel. He learned of the Crow's Nest Pass from Native tribes and viewed Waterton Lakes before reporting his findings to Hector and leaving for China that fall. During his first mountain visit in the summer of 1858, Hector went up the Bow River valley, crossed over the Vermillion Pass and returned, travelling eastward up the now famous Kicking Horse river valley and over the pass. Then he turned northward following the route now traversed by the Lake Louise-Jasper Highway, over Bow Summit and down the Mistaya (Fork River) valley to the North Saskatchewan River. From there he turned westward and ascended the North Saskatchewan River valley to Howse Pass, naming mountains and ranges before returning to Edmonton. …

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