Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.

OLIVER, Walter Reginald Brook

(1883–1957).

Director of the Dominion Museum, naturalist.

A new biography of Oliver, Walter Reginald Brook appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.

W. R. B. Oliver was born in 1883 at Launceston, Tasmania, the son of Henry Oliver, and of Josephine Caroline, née Stevenson. When his parents moved to New Zealand and settled at Tauranga in 1896, Oliver attended the district high school. Later he joined the Customs Department, was stationed at several New Zealand ports, and rose to become a Senior Examining Officer.

While still in Tasmania, Oliver showed an interest in natural history and began his collection of shells. This interest appears to have crystallised about 1906 when he joined a group of enthusiasts in Christchurch. At this period he began recording observations of all botanical and zoological phenomena which came his way. These notes, together with publications and extracts from magazines, developed gradually into what he called his “system”– an extensive, magnificent record of all aspects of biology in New Zealand and abroad. In 1908 Oliver accompanied F. S. Oliver, W. Wallace, and T. Iredale on a 10 months' expedition to Sunday Island in the Kermadecs. The experience gained there gave him confidence to produce articles and papers embodying his own investigations. The First World War interrupted his scientific studies, but in 1919 on his return from overseas service he spent five weeks at Tahiti, where he gathered botanical and zoological specimens for the Dominion Museum. In 1920 he joined the staff of the Dominion Museum as Senior Scientific Assistant, and was engaged until 1925 in revising Cheeseman's Manual of New Zealand Flora. About this time he began attending courses at Victoria University College where he won a senior scholarship in zoology and, in 1928, graduated M.Sc. with first-class honours. In the previous year he had been elected a fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand.

In 1928, on the death of Dr J. Allan Thomson, Oliver became Director of the Dominion Museum, and held the position until his retirement in 1947. He was thus responsible for planning the exhibits when the museum moved to its new site on Wellington's Mount Cook. In 1937–38 Oliver was awarded a Carnegie Travel Grant which enabled him to visit many of the world's great museums, where he studied planning and administration techniques and gathered many ideas later to be incorporated in the Dominion Museum's collections. Oliver published in 1930 his monumental New Zealand Birds (revised and enlarged edition 1955), which quickly became the standard reference work in this field. In 1934 he produced a paper, Revision of the Genus Caprosma, for which he gained the doctor of science degree. The Royal Society of New Zealand awarded him its Hector Medal and Prize in 1936 for his botanical researches and, in 1950, its Hutton Memorial Medal, in recognition of his zoological and botanical attainments.

Oliver was active in many learned societies, including the Swedish Plant Geographical Society, the Royal Australasian Ornithologists Union (its New Zealand secretary for 40 years, and president in 1944), the British Ornithological Union, the Fiji Society, and the Malacological Society of London. He was a fellow of the Linnean Society, and of the Zoological Society of London. He was president of the Wellington Philosophical Society (1929–30), Government representative on the Council of the Royal Society of New Zealand for many years (president from 1952 to 1954, and editor of its Transactions from 1948 to 1954), first president of the New Zealand Association of Scientists, chairman of the Botany Section of the Seventh (Auckland, 1949) and Eighth (Manila, 1953) Pan Pacific Science Congresses and, in 1953, he presided over the Eighth Royal Society of New Zealand Science Congress.

On 7 September 1920, at St. Paul's Church, Devonport, Auckland, Oliver married Isabella Anne (1895–1954), daughter of Ebenezer Robertson Cardno, merchant, and by her he had one son and two daughters. He married, secondly, at Masterton, on 24 February 1956, Helen Charlotte, daughter of James Miller Laing of Invercargill. Oliver died on 16 May 1957 at 26 Ventnor Street, Seatoun, Wellington.

In 50 years of an intensely active life Oliver published 69 books, papers, and articles, which covered most fields of natural science. His work on New Zealand Birds ranks him with Sir Walter Buller. Although the full importance of his work is still scarcely appreciated outside scientific circles, and in spite of his apparently slight physique, and shy, unassuming manner, Oliver made an impact on the New Zealand scientific world which will cause his work to be long remembered. His unique biological collections, together with the voluminous data which made up his “system”, was bequeathed to the Dominion Museum.

by Bernard John Foster, M.A., Research Officer, Department of Internal Affairs, Wellington.

  • Transactions of the Royal Society of New Zealand, Vol. 85 (1957) (Obit) and Bibliography
  • Emu, Vol. 57 (Dec 1957) (Obit)
  • Evening Post, 17 May 1957 (Obit).


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This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

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