Story: Pond, James Alexander

Page 1 - Biography

Pond, James Alexander

1846–1941

Analytical chemist, homoeopathic pharmacist

This biography was written by Brian R. Davis and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 2, 1993

James Alexander Pond was born on 27 September 1846 in London, England, the son of Frances Sophia Beacon and her husband, James Alexander Pond. His father was a dyer, introducing him to chemistry at an early age. Initially employed as an errand boy in a large London chemical firm, he acquired sufficient knowledge to take a position as a research chemist with an American petroleum company.

Pond was baptised in London on 30 April 1865, at the age of 18, and sailed for New Zealand just over a week later aboard the John Temperley, reaching North Head, Auckland, on 30 August. He arrived during the New Zealand wars, and having served in a volunteer military unit in London enlisted in the No 4 Rifles, obtained non-commissioned rank and was soon senior sergeant of his corps.

Pond pursued a career in New Zealand both as an analytical chemist and as a pharmaceutical homoeopathic chemist. Early on he joined the rush to the newly opened Thames goldfields and worked in the Golden Crown mine, one of the richest in the district. He became known affectionately as 'The Doctor' on account of the medical aid he rendered to injured miners. On the basis of his own investigation he exposed a fraud at Waitoa in the late 1880s; the area had been salted with specks of gold in an attempt to start a goldrush.

In Auckland Pond's work as an analytical chemist made him one of the foremost scientists in the colony. In 1882 he was appointed analyst for Auckland, under the Adulteration Prevention Act 1880, and held this position for almost 30 years. The results of some of his more important investigations were published in the Transactions and Proceedings of the New Zealand Institute. These covered such topics as fire clays in the Auckland province, a salt spring near Hokianga, sugar beet in Waikato, platinum in quartz lodes at Thames, and manganese in the Auckland area. With S. Percy Smith he reported at length on the 1886 Tarawera eruption, and with J. S. Maclaurin on the soil composition of the Taupo plains and their suitability for grass (1899). Maclaurin, who later became colonial analyst in Wellington, worked in Pond's laboratory, first as an assistant and later as a partner.

Pond concurrently ran a successful business as a pharmaceutical chemist, with premises in a new brick building in Queen Street from 1875. He was elected a fellow of the Chemical Society, London, on 4 December 1890. He was also a member of the Society of Public Analysts and of the Society of Chemical Industry, and a foundation member of the New Zealand Institute of Chemistry formed in 1930. He was particularly influential in the affairs of the Auckland Institute, which he joined in 1873, serving as a council member for 37 years and president for one (1885). On his death he left an endowment to the institute to establish the Cheeseman–Pond Memorial Research Prize for pure scientific research, to commemorate the work of the noted botanist T. F. Cheeseman.

A notable patent was granted to Pond in 1885 for the manufacture of enamel-lined butter boxes, which were constructed in his own factory at Freemans Bay. The novelty of the patent lay in the application of an alcoholic solution of shellac under pressure to the kahikatea box. The butter box set the standard for subsequent models, although its use appears to have died out about 1889, partly because of the cost.

After his retirement in 1911 Pond continued his scientific work in his well-equipped home laboratory in Remuera. He patented a new process for the manufacture of superphosphate in 1927, and was particularly concerned to find a poison for ragwort. In this miniature agricultural research station he developed a large-leafed variety of imported clover and a variety of white-skinned onion, and cultivated tung oil trees.

Pond had married Bertha Combes, nine years his junior, at Auckland on 7 July 1875. Bertha Pond died in 1935, six years before her husband, who died at their Remuera home on 8 June 1941. They were survived by their son, Herbert Cecil.

Pond had a wide range of interests as an analytical chemist, as a homoeopathic pharmacist and in scientific and technological innovation. He was a generalist in a style now largely lost; the length and breadth of his contributions made him a notable figure in early New Zealand science.