Story: Ulrich, George Henry Frederick
Ulrich, George Henry Frederick
Mineralogist, university professor, director of School of Mines
This biography was written by W. A. Watters and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 2, 1993
George Henry Frederick Ulrich was born on 7 July 1830 at Zellerfeld in the German kingdom of Hanover, the son of Friedrich Engelhard Ulrich, a miner, and his wife, Catherine Elisabeth Herstell. He was named Georg Heinrich Friedrich, but later anglicised these names when he became a naturalised British subject. Ulrich attended secondary school in Clausthal and in 1851 graduated with distinction from the Royal Academy of Mines in Clausthal. He first worked for the Prussian mines service, but after a short period he resigned to take up an appointment in Bolivia. When this was cancelled he emigrated to Australia, arriving in Melbourne in August 1853.
Ulrich worked first on goldfields in Victoria until 1857, when he was appointed to a commission which was set up to assess the mining resources of Victoria. Except for a year's leave spent in Europe during 1867 and 1868, he was employed by the Geological Survey of Victoria from 1858 until it was disbanded in 1869. He was then appointed curator of minerals at the Industrial and Technological Museum in Melbourne. He also lectured in mining at the University of Melbourne and practised as a consultant. On 31 July 1871, at South Yarra, Melbourne, he married Catherine Sarah Spence.
In 1875 Ulrich was asked by the Otago Provincial Council to examine the goldfields of the province. He visited New Zealand that year and his report was published together with that of F. W. Hutton on the geology of Otago. Besides describing the many fields in detail, Ulrich commented on working methods and future prospects. With the importance of mining to the country's economy, the University of Otago council in 1875 recommended establishing a school of mines, and in 1877 the government agreed to support this proposal. Through its chancellor, H. S. Chapman, who was then visiting Victoria, the university offered Ulrich the directorship of the school. Ulrich accepted, and he and his family arrived in Dunedin early in 1878. Besides being director of the school, which officially opened in 1879, Ulrich became professor of mineralogy and metallurgy. Until 1880 he was also temporary director of the Otago Museum, following F. W. Hutton, and did much to improve the museum's exhibits.
In the early years of the School of Mines, Ulrich had many problems because of inadequate staffing, low student numbers, and fluctuating government support. The school suffered from the opposition of Richard Seddon, who considered a university mining school expensive and undemocratic, and insisted on evening classes and reduced assaying fees. Nevertheless, through Ulrich's perseverance and enthusiasm, and with better staffing and facilities, the status of the school steadily improved, aided by a boom in gold-dredging in Otago in the mid 1890s.
Eventually the Otago School of Mines acquired an international reputation. During Ulrich's term as director many graduates of the school became associates: 45 in mining, 15 in metallurgy and 10 in geology. Some of Ulrich's students worked overseas, but several had notable careers in New Zealand; the best known were Patrick Marshall, later professor of geology and mineralogy at the University of Otago, and P. G. Morgan, who became director of the New Zealand Geological Survey.
Despite ill health in his later years, Ulrich's enthusiasm for his investigative work never waned. He published papers on various mineral occurrences, was the first to study the phonolitic volcanic rocks around Dunedin, and described the Makarewa meteorite. While examining outcrops at Port Chalmers on 26 May 1900, at the age of 69, he slipped on a steep slope on Flagstaff Hill and was fatally injured from a fall onto rocks 100 feet below. He was survived by his wife and seven children.
Ulrich had been well known in the city, and 'the quiet and efficient discharge of his duties and his unostentatious worth won for him the respect and esteem of all who came in contact with him.' He was a Freemason, and was keenly interested in music, being for many years vice president of the Dunedin Liedertafel, a male voice choir.
Ulrich worked with other outstanding scientists, including James Park (who succeeded him as director) and J. G. Black, to raise technical standards within the mining industry. His report on the Otago goldfields played a central role in this process. His great contribution, however, was to establish and nurture a tradition of excellence in professional training at the School of Mines. After his death, the library of the school was named the Ulrich Memorial Library, and a medal was established in his name as an award for students of mineralogy.