Story: Bartrum, John Arthur

Page 1 - Bartrum, John Arthur

Bartrum, John Arthur

1885–1949

Geologist, university professor

This biography was written by Alan Mason and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 4, 1998

John Arthur Bartrum was born at Creek station, Geraldine, Canterbury, on 24 May 1885, the second of nine children of Benjamin Packer Bartrum, a wool scourer, and his wife, Charlotte Amy Hayden. Educated initially by his mother, Bartrum attended Pleasant Point School, Timaru and Christchurch Boys' high schools and the University of Otago from 1904 to 1907; in 1908 he graduated MSc and was made an associate of the Otago School of Mines.

He worked for the New Zealand Geological Survey from 1908 to 1914, except for a period in 1909–10 when he lectured at Canterbury Agricultural College. On 3 July 1912, at Takapuna, Auckland, he married Constance Ella Lorie. They were to have three daughters and one son. Charles Cotton was best man, and was probably the only intimate friend Bartrum would ever have. The newly-weds spent their first six months together living in a tent in the Buller Gorge.

In 1914 Bartrum was appointed lecturer in geology at Auckland University College (he was made full professor in 1927). Although lacking overseas experience, he was a notable research worker. He was also one of the last of the New Zealand general geologists, and his bibliography of nearly 100 titles covers almost every branch of the subject. Most of his published papers deal with small localised features, and his comprehensive knowledge of Auckland and Northland geology was never synthesised in print. Also, his careful, self-deprecating nature prevented him from publishing his own speculations on the more theoretical aspects of geology.

The breadth of his research interest was reflected in his teaching; he had an even-handed approach to all branches of the subject, with an emphasis on field observation (although instruction in field mapping was strangely lacking). Whatever specialisation took place later, Bartrum's students were, on graduation, general geologists, not specialists.

The rigours of geological surveying in his early years left Bartrum with chronic arthritis, permanently injured ankles and seriously impaired general health. Despite this, and the fact that for most of his years at Auckland he was the only full-time teacher, he did not spare himself in helping his students. He worked six days a week, often until 9 p.m., after which time he would travel to his home at Takapuna by tram, ferry and bus. Saturday afternoons and vacations were often taken up with field trips. His knowledge of fieldcraft and the lore of the bush was immense and was imparted to students on these trips. He designed the Bartrum pack, which was widely used in New Zealand in the 1940s.

His working conditions were poor. He had no secretarial or technical assistance and he prepared his own photographic slides and thin sections for the microscope, usually at his own expense. In the final 10 years of his career, declining health coupled with an expansion in student numbers meant that postgraduate students were largely unsupervised.

Although he delivered his lectures in a monotone at dictation speed, Bartrum was undoubtedly a successful teacher. In the early 1970s three of the four geology chairs in New Zealand universities were held by former Bartrum students; other successful former students were Charles Fleming and F. J. Turner. Bartrum's contribution to New Zealand geology was recognised by the New Zealand Institute (later the Royal Society of New Zealand), which gave him three of its top awards: a fellowship in 1928, the Hutton Memorial Medal in 1932 and the Hector Memorial Medal and Prize in 1939. He was also a fellow of the Geological Society of London (1928) and of America (1929).

Bartrum was of above average height with a drawn, angular countenance. To support his damaged ankles he always wore boots rather than shoes and walked with a distinctive waddling gait that invited mimicry from his students. Known as Arthur to family and close friends and as 'Bart' to his students, he was a strange mixture. As a teacher, he was always available to his students, took a paternal interest in their welfare and each year entertained them at a card evening; but he remained aloof from them. Very few former students could call Bartrum a friend. He had his eccentricities – an almost masochistic attitude to physical danger in the field and an undue modesty as to his own ability. He had a lifelong interest in rugby, first as a player representing both Otago University and New Zealand universities, then as coach. He also played tennis at his local club and conducted a Bible class at his Anglican church at Takapuna. John Arthur Bartrum died in Rotorua Hospital on 7 June 1949, survived by his wife, Constance, two daughters and a son.