Obituary: Professor John Edward Morton

By Arnold Pickmere

Professor John Edward Morton, Zoologist, environmentalist
Died aged 87

Professor John Edward Morton ,zoologist and environmentalist. File Photo / NZ Herald
Professor John Edward Morton ,zoologist and environmentalist. File Photo / NZ Herald

Professor John Morton was once described, after 50 years of scientific research, as one of Auckland University's most liked and remarkable characters.

And perhaps its best known personality.

In fact, if his main specialties were zoological and environmental, these two words lent him licence to become involved in fields of interest covering everything from molluscs to the shortcomings of Auckland's public transport.

He was a leading light in the establishment of New Zealand's first marine reserve, near Cape Rodney and Leigh (including Goat Island) in 1975.

Two years later he was criticising the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries for being "notoriously" slow in getting similar protection for the Poor Knight Islands off the Northland coast.

Professor Morton also wrote widely on subjects such as the need to save the remaining 2 to 4 per cent of kauri left of the original former 1.5 million hectares.

And the Professor of Zoology at the university from 1959 to 1988 personally believed in "humanising" complex scientific issues, making them understandable in plain laymen's language. As demonstrated when he was presenter and clarifier of the imported nature-science television programme Our World.

But if the professor was widely liked, he seldom backed off on subjects he considered important.

As early as 1962 he attacked South Auckland and the Waikato as the "culprits" in getting a bill to ensure finance for the (regional) Auckland War Memorial Museum withdrawn by Parliament.

Hamilton Mayor Dr Denis Rogers wanted an apology. The Waikato born and bred Professor Morton refused.

And in 1965 he observed that by overseas standards there was not one first class university biology department in New Zealand.

There were a number of good people, he said "but we are going to lose them just as certainly as Professor [Kenneth] Cumberland is losing his geographers to better equipped posts".

Professor Morton authored scientific books and numerous papers on molluscs, marine ecology, conservation and general biology.

He was also on the Auckland Regional Authority (among many other bodies and organisations).

He had a keen interest in coastline protection and opposed, for example, proposed reclamation of Ngataringa Bay in the inner Waitemata Harbour.

He also observed, in 1981, that there might still be gold in the Coromandel but that mining in the area could cause irrevocable damage to fishing around the peninsula.

Morton had strong Christian beliefs and told the Herald when retiring in 1988: "I find that my scientific work has confirmed my Christian convictions. To me biology and theology complement each other."

Professor Morton is survived by his wife Pat and children Clare and Rob.

- NZ Herald

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