John Morton was one of a kind

Professor John Morton was one of a kind

Written by       Illustrated by AWB Powell

AWB Powell

Nobody who attended his lectures in marine biology ever forgot his flamboyant, inimitable style. He would stride into the class­room, chalk-smudged academic robe billowing behind, beginning his exposition as he walked. On the blackboard, stretching the full width of the lecture theatre, would be a masterpiece in pastels and coloured chalk—a seashore scene so crammed with detail that it often spilled beyond the board onto the surrounding walls. They say he drove the cleaners to despair.

During the lecture, in the full tidal stream of his rhetoric, he would sometimes climb onto the front desk to demonstrate some subtle feature of crustacean filter-feeding or the loco­motion of a scallop. In the field, he was just as colourful and as formidably erudite, intoning in a sonorous, sibilant baritone the science of the seashore, his metier and his passion.

We students knew him simply as “Prof”. There were other zoology professors at the University of Auckland, but none seemed to epitomise the office as Morton did. He was an Oxford don for the antipodes. As an under­graduate, I followed him around the coastlines of Whangarei Heads and Fiji, marvelling at his command of species names and his ability to ennoble the seemingly inconsequential crea­tures of rock pool and mud flat.

At his funeral this past March, two separate eulogists held up the shell of a mollusc whose name I remembered from those seashore rambles with Prof: Struthiolaria papulosa, the ostrich-foot whelk. This elegantly whorled univalve had a special significance for Mort: it was the subject of his master of science thesis. He was one of the first MSc students at the University of Auckland. At that time, the mid-1940s, thesis subjects were allocated by a simple procedure in which the head of department—the irascible William McGregor­ handed the student a pickled specimen in a bottle. Morton got Struthiolaria, and a career in marine biology was launched.

In my day, Morton’s masterwork on New Zealand coastal ecology—The New Zealand Seashore, co-authored by his colleague Michael Miller—was our infallible handbook, and its author our beloved mentor and guide. In his focus on the full sweep of biological interac­tions that make up the marine ecosystem, he was a ‘compleat naturalist’ of the old school.

But as well as being a man of science, he was a man of the soul. A member of the Auckland Anglican synod for 24 years, and an ordained lay preacher, he sought to bring science and spirituality together as equal partners in reality. He often spoke of the numinous, the human experience of awe. In his worldview, there was no final conflict between man, science and God. For Prof, the natural without the supernatural was as incomplete as an oyster without a pearl.

As he wished, his ashes were scattered on the first shoreline he ever came to know: Milford reef, on Auckland’s North Shore. I think it is not being irreverent to note that the man who delighted in demonstrating the feeding apparatus of a barnacle has been harvested by those selfsame organisms, his earthly essence gathered into the food web of the sea.

Of his indestructible essence—the legacy he leaves—one memory signifies for me the man Prof was. He was an enthusiastic supporter of New Zealand Geographic in its early years, launching the first issue in the National Library in December 1988 and serving on its editorial board. In my second year as editor, I paid him a visit in his Castor Bay home to talk about our forthcoming feature on cheese. We talked about the microbiology of cheese for a while, but because Mort was a man not limited to the merely scientific, the conversation drifted to literature, specifically G.K. Chesterton’s Sonnet to a Stilton Cheese, with its taste bud–tempting line, “England has need of thee, and so have I”.

As if on cue, Morton produced an actual Stilton cheese, which he offered me along with a glass of port. Then he plucked from his cache of quotations a beauty that I have never forgotten. Again, it was Chesterton, on the origins of cheese: “Man took milk, robbed it of a little of its sweetness and gave it immortality.” Looking back on the life of John Morton, I believe Prof took knowledge, imparted it with sweetness and bid us share its immortality.

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