Eric Chittenden, 1909 – 2010

Eric Chittenden, 1909 – 2010

Last week I attended the funeral of Eric Chittenden, a chemist who spent almost all of his working life (49 years!) at the Cawthron Institute. He joined Cawthron in 1926, having left school four years earlier when he was 13. He had no formal qualifications and started in a very junior position as an assistant in the chemistry laboratories. He became a very respected soil scientist, making a huge contribution to agriculture and horticulture in the Nelson region. In fact, one of my purchases at the Founders Book Fair a few weeks back was a 1957 paper by Sir Theodore Rigg with Eric Chittenden as a co-author: a survey of soils, vegetation and agriculture of the Waimea County, Nelson.

New Zealand novelist Maurice Gee has written a book based loosely on Cawthron, called “Prowlers”. In it there is a lovely section describing the director of the research institute teaching a young very junior assistant how to analyse for metals using a platinum wire and a Bunsen burner. I’m almost certain it must be modelled on Eric Chittenden. He had been taken under the wing of the early directors, Sir Thomas EasterField and Sir Theodore Rigg, from whom he learned most of his chemistry and research skills.

I did not know him personally very well at all, having met him only a few times when he attended the annual Thomas Cawthron Memorial Lectures. By that stage he was already in his 90s. I learned a great deal more about him from the various eulogies, from his family, friends and one former colleague (Paul Gillespie, who joined Cawthron just before Eric retired).  Of course he had outlived most of his colleagues – it would have been fascinating to hear some of their stories! He had obviously been a very strong, energetic man, a keen tramper, mountaineer, photographer and gardener. He was apparently one of the very first people to try snow skiing in the Nelson region and was a key figure in establishing the huts on Mt Robert for the Nelson ski club.

His contributions were recognised when he had a mountain named after him! Mt Chittenden (2205m) lies to the south of Lake Rotoiti in the Nelson Lakes National Park.

So it was very clear that the life of this man, who reached 101 years, had been “a life well spent”.

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