Charles Chilton was born on 27 September 1860 at Little Marstone, Pencombe, Herefordshire, England, the son of Thomas Chilton, a farmer, and his wife, Jane Price. The Chilton family emigrated to New Zealand in 1862, settling in the East Eyreton district of North Canterbury. At an early age Charles suffered from hip trouble which led to the amputation of his left leg. He nevertheless coped extremely well throughout the rest of his busy life using an artificial limb and a crutch.
After attending Eyreton and Papanui schools, Chilton was sent to Christchurch West School, where he won the dux medal. He attended Canterbury College as an unmatriculated student from 1875 to 1878, winning a Junior Scholarship in 1878 and a Senior Scholarship in mathematics in 1879. On completing his BA in 1880 he became senior scholar in English, physics and natural science, and exhibition scholar in natural science. Working under Professor F. W. Hutton he completed his MA with first-class honours in 1881, studying the then poorly known southern hemisphere Crustacea. This was to provide him with the impetus for his major life work, much of it in collaboration with the Dunedin scientist George Malcolm Thomson.
Chilton taught at Christchurch Boys' High School (1881–83) and at Christchurch West School (1883–86), then moved south, taking up an appointment as tutor at Dunedin Training College. He continued his studies in zoology at the University of Otago, and graduated BSc in 1888, the first recipient of the degree from the University of New Zealand. On 26 October 1888 at Dunedin Chilton married Scottish-born Elizabeth Jack, who had been a student at the training college.
Chilton now took up the post of rector of Port Chalmers District High School. He was awarded a DSc in 1893, again a first from the University of New Zealand. His topic, 'The subterranean Crustacea of New Zealand', studied under Professor T. Jeffery Parker, influenced many later works, not only on Crustacea but also on all aspects of artesian waters, their contained life and their value to the community.
Despite considerable financial hardship, Charles and Elizabeth Chilton went to Edinburgh in 1895 where Charles studied medicine. He graduated MB, CM with honours in 1898, receiving several awards, medals and prizes on graduation including the Moray Research Fellowship in biology. Having decided to specialise in diseases of the eye, he was a house surgeon at the ophthalmic ward of Edinburgh's Royal Infirmary in 1899, then furthered his studies in 1900 at Heidelberg, Vienna and London.
After returning to New Zealand in 1901 the Chiltons lived in Christchurch where Charles practised as an ophthalmic surgeon. He had, however, retained an interest in zoological research and, when Professor Arthur Dendy took leave of absence from Canterbury College in 1902, Chilton acted as locum tenens. On Dendy's resignation the following year Chilton was appointed to the chair of biology and palaeontology (later renamed the chair of biology). He occupied the position for 25 years. During his term of office he was also acting curator of the Canterbury Museum in 1905 and 1906.
Prior to joining the university staff Chilton had served on the board of governors of Canterbury College in 1901 and 1902. He was subsequently a member of the Senate of the University of New Zealand (1909–18) and was made a fellow of the university in 1909. He accepted appointment as rector of Canterbury College in 1921 – the first such office to be created in Australasia – and served until 1928.
In 1912 Chilton was one of four delegates to represent New Zealand at Edinburgh for the first Congress of the Universities of the Empire. During the conference he received an honorary LLD from the University of Aberdeen. He also attended the first Pan-Pacific Scientific Congress in 1920 in Honolulu, as representative of Canterbury College and the Philosophical Institute of Canterbury.
Chilton's interest in Crustacea was further stimulated by G. M. Thomson's discovery in Tasmania of Anaspides tasmaniae, a primitive freshwater shrimp-like animal. Chilton postulated that comparable forms might exist in New Zealand and encouraged wide collections to be made in their search. No such animals appeared, but Chilton derived material for numerous papers, especially on Amphipoda. He became widely recognised for his acquaintance with this particular order and was asked to carry out research on specimens sent from North America, Europe, Australia, India and elsewhere.
In recognition of his worldwide renown Chilton was made a fellow of the Linnean Society of London and a corresponding or honorary member of several other scientific bodies. He was an original member of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science, and received its Mueller Memorial Medal in 1921. His personal publications, numbering about 130, were largely on Amphipoda, Isopoda and higher Crustacea, especially from New Zealand and the subantarctic, and from subterranean waters.
During his professorship Chilton played a leading role in the establishment of the mountain biological station at Cass. He was also very active in the country's scientific community, serving as an officeholder of the Philosophical Institute of Canterbury and of the New Zealand Institute. He was the institute's honorary editor of publications from 1910 to 1915 and he received its Hector Memorial Medal and Prize in 1917 and Hutton Memorial Medal in 1926.
In 1907, on behalf of the Philosophical Institute of Canterbury, Chilton participated in an expedition on the Hinemoa to the subantarctic islands, visiting the Snares, Auckland, Campbell, Antipodes, and Bounty islands. The party carried out a range of scientific studies, mainly in geophysics, geology, zoology and botany. Chilton wrote an account of the Crustacea, a summary of the expedition's results, and acted as overall editor of the two-volume compendium of results. During the voyage the party rescued 15 survivors from the Dundonald, which had been wrecked eight months earlier on Disappointment Island in the Auckland group.
Chilton used his scientific knowledge for the good of the community. He promoted the improvement, maintenance and storage of Christchurch's artesian water supply, and actively campaigned to preserve and enhance the natural environment of the city. He served on various educational bodies, fostered adult education and vigorously sought separate university status for the constituent colleges of the University of New Zealand.
One portrait of Chilton shows a calm, almost serene face with a short neat beard. It suggests a kindly, benign, gentlemanly person – an impression endorsed by former students who found him an inspiring guide to young biologists. He was regarded as a clear and precise lecturer, and a man who was equally neat in his habits. At Cass, where Charles and Elizabeth Chilton conducted fieldwork parties, and in everyday life, they both subscribed to the maxim 'A place for everything and everything in its place'. Out in the open Chilton's physical disability did not deter him from joining field exploration for plants and animals: he tackled hillsides by casting himself prone on the ground and propelling himself up the slopes with the aid of his crutch.
Chilton's health had deteriorated by 1928 and he resigned from the college, receiving recognition in appointment as professor emeritus. In retirement he had intended to consolidate his Crustacea researches in further publications, but he died of pneumonia in Christchurch on 25 October 1929. The Chiltons' only child, Frank, had been killed at Gallipoli in 1915; he had been studying medicine at Edinburgh when war broke out. Elizabeth Chilton was involved for many years with the Plunket Society and was secretary and president of the ladies' guild at St Andrew's Presbyterian Church. She was appointed an MBE in 1919. She died in 1940, and in her will bequeathed to Canterbury University College a sum of money to endow the Charles and Elizabeth Chilton Memorial Scholarship in Biology.