Trevor Hatherton was born in Sharlston, near Wakefield in Yorkshire, England, on 30 September 1924, the son of Baden Hector Hatherton, then a coal hewer, and his wife, Evelyn Burroughs. His early education was at Lee Brigg Primary School and Normanton Grammar School. He attended the University of Birmingham in 1942–43 and Acton Technical College from 1947 to 1949, and gained an external BSc with honours from the University of London. A scholarship enabled him to go on to the Imperial College of Science and Technology in London, from where he graduated with a diploma in geophysics in 1950.
His interest in Antarctica and the opportunities for geophysical research in New Zealand led him to apply for the first National Research Scholarship to be offered to overseas scientists to work here. He won the scholarship and in 1950 came to work in the DSIR. For the next three years he investigated the magnetic properties of central North Island volcanic rocks, work that gained him a PhD from London University. On 8 May 1953 he and Stella Beryl Ethel Williams of London were married in Wellington. That year he joined the Geophysical Survey, and from 1954 his activities included magnetic and gravity surveys of major geological features of New Zealand, notably the Southland and Nelson synclines. He had a particular concern for the integration of geological and geophysical information in ways that made his own fieldwork and interpretations readily comprehensible to geologists.
Hatherton’s first experience in Antarctica was the December 1955 reconnaissance on foot over the sea ice of McMurdo Sound to select a site for New Zealand’s base. Construction of Scott Base began the following year and as chief scientist to the New Zealand International Geophysical Year Antarctic programme he headed the scientific team there from December 1956 to February 1958. After his return he published the results of his work on the aurora australis, glaciology and the seismicity of the Ross Sea area. In 1958 Hatherton was appointed an OBE and received the Polar Medal for his contribution to Antarctic science.
He was a Commonwealth Fund Harkness fellow at the California Institute of Technology in 1959–60, and a Fulbright fellowship allowed him to spend part of 1966–67 as visiting professor of geophysics at Stanford University. These were opportunities for collaborative work with American scientists resulting in new views of the volcanic, seismic and gravity characteristics of island arcs and continental margins.
In 1965 Hatherton became superintendent of the Geophysical Survey, and in 1967, director of the Geophysics Division, DSIR. From the start he participated directly in as many as possible of the division’s projects. He organised systematic gravity and aeromagnetic surveys on a national basis, the results appearing on 1:250,000 scale maps that complemented the geological maps on the same scale. Within 10 years a large part of the country had been covered, forming a basic contribution to the understanding of New Zealand geology.
Hatherton promoted creative and vigorous scientific leadership by his personal example. He chose the best possible staff, then let them set their own directions and accepted the burden of administration to shield his scientists from it. He made the division’s capabilities available for a variety of external-aid Colombo Plan projects. He himself carried out a gravity survey of Sri Lanka in 1970–71 while helping the geological survey there develop geophysical prospecting techniques. He gave strong support to the two isolated observatories in Rarotonga and Apia for which his division was responsible.
The 18 years he spent as director until he stepped down in 1985 were also the most scientifically productive of his career. The quality of his contribution was recognised by the University of London award of a DSc in 1973; the Royal Society of New Zealand had elected him a fellow in 1969 and awarded him the Hector Memorial Medal and Prize in 1981. There were further distinctions from his fellow scientists in New Zealand and Australia. Twice during this time he turned down offers of the position of assistant director general of the DSIR.
Hatherton revisited Antarctica as a member and as chairman from 1983 to 1988 of the Ross Dependency Research Committee, which was concerned with the organisation of New Zealand’s annual science programme there. His experience was recognised in 1985 when he was invited to take part in a workshop on the Antarctic Treaty System, held at Beardmore field camp in Antarctica. In 1990 he gave the opening address at the New Zealand – United Kingdom symposium on Antarctic and global climate change held at Cambridge. His enthusiasm for Antarctica found expression in two notable books he compiled and edited: Antarctica in 1965 and Antarctica: the Ross Sea region in 1990.
Hatherton had joined the Royal Society of New Zealand in 1956. He served on the council from 1975 to 1978 and was home secretary from 1979 to 1983 and president from 1985 to 1989. In this period major changes were being made in the organisation of New Zealand science, which he thought counterproductive, and in the relationships of the society with government and its member bodies. His strongly held view that the society’s scientific members should involve themselves in matters of public concern produced reports on problems of lead in the environment, on climate change, and on science education. In 1990, on his initiative, a committee investigated and reported on questions of drugs and medicines in sport.
Trevor Hatherton was a forthright individualist whose views prevailed in most committees he chaired. He loved cricket and was an enthusiastic but modest collector of early New Zealand paintings. He greatly enjoyed his term from 1976 to 1982 representing the Royal Society of New Zealand on the Board of Trustees of the National Art Gallery, the National Museum and the National War Memorial. He chaired the National Museum Council from 1979 to 1982.
From his highly developed sense of history and respect for the work and opinions of eminent figures of the past came a store of apt quotations to adorn his speeches, lectures, and conversation. He believed that progress in any field came from the brilliance and efforts of individuals, and his own outstanding contributions to science were further recognised in 1991 when Victoria University of Wellington awarded him an honorary DSc. Trevor Hatherton died in Wellington on 2 May 1992, survived by his wife and their son and daughter. In 1989 the refurbished physical laboratory at Scott Base had been renamed the Hatherton Geomagnetic Laboratory in his honour.