Norman Hargrave Taylor was born on 9 June 1900 in Auckland, the son of Herbert Samuel Hargrave Taylor, a gum sorter and former armourer, and his wife, Ellen Medhurst. He attended Richmond Road School in Grey Lynn, and later Whangaparapara School on Great Barrier Island before winning a Junior National Scholarship to Auckland Grammar School. He was a pupil-teacher there in 1917–18.
Taylor then enrolled at Auckland Training College and spent 10 years training and teaching in the Auckland area. During this time he developed a keen interest in geology and soils. He attended Auckland University College as a part-time student, before undertaking summer vacation work with the renowned geologist H. T. Ferrar in Central Otago. In 1928 the Geological Survey Branch of the DSIR appointed him an assistant geologist, and he began a 35-year odyssey through the world of soils and the world’s soils.
On 11 June 1929 he married Hellen (Nell) May Gibbons at her father’s residence at Whatipu. They were to have two sons, and a daughter who died in childhood.
Taylor initially accompanied Ferrar to the Te Kuiti subdivision to research bush sickness, a fatal stock disease, in the Mairoa area. In 1930 he joined L. I. Grange, who had been mapping in the central North Island, and by 1932 they had demonstrated the relationship between bush sickness and the distribution of pumice soils (later attributed to cobalt deficiency). Further soil surveys conducted with Grange investigated the volcanic soils of Waipa County and Taranaki.
Around 1937 Taylor moved to Whangarei to take charge of the Auckland District for the newly formed Soil Survey Division of the DSIR. Here he began unravelling the complex soil pattern of Northland. From this work he developed the concept of soil development sequences (soil suite), which provided a basis for understanding soil properties, fertiliser requirements and marginal land development. During this time Grange and Taylor devoted themselves to applying soil knowledge to many practical problems, including facial eczema and those affecting tobacco, flax, citrus and tung crops.
In 1938–39 Taylor chaired a national committee of inquiry into the effects of soil erosion, which resulted in the establishment of the Soil Conservation and Rivers Control Council in 1942 and catchment boards. In 1940 he led the strategically important reconnaissance soil survey of the North Island. This survey was designed for military purposes, but it also brought together a huge database of soils information not previously available.
In 1942 Taylor was appointed assistant director of the Soil Survey Division. In this position he began introducing uniform standards for soil survey, and in 1948 he introduced the genetic classification of New Zealand soils, which became the fundamental unifying concept of New Zealand soil science. Taylor succeeded Grange as director of the Soil Bureau in 1952, and set about establishing the organisation in a new base at the Taita experimental station in the Hutt Valley. From 1950 to 1960 he served on the council of the International Society of Soil Science, and he chaired Commission V on soil classification, genesis and mapping from 1956 to 1960. In this role he helped initiate the FAO–UNESCO project of a soil map of the world. This was a huge challenge, but Taylor’s ‘friendly spirit and diplomacy’ helped the project advance. His advice was keenly sought around the world and he travelled widely overseas, assisting soil surveys in Ireland, Egypt and Mexico.
In 1956 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand and in 1960 he was made an OBE. In 1962 he presided over the International Soil Conference at Massey University College of Manawatu. This coincided with the publication of the widely acclaimed book Soil survey method , which he co-authored with I. J. Pohlen. In 1964 he was awarded an honorary DSc by Massey University. Taylor founded and was twice president of the New Zealand Society of Soil Science, and was elected the first honorary member. He was a foundation member and later fellow of the New Zealand Institute of Agricultural Science.
After his retirement Taylor became an honorary lecturer at Victoria University of Wellington. He also chaired an investigation into the devastating erosion in the Poverty Bay – East Cape district. The committee’s report (often called the ‘Taylor Report’) was officially published in 1970 and persuaded the government to take strong action to stabilise land beyond a ‘blue line’ that was delineated on the accompanying map. This identified areas beyond which farming was impractical and where forestry (for production or protection) was preferable. Some of the farmers on the vast area designated for forestry were upset because they had not been consulted and considered their properties to be financially viable.
Norman Taylor was a keen natural philosopher who provided skilled leadership, dedicated service and humanity in solving many practical soil-related problems. He died on 25 October 1975 in Lower Hutt. His wife, Nell, had died two months earlier and he was survived by two sons.