The Philanthropist and the Cawthron Institute


It was a love of science and the foresight of a Nelson philanthropist, Thomas Cawthron, that led to the establishment of an institute that is now a world leader in aquaculture and freshwater and marine ecosystems.  

The Cawthron Institute

When Nelson philanthropist Thomas Cawthron died in 1915, he left the residue of his estate for the establishment of an "industrial, technical school institute and museum", to be named Cawthron Institute.1

Original Institute Building, Original Institute Building, The Nelson Provincial Museum, Miscellaneous Collection, Half 771
Click on photo to enlarge

This Institute went on to pioneer research into insect and plant diseases, soil and plant nutrition and agricultural chemistry, assisting the apple, forestry and farming industries in Nelson and New Zealand.

Following Cawthron's death, in 1916, an advisory committee began investigating how to ensure the fulfilment of Cawthron's wishes.2

Having made the decision to focus on research into the primary industries of New Zealand, and in particular Nelson,3  the Institute officially opened in April 1921 under the directorship of Professor T.H. Easterfield. It became the first organisation of its kind in New Zealand and was initially based in Fellworth House on the hill above Milton Street, in The Wood, with research gardens and glasshouses on adjoining and adjacent land.4  Its offices and laboratories are now on the corner of Milton Street and Halifax Street East.

From 1925 an annual Government research grant was made to the institute, augmented by bequests and other donations.  However, as the Cawthron established itself as a leader in scientific research, Government science departments like the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR) were created. Despite this, the Government continued supporting the work of the Cawthron, enabling it to work alongside government departments.5

In 1934 the Cawthron took responsibility for the Atkinson Observatory in Alton Street in acknowledgement of Thomas Cawthron's desire to develop a solar physics observatory. The institute moved the observatory to Cawthron Park in Nelson's eastern hills, where it stayed until being shifted to Princes Drive. However, in 2008 the Cawthron Trust Board funded a new dome for the Atkinson telescope and a new Cawthron Atkinson Observatory in the grounds of Clifton Terrace School.

Institute showing Milton Street entomology buildingCawthron Institute showing Milton Street entomology building, The Nelson Provincial Museum, Ellis Dudgeon collection, 211652/7
Click image to enlarge

In the mid 1970s Cawthron scientists began investigations into biotechnology and biochemistry as an oil crisis struck and the Government grants the Cawthron had received for decades stopped in a new user-pays and contestable science funding environment. At the same time staff began researching plankton and the flow of nutrients from the land to the sea.

With competition for research funding intense, the Cawthron looked for a specialist niche, eventually settling on marine and freshwater research. It built up its research and consultation expertise in this area, dropping, in the mid 1980s, other research fields, including agriculture.

The Cawthron Institute is now New Zealand's largest independent community-owned research centre.  It is a leader in the development of New Zealand's seafood industry and recognised internationally as a leader in the protection and restoration of coastal and freshwater ecosystems.6  The South Island's only commercial aquaculture park at The Glen is owned by the institute.

The Cawthron Trust Board annually commemorates Thomas Cawthron with a public lecture7  given near his birthdate and continues his philanthropy by giving money to a variety of science-related projects undertaken by individuals, organisations and the community.

2008 (updated December 2020)

The Marsden Collection

The Marsden Collection is a rare and beautiful collection of eighteenth and nineteenth century antique furniture, plate and glassware - including Sevres, Dresden and Worcester. The collection was inherited by James and Frances Marsden in 1904. The Marsdens ran a large farm in Stoke, Nelson. Their homestead was Isel Cottage, now known as Isel House, and Isel Park is the remnant of their property. In 2001 the Cawthron Institute donated their part of the Marsden Collection to the Museum, and the Anglican Diocese of Nelson agreed to the acquisition of their part of the Marsden Collection by the Museum. The Marsden Paintings and Book Collection is also held at the Museum. The unique Book Collection dates from 1773 to the early 1920s and relates to natural history, discovery and exploration of the Pacific and provides the nucleus of the research library collection.

Laboratory Services

For more on the Cawthron Institute and particularly its laboratory services, see Alan Cooke's memoir: Behind the lab door: An inside look at how the Cawthron Institute survived and prospered, 1970-1992 [PDF]

Sources used in this story

  1. McLintock, A.H. (Ed) (1966) Cawthron Institute. Retrieved from Te Ara :
  2. Miller, D. (1963). Thomas Cawthron and the Cawthron Institute.  Nelson: NZ. The Cawthron Institute Trust Board, pp80-81, 97
  3. McLintock
  4. Miller, p.83, 87-88, 96
  5. Miller, p.85, 86
  6. Cawthron Institute, History. Retrieved November 12, 2008.
  7. Cawthron Lectures. Nelson, N.Z. : Cawthron Institute


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Further sources - The Philanthropist and the Cawthron Institute



  • Access enables growth: Cawthron gets road consent for site (2008, September 2) The Nelson Mail, p.3.
  • Cawthron move welcome news (2007, January 17). The Nelson Mail, p.13.  [Editorial about the development of the South Island’s first commercial aquaculture park.]
  • Cawthron project gets $14.8 million boost (2008, July 14). The Nelson Mail, p.1. ‘Cawthron's new research boat launched’ (17 June 2008). The Nelson Mail, p.10. New $170,000 custom-built research vessel for Cawthron Institute.
  • Compromise on Cawthron plan? (2007, July 25). The Nelson Mail, p.11. [Editorial on the conflicts over the Boulder Bank caused by the Cawthron Institute’s plan to build a new road alongside the bank to its aquaculture park. ]
  • Hunt, T. (2008, April 12). Observatory starring at a new venue, The Nelson Mail, p.3.
  • Kidson, S. (2006, February 16). Tribute to influential scientist, The Nelson Mail, p.2. [Story about a book outlining the life of influential Cawthron soil scientist Theodore Rigg, who went on to become the institute’s director and to receive a knighthood for his research into soil fertility. ]
  • Landcare Trust chief gets leadership help (2008, July 31), The Nelson Mail, p.10.
  • Moore, C. (1990, June 6) Benefactor's science body perseveres. The Press. p.19
  • Nielson, D. (2007, July 25). Seafood studies funded, The Nelson Mail, p.3.
  • Phillips, V. (2007, January 16). New move at Glen, The Nelson Mail, p.1.
  • Rigg, T. (1949) Cawthron Institute. Tuatara : Journal of the Biological Society 2(1), 2-8. Retrieved October 7, 2008 from NZETC:
  • Science (1991,Sep) New Zealand Business, p. 8 (Chief executive officer, Graeme Robertson, talks about the scientific research establishment in Nelson)
  • Short, C. (2008, November) Lord Rutherford's Legacy. Wild Tomato. 28, p.44-49 
  • What is Cawthron?’(1998, Feb). Seafood. p.8

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