Otago Daily Times
Respected academic and climate change researcher
HE will be remembered as a pioneer in the field of climate change research, but climate, freshwater and marine scientist Prof Keith Hunter was known for his warm and affable nature as well as his academic brilliance.
The University of Otago lecturer and former head of the department of chemistry and provicechancellor of the sciences division at the university died at his Dunedin home on October 24, aged 66, and is mourned by his family, friends, colleagues and former students.
A leader in the marine science field, Prof Hunter was awarded both the Prime Minister’s
Science Prize and the Marsden Medal, was a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand, and a fellow of the New Zealand Institute of Chemistry, as well as New Zealand delegate to the UN Scientific Committee on Oceanic Research, a member of the American Geophysical Union, and the American Society of Limnology and Oceanography.
He specialised in trace metals in natural water, and chemical equilibrium in marine and freshwater systems, and helped establish the joint Niwa/ University of Otago Centre of Excellence for Physical and Chemical Oceanography, now the Joint Institute for Oceanography.
Prof Hunter supervised more than 100 graduate students during his academic career.
He was born on November 24, 1951, to Othle May Hunter (nee Brenton) and Nevin Lindsay Hunter, and grew up in Auckland.
‘‘As a child, Keith was reported by his parents to always be asking ‘why’ questions, and wanting to find the reason for things,’’ a family spokeswoman said.
‘‘It was this curiosity that naturally lent itself to science. Keith had always had a fascination for how life evolved in the oceans.’’
At Prof Hunter’s request, he did not have a funeral, but he did have a family farewell on November 17 — followed by a gathering of staff and friends at the University of Otago staff club on November 29.
A common thread in the tributes paid to Prof Hunter at the gathering and at the staff club was his ‘‘sense of humour, his affable nature, and the fact that he always made time to stop, chat and connect with everyone’’, she said.
Prof Hunter’s younger brother, Ian, said when they were children, he and his older sibling built a hut which was used for experiments.
‘‘I thought it would be a great secret hut for our friends but Keith had other plans.’’
Keith was ‘‘always building stuff’’ and built a radio, a miniature cannon, skateboards and trolleys, as well as fireworks and gunpowder, nearly burning the hut down twice.
He funded his early experiments by delivering newspapers and working in a grocer’s shop.
After he left Auckland Grammar School, he opted to study chemistry at the University of Auckland — and after completing his master’s degree, he became the first recipient of the Rutherford Scholarship, allowing him to study towards a PhD anywhere in the Commonwealth.
He chose to study marine chemistry at the University of East Anglia, and was to say later that the best part of marine chemistry was that it was ‘‘a relatively small field’’.
Knowing most of the main players personally gave a ‘‘strong sense of community’’, he said.
After completing his PhD, Prof Hunter went on a year’s exchange to the French Atomic Energy Commission, returning to New Zealand in 1979, to take up a position at the University of Otago.
He began to focus on metals in seawater, and his research led to the realisation that in major parts of the ocean, the productivity of phytoplankton was limited by the low availability of iron.
A tribute written by former student Dr Luke Moseley, now a senior research fellow at the University of Adelaide, spoke of Prof Hunter’s patience, his ‘‘sharp mind’’ and his passion and knowledge of the effects of climate change.
‘‘I feel privileged to have studied under him. The training and experience we received was truly world class.
‘‘One major gift he gave me was when he shared his passion and knowledge of climate change effects on the ocean in his lectures and informal talks, I feel it is incumbent on us to now carry the knowledge Keith enabled in us forward, training the next generation of scientists, doing science and fighting for action on climate change.
‘‘I will be forever grateful to have studied and worked under Keith and he will be remembered.’’
Prof Hunter was a strong supporter of the university’s HandsOn Science programme for secondary school pupils (now known as ‘‘HandsOn At Otago’’), and he often attended events during the programme in
January each year.
A statement from Niwa said Prof Hunter’s research into marine trace metals and the carbonate system ‘‘paved the way for the highprofile research fields of ocean fertilisation and acidification’’.
In his spare time, Prof Hunter loved music and spent many hours playing the electric guitars he enjoyed collecting.
From the early 2000s, he and his wife, Wynsome, lived outside Dunedin. Prof Hunter spent a lot of time growing vegetables, including some giant ones his family said he was ‘‘extremely proud of’’.
He is survived by his wife, children and stepchildren Andy, Meg, Nick, Dylan and Tess, grandchildren Toby, Finn, Rory and Bianca, and his large extended family. — Elena McPhee