London bombs to peace in the inlet
Pmarine biologist b October 6, 1935 d November 12, 2018
rofessor John Wells, who has died aged 83, was a research scientist, family man and community leader. He was a man of his time, surviving World War II, progressing to a career that stretched around the world.
He became the first full-time dean of science at Victoria University of Wellington, was an international authority on the biology of tiny harpacticoid copepod crustaceans, and made a major contribution to the conservation of the Pauatahanui Inlet.
John Berkeley James Wells was born in 1935 in Hammersmith, west London. His father and mother ran a small newsagent, stationers and tobacconist shop, above which they lived.
At the beginning of World War II, John and sister Joan were evacuated separately to villages outside London. They returned home near the end of the war when it was thought to be relatively safe, only to be bombed out by a V-1 flying bomb (doodlebug) that exploded near their shelter, blasting the door open, and throwing John out of his bunk, while his mother received massive facial bruising.
His father was on duty that night as an ARP warden. The shop and ground floor of their home survived, but the entire floor above was blown off into the street. The single storey that was left was quickly reroofed so the shop could reopen. In the meantime, they lived with friends across the street.
In 1946, John received a scholarship to Latymer Upper School in Hammersmith, where he began to specialise in science subjects. A keen swimmer, he became captain of the school swimming and water polo teams. His interest in swimming led to his meeting his future wife, Margery, at Ealing Swimming Club. They married on September 26, 1959.
He studied biology, chemistry and physics in the sixth form, while also developing a passion for classical music and eventually opera.
John began BSc studies at the Central Polytechnic in 1955 and graduated in 1958 with first-class honours in zoology. He began study for a PhD in marine biology at Exeter University in 1958.
His first job was as a temporary assistant lecturer in zoology in the final year of his PhD. From there his career took him to Birkbeck College, University of London (1961-63) and a secondment to University College of Rhodesia and Nyasaland in Salisbury.
In 1976, he and his family emigrated to New Zealand, where he was appointed professor of zoology at Victoria. He also became a trustee of the Karori Wildlife Trust (more latterly Zealandia).
His interests outside his career were extensive. He was a keen golfer and avid home handyman, and made much of the furniture for the family home. He and Margery were long-time subscribers to the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and Chamber Music concert series.
But he was never too busy to take his two boys fishing, to the library, watch them play sport, and teach or explain to them, with great patience, the workings of just about anything.
In 1991, Wells became the first fulltime dean of science at Victoria, a position he held until 1998. During that time, he amalgamated the departments of zoology, botany, and biochemistry into a School of Biological Sciences – a difficult process involving staff losses and considerable stress. His ability to handle all the issues with tact, fairness, decisiveness, and vision ultimately made the amalgamation a success.
He was known internationally as a pre-eminent authority on the biology of harpacticoid copepod crustaceans, tiny creatures that live among sand grains. His 215-page Keys to aid the identification of marine harpacticoids was, and remains, a classic reference volume. He authored about 50 scientific papers, including five publications with close colleague Professor Bruce Coull, of the University of South Carolina.
He retired from Victoria in 2001, and donated his own collection of harpacticoid copepods and related materials to Te Papa, making its collection one of the best research collections in the world.
He became a trustee of the Pauatahanui Inlet Community Trust in 2003, and a founding trustee of the Porirua Harbour and Catchment Community Trust in 2012. In each of these roles, he brought a broad scientific understanding to discussions and decisions, and encouraged new students to engage in understanding the importance of looking after our estuaries.
He became chairperson of the Guardians of Pauatahanui Inlet from 2004 to 2013. Under his leadership, the guardians have been the major organisation promoting community awareness, gathering data and co-ordinating involvement in the environmental protection of Pauatahanui Inlet.
This work has been particularly appreciated by employees of the Porirua City Council, and he was recognised in the 2013 Porirua Civic Awards for his outstanding voluntary service to the Porirua community, guidance to members, and the wider public.
He was known as polite, patient and respectful, and a real gentleman. When he was excited or happy, he had a twinkle in his eye and a smile that would light up a conversation.
Wells, who died of motor neuron disease, is survived by his wife, their two sons, and two grandsons. – By Janet Grieve
Sources: Wells family, John McKoy, David Burton, Keith Calder, Bruce Coull, Rick Webber, Geoff Hicks
Marine biologist John Wells with wife Margery beside the Pauatahanui Inlet and, left, counting cockles in the inlet in 2010.