John Wells

Professor John Wells, who has died aged 83, was a research scientist, teacher, Professor of Zoology, Dean of Science at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, 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.

John Wells was born on 6 October 1935 in Hammersmith, London. His father and mother ran a small newsagent, stationers and tobacconist shop, above which they lived. At the beginning of World War II, both John and his 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) which exploded about eight metres from 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 story that was left was quickly reroofed so that the shop could reopen. In the mean time 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. He joined Penguin Swimming Club, competing in county and national events. John’s interest in swimming led to his meeting his future wife, Margery at Ealing Swimming Club. They married on 26 September 1959.

In 1951 he could have taken School Certificate, but, as students had to be 16 years old by October 1st, he was six days too young and was forced to repeat the year before sitting the exams. In the Sixth Form he studied Biology, Chemistry and Physics whilst 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 and graduated in 1961.

John’s first job was as a Temporary Assistant Lecturer in Zoology in the final year of his PhD at Exeter. From then his career took him to a position as Assistant Lecturer at Birkbeck College, University of London (1961-1963) with a secondment to University College of Rhodesia and Nyasaland in Salisbury. Following this, he became a Lecturer, later Senior Lecturer in Zoology at the University of Aberdeen (1963-1976). In 1976, John and family emigrated to New Zealand where he was appointed Professor of Zoology (later, the School of Biological Sciences) at Victoria University of Wellington (VUW) (1976-2001). During this time, he taught Introductory Zoology; elementary, advanced undergraduate and postgraduate courses in Invertebrate Zoology, Marine Biology and Ecology, Population and Evolutionary Biology, and Systematics and Taxonomy. He also supervised honours, masters and doctoral students in marine biology and ecology. John was also a Trustee of the Karori Wildlife Trust (more latterly Zealandia) between 1993-1997.

John’s interests outside his career were extensive. He was a keen golfer and an avid home handyman. John and Margery were long-time subscribers to the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and Chamber Music concert series. A keen handyman, John made much of the furniture for the family home. John was never too busy to take his two boys fishing, to the library, watch them play sport, and teach or explain to them, with a great deal of patience, the workings of just about anything.

In 1991, John became the first full-time Dean of Science at Victoria University of Wellington (VUW) a position he held until 1998. At that time, the Zoology, Botany, and Biochemistry Departments were separate, and there was little communication between them. It was clear that this was an unsatisfactory situation, and John was asked by the Vice-Chancellor to amalgamate the three departments into a School of Biological Sciences. This was a difficult process involving removal of duplication and consequent staff losses and generated considerable stress. John’s ability to handle all the issues with tact, fairness, decisiveness, and vision ultimately made the amalgamation a complete success. John insisted that technical staff and senior students share morning and afternoon tea with the academics; this one move did much to unify the school!

John was known internationally as a pre-eminent authority on the biology of harpacticoid copepod crustaceans. His 215 page “Keys to aid the identification of marine harpacticoids” was and still is a classic reference volume. John also authored about fifty scientific papers in the general areas of marine biology, marine ecology and the taxonomy of harpacticoid copepods.  Field work for his research was conducted in Britain, USA, Canada, Bermuda, Sweden, France, Tunisia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, India, Australia, New Zealand and Fiji. In particular, John was a visitor at the University of South Carolina in 1982 where he collaborated with his close colleague Professor Bruce Coull, their collaboration resulting in five publications.

John retired from VUW in 2001. In retirement he donated his own collection of harpacticoid copepods and related materials to the existing collection at Te Papa Tongarewa (Museum of New Zealand), making it one of the best research collections in the world.

John made a significant contribution to the conservation of the Pauatahanui Inlet, near his home in Whitby. John 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.

John 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 community involvement in the environmental protection of Pauatahanui Inlet. This work has been particularly appreciated by employees of the Porirua City Council since John spoke with gravitas borne of his wealth of knowledge, wisdom and respect with which he was held in Porirua Harbour restoration circles. 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.

Professor Wells was recognised in the 2013 Porirua Civic Awards for his outstanding voluntary service to the Porirua community, guidance to members, and the wider public.

John died on 12 November 2018 from Motor Neurone Disease. He leaves a huge legacy for others interested in his research speciality and in citizen science.

John is survived by his wife Margery, their two sons David and Stephen, partners Celia and Rachel and grandsons Logan and Oliver.