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Famous New Zealanders

For its small population, New Zealand punches above its weight when it comes to famous people. Some even changed the world while living in this far-flung country.

Edmund Hillary (mountain climber)

First man to conquer Mt Everest with Nepalese Sherpa Tensing Norgay. He gained his training on New Zealand's Mt Cook, a mountain similar to Everest, but half the height.

Ernest Rutherford (physicist)

He pioneered nuclear science and is known as the father of nuclear physics. Often compared with Michael Faraday for his ground-breaking experiments, Rutherford became the first person in the world to split the atom. Ironically New Zealand is a nuclear free zone today.

Richard Pearse (aircraft engineer and pilot)

Pearse was the first man to build and fly a mechanically powered aeroplane. While the Wright Brothers are widely considered the first, flights from Pearse suggest 31st March, 1902 and another in the winter of 1903 - specifically the 10th of July a few months before the Wright Brothers first flight. Unlike the Wrights who employed skilled engineers and government sponsorship, Pearse designed, financed, and built everything himself. Pearse's last flight landed on top of one of the many 12 foot high hedges surrounding a paddock. He then left it there because of a heavy fall of snow. Meteorological records for that time show that snow fell on the 11th of July 1903, but that there was no snow during any of the years immediately before or after that date.

John Britten (motorbike designer)

Britten built a motor bike in his backyard shed with little money and basic tools. He not only developed an entirely new fabrication system using space age kevlar and carbon fibre, but designed the complete engine, making the patterns for casting himself. The result was the fastest motorbike in the world. In the Daytona Battle of the Twins 1994 the Britten team completely blitzed the opposition, including the cream of Italian and Japanese factory machines. Along with the founders of Harley Davidson, he is considered the Motorcyclist of the Millennium in a poll compiled by the world's leading motorcycle writers.

Bruce McLaren (racing driver)

McLaren was a brilliant driver, engineer, inventor, constructor, and tester of Grand Prix and Formula One cars. Team McLaren is his legacy which is the most successful motor racing team in the world winning 19 Formula One and 123 Grand Prix World Championships.

Alexander Aitken (mathematician)

Aitken was a mathematical genuis and one of the world's best mental calculators. He knew the first 1000 numbers of Π and in his mind could multiply two 9-digit numbers in less than 30 seconds. During the 1920s, pychologists in Britain studied his extraordinary abilities. He was elected to the Royal Society of London for work in algebra, statistics, and numerical analysis as well as to the Royal Society of Literature for his war memoirs. He was also an excellent musician and a champion athlete. Unfortunately he suffered depression throughout his life because of horrors he witnessed in World War I. In the Second World War he worked at decrypting ENIGMA code.

Harold Williams (linguist)

Harold Williams is the world's greatest linguist according to the Guinness Book of Records. He was fluent in more than 58 languages and was friends with writers HG Wells and Hugh Walpole. He worked as foreign editor of The Times and was known as the "the most brilliant foreign correspondent" of his time.

Robert Burchfield (lexicographer)

Dictionary Don as he was known was considered "the greatest living lexicographer" by the Chicago Tribune. He was also widely considered the linguistic scholar of his time. Educated at Wellington's Victoria University and then Oxford University, he became a Rhodes Scholar. In Oxford, he studied under C.S Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien and became close friends with Tolken. After graduation he became a lecturer in English Language. Later he became editor of the Oxford English Dictionary and was responsible for its revisions. He also edited an acclaimed revision of Fowler’s Modern English Usage and many other notable works.

Nancy Wake (WWII servicewoman)

Nancy Wake was born in Wellington in 1912. As a young woman, she married a wealthy Frenchman and lived in luxury. When war broke out in Europe she took on a courageous role in the French Resistance and became a saboteur. She eventually became known by the Nazis and they nicknamed her 'the White Mouse' because of her uncanny ability to evade capture. She is most known for leading an army of 7,000 Maquis troops in sabotage and warfare against the Nazis. She eventually became the Gestapo's most wanted person and ended up the Allies most decorated servicewoman.

Keith Park (RAF commander)

Keith was a commander of the RAF during the Allied evacuation from Dunkirk in France. He was in charge of defending London and southern England from German bombing raids during the Battle of Britain. Dubbed the 'Saviour of Britain', Lord Tedder the Chief of the Royal Air Force had this to say about him, "If any one man won the Battle of Britain, he did. I do not believe it is realised how much that one man, with his leadership, his calm judgement and his skill, did to save, not only this country, but the world".

Charles Upham (WWII soldier)

While three people in history have won two VCs (Victoria Cross), Upham was the only person to receive both medals during the Second World War. He was renown for his courage, resourcefulness, leadership skills, and multiple acts of heroism even while wounded.

Kate Sheppard (suffragist)

Kate helped establish the New Zealand Women's Christian Temperance Union. Through this union and inspired by her religious beliefs, she became the main figurehead of the country's suffrage movement. Her contributions paved the way for New Zealand to be the first country in the world to grant the right to vote for men and woman equally. She became an inspiration for suffragists all over the world.

Katherine Mansfield (novelist)

Katherine was a modernist writer who revolutionised the 20th Century English short story. Her works have been translated into 25 languages. She was born and raised in Wellington and later moved to London to attend Queen's College. She travelled through Europe and then returned to New Zealand where she started her legacy of writing short stories. Returning to London she wrote some of her best works but had to move to France to escape the England's cold climate for health reasons. She died in France at the age of 34. Much of her work was published after her death.

Peter Jackson (film director)

Films include King Kong, Tin Tin, 'The Hobbit' trilogy and 'Lord of the Rings' trilogy. The Return of the King" set an Oscar record by winning all 11 awards for which it had been nominated, including best picture of the year.

Russell Crowe (actor)

As an Academy Award winning actor, film producer, and musician, Crowe's memorable roles in movies include: 'The Gladiator' and 'A Beautiful Mind'. He lives in Australia.

Sam Neil (actor)

Movies include The Dish, Jurassic Park.

Tim and Neil Finn (musicians)

Famous for the bands, 'Split Enz' and 'Crowded House'.

Kiri Te Kanawa (opera singer)

Highlights of her career include singing at Prince Charles and Diana's royal wedding.


Oceania photos, maps, & travel by country

OCEANIA: Maps ›› Photos ›› Travel ››

AUSTRALIA: Maps ›› Photos›› Travel ››

NEW ZEALAND: Maps ›› Photos ›› Travel ››

NEW CALEDONIA: Maps ›› Photos ›› Travel ››

TONGA: Maps ›› Photos ›› Travel ››

Author & photographer: David Johnson (Virtual Oceania)

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