“Not all rocks are hard, grey and brittle; nature has a few tricks to play.”
When looking for suitable rock specimens for the highly successful Ashburton Museum exhibition and holiday programme, Papers, Scissors, Rock, a chance opening of a small box at themuseum revealed a very unusual pink and flexible rock nestled inside. Along with this specimen there was a letter written by W.N. Benson of Otago University and dated September 10, 1919. It was a reply to a Dr Fulton.
This rock sample was accessioned to the museum in 1985. Who was Dr Fulton and what was this specimen doing in the museum collection? And what about the box it was kept in?
The son of Robert Valpy Fulton (1865-1924), a well known Dunedin writer and doctor, Dr Noel Edward Hertslet Fulton (1893-1978) was born and educated in Dunedin. He was one of six children, two of whom were medical doctors. Hertslet was Dr Fulton’s mother’s last name.
Dr Fulton completed his medical degree in 1924, at the age of 31. He served in both world wars achieving the rank of Captain in January 1942. A gifted violinist and orchestral leader, Dr Fulton was the patron of the Ashburton Musical Club.
He was also a talented and dedicated chess player and became the South Island champion in the 1950s. In 1915 Dr Fulton started work in an architects office but then enlisted in the medical corps as a private and went to Cairo. A little later he was transferred to Brokenhurst Hospital in Hampshire, England.
Back from the war, Dr Fulton went to Rotorua to work in the military hospital and there completed significant cancer research. He then spent the remainder of his working life in Ashburton, after purchasing the medical practice of Dr Miller in 1927.
Dr Fulton saw service in Fiji during World War Two, and was a surgeon for St John (1941-1964). He married Magdalene Buchan Lane and both are buried in the Ashburton cemetery. He is survived by a son and two daughters.
Prof. William Noel Benson (aka Noel Benson) was born on Boxing Day, 1885, in England and educated in Australia. He was just eight years older than Dr Fulton and they probably knew each other in Dunedin when Fulton was a medical student just after World War One.
In 1916 Benson received a Doctor of Science (DSc) degree from Sydney University, and in that year he took up the position of Professor of Geology at Otago University. There he became a major contributor to our understanding of New Zealand geology.
Significantly, this year, 2016, marks the centennial of Benson’s initial tenure at Otago University. Prof. Benson married Gertrude Rawson in 1923 (herself a professor of Home science at Otago), retired in 1949 and died August 1957 with no children.
So, what about this flexible rock specimen called itacolumite? North East India (Kaliana Hill, 100km from New Delhi) is one of few places in the world where itacolumite or ‘flexible rock’ is found in situ.
It is possible that Brokenhurst Hospital may have been the place where Dr Fulton acquired this rare rock as, prior to 1916, this hospital specialised in helping wounded soldiers from India?
On the other hand it may well have been a family heirloom, as Fulton’s father’s in-laws had strong connections with India. As Prof. Benson states in his letter, two places known to him as localities for itacolumite were Brazil, and the south east of the United States, in Carolina. But itacolumite is also found in France and Madagascar, and not in England, as on the box lid.
Itacomulite is named after Mt Itacolumi (meaning ‘giant’) in Minas Gerais, Brazil. These flexible or ‘elastic’ rocks were first known about in 1740, and formally named in 1822. Although not completely understood, the material is flexible or bendable because of the way in which the mineral grains interlock with each other, and the style and degree of weathering the rock has undergone.
If a specimen is from Brazil it is about 580 milion years old; and if from India, it is even more ancient, at about 1.8 billion years old. The specimen itself has a label and name on it and it made me wonder by whom, when and where was this placed, and who perhaps misspelt the name ‘Quartzite’?
The box that holds the flexible rock also has a story. On the underside, dated 1920, is a name, perhaps referring to the original cards inside, “Barndoor”, and then a person’s indecipherable name, perhaps Holly Harnet?
The date of 1920 suggests that the rock was placed in here after Prof. Benson had identfied and returned it to Dr Fulton. But what’s more, the box itself is also uncommon, as it was made by the publishers G.D. Ltd (Delgado) of London. It originally contained a set of Christmas cards as part of the Union Jack Series.
So, discovered by chance, a small package from a local Ashburton identity from 97 years ago (or more) has left us an interesting story and probably the only specimen of itacolumite in the country. Thank you Dr Fulton.
By Glenn Vallender
- Dr Fulton in his army Captains uniform c.1945. ©Ashburton Museum.
- Benson’s letter to Dr Fulton. ©Ashburton Museum.
- The itacolumite flexible rock specimen in the Ashburton Museum collection. ©Ashburton Museum.
- The top of the specimen box. ©Ashburton Museum.
- The underside of the specimen box. ©Ashburton Museum.