Thomas Cawthron arrived in Nelson from England in 1849. He prospered in the goldfields of Victoria, Australia, before returning to Nelson in the mid 1850s. Thomas began his 25 year-long association with shipping, operating from a beached ship in Port Nelson, eventually acquiring a monopoly of Nelson shipping agencies by the mid 1870s. He imported coal from Australia and prospered from trade between Nelson and the West Coast.
In 1915 Thomas Cawthron bequeathed Â£231,000 - the largest single bequest in New Zealand at the time - to set up the Cawthron Institute, which he also endowed with an enduring ethos of pro-active and pragmatic science.
The institute is now New Zealand's largest independent and not-for-profit research organisation, and is a leader in a range of marine and freshwater scientific research and consulting.