Peter C. Sutherland, surveyor-general of Natal, was taken to Nova Scotia, Canada, by his parents in 1830. When they returned to Scotland in 1841 their ship was wrecked and only Peter and his younger brother William were saved. In 1842 he entered King's College, Aberdeen, as a medical student and qualified in 1847 as Doctor of Medicine (MD) and as a licentiate of the Royal College of Surgeon (LRCS) of Edinburgh. He supported himself during his student years by coaching fellow students and by going to sea during vacations. Thus he travelled as a chemist to West Africa to examine guano deposits. He almost died of fever there, but wrote a report on his findings. Later he travelled twice as surgeon with a whaling fleet in the North Atlantic.
After qualifying he set up practice in Fraserburgh, a small coastal town north of Aberdeen, but could hardly make a living. Hence in 1850 his adventurous nature led him to join an expedition to the Canadian Arctic in search of the missing explorer Sir John Franklin, as medical officer, geologist and naturalist. His activities included an extensive journey by sledge along the north-western coast of Baffin Island, during which he made geological observations. He published an account of the expedition, Journal of a voyage in Baffin's Bay and Barrow Straits, in the years 1850-1851 (London, 1852, 2 vols), and in 1852 took part in a second voyage to Baffin Bay and Lancaster Sound, led by Captain E.E. Inglesfield. During these voyages he collected fossils, algae and lichens, and dredged for marine invertebrates. Sutherland Island, off the west coast of Greenland, was named after him. Upon his return to Britain he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. A paper by him, "On the geological and glacial phenomena of the coasts of Davis's Straits and Baffin's Bay", was published in the Journal of the Geological Society of London (1853), in which he described various geological effects of seasonally moving ice. His short notes on the geology and meteorology of the regions visited were included in A summer search for Sir John Franklin, with a peep into the polar basin (London, 1853) by Captain Edward A. Inglesfield. A few years later a paper by him "On the Esquimaux" appeared in the Journal of the Ethnological Society of London (1856).
Upon being told that the colonial office considered a geological survey of Natal advisable Sutherland sailed for Natal, arriving at Port Natal (now Durban) on 12 November 1853. During the voyage he made regular descriptive (non-instrumental) observations of the weather that were published as "Remarks on a series of three-hourly meteorological and other observations made during a passage from London to Algoa Bay, from July-October 1853" in the Journal of the Royal Geographical Society (1855). In Natal he initially did some medical work, but in March 1854 was appointed government geologist of Natal - a post he held for two years. He was then appointed surveyor-general of the colony, succeeding Dr W. Stanger*. His headquarters were in Pietermaritzburg and he held this position until his retirement in 1887. From 1854 to 1860 he was also in charge of public works, and for some time he was chairman of the Harbour Board. On 31 January 1857 he married Rebecca U. Leask, with whom he had a son and a daughter. After her death in 1864 he married Jane G. Blaikie, with whom he had two sons and two daughters.
During his term of office as surveyor-general Sutherland was responsible for surveying and building many roads and laying out the townships of Newcastle (1864), Port Shepstone (1867), Colenso (1871), Stanger (1873), Harding (1873), and many more. During 1857 he accompanied senior officials to fix the boundary between Natal and the Transvaal. In 1862 he defined the boundary between Natal and the new Griqua settlement under Adam Kok the third (Griqualand East), when that territory was annexed to the Cape Colony. Four years later, when determining the boundary of the region that was annexed to Natal to form Alfred County, he studied the extensive marble deposit in Oribi Gorge. His years of field work, on foot and horseback, enabled him to compile a map of Natal that was published under the title Colony of Natal (London, 1864) on a scale of 18 miles to the inch (c. 1:1 140 000). Some other manuscript maps of Natal by him, compiled in 1858, 1873 and 1885, are in the National Archives, Pietermaritzburg.
His survey work provided many opportunities for geological observations in different parts of Natal. He communicated these to Sir Roderick Murchison in England. Extracts from his letters were published as "Notes on the geology of Natal, South Africa", in the Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London (1855-1856). In this paper he sketched the overall structure of the colony and described its principal geological strata. His paper included the earliest record of fossil plants in Natal and drew attention to the presence of extensive coal deposits. Some specimens of fossil plants that he sent to England were described under the name Glossopteris sutherlandi by Tate in 1867 and were deposited in the British Museum (Natural History). In an important paper read before the Natural History Association of Natal on 27 June 1868, entitled "The geology of Natal, South Africa" and described as "the result of fourteen years' research in every district of the colony" (Sanderson, 1869, p. 61), he discussed the appearance and distribution of the boulder clay of Natal and identified it with the "claystone-porphyry" of the Cape Colony described by A.G. Bain*. More importantly, he concluded from his observations that these deposits (which came to be known as Dwyka tillite) had a glacial origin. This conclusion was not accepted by C.L. Griesbach*, but was substantiated by the detailed observations of E.J. Dunn* in the northern Cape and G.W. Stow* in Griqualand West. The nearly horizontal sandstone layers beneath the boulder clay he correlated with the Table Mountain sandstone of the Cape, being the first person to do so. He recognised that the Bluff at Durban consisted of an aeolian (wind deposited) sandy limestone. His paper was published as a pamphlet in Durban that same year (26p), while a shortened version appeared in the Natal almanac for 1870 (pp. 61-76). His paper was not accompanied by a geological map, but provided a very good general account of the geology of Natal. Also in 1870 his "Notes on an ancient boulder-clay of Natal" was published in the Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London. Around the same time he wrote a "Note on the auriferous rocks of south-eastern Africa" (Ibid, 1869). Though he published no further geological papers, he drew a geological section from Durban to Van Reenen's Pass, which was added to the report by F.W. North* on the coal fields of Natal in 1881.
Sutherland explored the Drakensberg and collected flowering plants and seeds in many localities in Natal and Pondoland. These he sent to Sir W.J. Hooker, director of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, near London, together with information on the colony's flora. For example, in 1857 he sent 400 species of live plants collected in the neighbourhood of Durban. W.H. Harvey* thanked him in the preface to Volume 1 of the Flora Capensis (1860) "for small but carefully made collections made in various parts of his district, during hasty professional visits". He was the most scholarly of Natal's botanical pioneers. Several of the species he collected were new to science, including Greyia sutherlandii (Drakensberg bottlebrush), named after him by Sir J.D. Hooker*. Other species named after him were Begonia sutherlandii, Argyrolobium sutherlandii, Millettia sutherlandii and Vernonia sutherlandii. Shortly before his death he described the "Botanic Garden, Durban" in Kew Bulletin (1900).
Sutherland's interest in agriculture led him to support the cultivation of New Zealand hemp and experiments with cotton in the Umkomaas Valley. In 1873 he was appointed as a member of the Commission on red water, other members being G.L. Bonnar* and J.W. Winter*. Their "Report of the Commission on red water", describing among others the pathology of the disease, was published in January the next year in the Natal Government Gazette. It led to the appointment of Samuel Wiltshire* as the first Colonial Veterinary Surgeon of Natal. In 1889, with W.E. Blackburrow and others, he submitted the report of the commission appointed to enquire into the extent and condition of forest lands in the colony of Natal.
Sutherland was never licensed to practice medicine in Natal. However, he was chairman of the Natal Medical Board, charged with the licensing of medical practitioners, throughout the 40 years of its existence. He was also an honorary member of the Durban Medico-Chirurgical Society (established in 1872). From 1855-1877 he was the surgeon of the Military Volunteer Corps (later the Royal Natal Carbineers). During his field work he was sometimes called upon to provide medical help to the injured or the sick, and on one occasion participated in a large vaccination campaign against smallpox. He participated in organising the building of Grey's Hospital in Pietermaritzburg (opened in May 1857) and used his own waggon and oxen to transport building stones free of charge.
Sutherland was interested in every aspect of the develpment of the colony and did much to expand knowledge of its natural resources. As an incisive speaker and one of Natal's most illustrious pioneers he was active in many branches of public affairs. He served as president of the Pietermaritzburg Agricultural Society from 1873 to 1877and thereafter as joint vice-president; on the council of the Natural History Association of Natal, from its foundation in 1868 to its demise a few years later; on the committee of the Natal Acclimatization Society (1866-1874); as vice-president for Natal of the short-lived South African Geological Association (1888-1890); on the council of the Natal Society (1881-1899), as president from 1881 to 1883 and as a member of its museum committee; and on the committee of the Pietermaritzburg Botanical Society (1873-1890) and later as one of its trustees (1891-1899). In October 1890 he was elected as a member of the legislative council of Natal for Pietermaritzburg. Conservative in his outlook, he opposed responsible government for the colony and lost his seat in the election of 1893. He was an honorary member of the Geological Society of South Africa during the last few years of his life. In 1871 Cecil J. Rhodes, later an outstanding British imperialist but then a sickly youth, resided at his home for a few months. Sutherland died in Pietermaritzburg some time after suffering a carriage accicent.