BROWN, John Macmillan
University teacher and writer.
A new biography of Brown, John Macmillan appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.
Macmillan Brown was born in 1846 at Irvine, Scotland, the son of a ship owner. He was educated at the Irvine Academy and at the University of Glasgow, where he gained first-class honours in mental philosophy and was awarded a Snell exhibition for five years. This enabled him to proceed in 1869 to Balliol College, Oxford, but he did not complete his course there for health reasons. In 1873–74 he worked in the geological survey of Scotland.
In 1875 Brown became one of the three foundation professors at Canterbury University College, his subjects being classics, English, and history. He soon showed exceptional ability at improvising to meet the difficult local conditions, and in his elementary courses in Greek and Latin “employed methods so original and effective that members of these classes were within a couple of years able to translate at sight from a wide range of literature”. Understandably the task of teaching full courses in the classics and in English, while at the same time offering help to students who wished to take philosophy and history, became too burdensome. Hence in 1879, encouraged by the great popularity of his English courses, Brown obtained the assent of the college to his becoming professor of English alone, though he still had history and political economy as “subsidiary interests”. In the teaching of English he again showed freshness and originality and was able to teach his students to write good English by a very effective, practical method, while at the same time stimulating them by his philosophical approach to literature. Unfortunately his health in 1895 obliged him to resign his chair. His former students established a university memorial prize in English composition to which, characteristically, he contributed £200 himself.
Brown had served as a member of the Royal Commission on Higher Education (1879–82); as a result of its recommendations all connections between the university and post-primary schools were severed, and new colleges were later established at Auckland and Wellington. He was a member of the Senate of the University of New Zealand from 1879, becoming Vice-Chancellor in 1916. In 1923 he was elected Chancellor in succession to Sir Robert Stout and retained this position until his death on 18 January 1935.
As a writer Brown's first enterprises were related to the needs of his teaching. He published an account of English literature in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and six studies of individual authors (Shakespeare, Shelley, and Carlyle), based on his course notes which were always very much in demand. In retirement he had leisure to develop certain wider interests. These first took the form of two works of fiction, published under the nom de plume “Godfrey Sweven”. Riallero (1897) has Swift's imagination (but not his bitterness) and uses his method of a voyage to imaginary islands (“The Archipelago of Exiles”) to satirise some tendencies in contemporary New Zealand. This was followed by Limanora (1903). Both books were too long (420 and 711 pages) and too elaborate to be popular but are often ingenious and repay perusal. Brown also wrote on education and in 1914 an account of travel in the Dutch East Indies.
His three books on Pacific anthropology are probably his most considerable literary work and constitute a massive contribution to learning, based on what had become the major interest of his latter years. Brown travelled widely throughout the Pacific area, taking many interesting photographs and building up an extensive collection of artefacts from many different islands. Maori and Polynesian (1907) stresses the Caucasian element in the Maori people. The Riddle of the Pacific (1924) grapples with the problem of the Easter Island statues and script. People and Problems of the Pacific (1927) surveys in two large volumes the peoples of Micronesia, Melanesia, and Polynesia and examines the evidence of their origins. It is perhaps regrettable that Brown had time to study Pacific problems only at the end of a full and busy life, as, though he achieved much in his books, marshalling formidable armies of facts with undismayed vigour and an admirable tenacity, he worked in a field where others were destined to achieve more permanent results.
Brown's generosity to university education was not limited to the unstinted dedication of his time. In 1920 he gave £1,000 to provide bursaries for students at Helen Connon Hall. In the same year his service as relieving professor of English at Otago was marked by his donation of £250, the interest to provide an annual prize for English composition. In 1923 he gave the same sum to Canterbury College for a similar prize. By his will Brown left his anthropological collection and his library to Canterbury together with provision for its upkeep. He also left money towards a library building and for the foundation of a school of Pacific studies.
Although Brown's career was in some degree shaped by the needs of his time, yet his versatility is remarkable even in an age when New Zealand's university education was struggling into existence on derisively slender resources. His whole career is evidence of the exceptional demands made on our first generation of university teachers and Brown's response was perhaps the most generous and wholehearted of that indefatigible generation. “He was the dominating personality in the first twenty years of the College life, and his energy and enthusiasm never flagged.” He was always able to find time to help students individually and kept up a close and friendly relationship with those he taught. His writings show him as a man of great gifts, of considerable intellectual power. He achieved distinction in several unrelated disciplines.
by David Oswald William Hall, M.A., Director, Adult Education, University of Otago (retired).