Duncan MacGregor was born at Aberfeldy, Perthshire, Scotland, on 14 December 1843, the son of Isabella MacGregor and her husband, James MacGregor, a mason. Educated first at Breadalbane Academy, where he trained as a pupil-teacher, MacGregor was later a highly successful scholar in Classics and philosophy at the University of Aberdeen, winning a Fullerton, Moir and Gray scholarship in Classics and mental philosophy and gaining his MA in 1866. He was also awarded the Ferguson scholarship for mental science, an award open to graduates of all Scottish universities, by the University of Glasgow. MacGregor then studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh, graduating MB and CM in 1870. On 20 December that year, at Edinburgh, he married Mary Johnston, the daughter of an Edinburgh ironmonger. Such was the level of distinction attained by Duncan MacGregor in his studies that he was invited to fill the inaugural chair in mental and moral philosophy at the University of Otago, New Zealand. The newly married couple arrived at Dunedin on the Wild Deer on 22 June 1871. At 27, MacGregor was the new university's youngest professorial appointment.
The period from 1871 to 1886, after which he left Dunedin and the university, was probably the most satisfying of MacGregor's life. During this time four daughters and a son were born. Family life was augmented by the migration to Otago in 1874 of MacGregor's parents and his younger brother, John, who later became a Dunedin lawyer and member of the Legislative Council. In Otago MacGregor was at the height of his powers, both physical and mental, and the variety of his talents brought him considerable public esteem. A tall, immensely built man, he gained a reputation for his commanding presence, oratory and athleticism. He excelled at the Caledonian sports and enjoyed walking and tramping vast distances. Although he was an academic rather than a practitioner of medicine, he has been credited with being the first at Dunedin Hospital to conduct an operation under Listerian principles of antiseptic surgery.
As a public speaker MacGregor was known both for his rich and extensive vocabulary, and for the originality of his convictions. He was a supporter of women's rights, and in an 1885 address to the Otago Girls' High School prize-giving denounced the Miltonian ideal of womanly submissiveness. MacGregor suggested that both sexes were disadvantaged by an education system which trained young women to become mere 'ivy drapery', devoted to dress and 'tawdry accomplishments'. Urging that girls be given a general education essentially similar to that received by boys, he also called for adequate attention to be paid to their physical development and training. More provocatively, he argued that industrial society demanded that women be fully equipped for the battle of life. This meant that the care of family and home should be seen as only one of several ways in which girls might have to earn their living.
But it was in his views on social Darwinism that MacGregor's intellectual influence was most marked. One of a group of radical evolutionists, he published in the New Zealand Magazine in 1876 a broad-ranging series of articles on 'The problem of poverty in New Zealand'. These surveyed the human condition from the time of the 'primaeval savage' to the social problems of the 1870s. MacGregor believed that the 'hopelessly lazy, the diseased, and the vicious', who would once have been weeded out by natural selection, were 'eating like a cancer into the vitals of society.' Regretting that society would no longer leave these 'waste products' to struggle and die unaided, he concluded by advocating the lifetime incarceration of hopeless drunkards, criminals and paupers.
This was controversial enough, foreshadowing MacGregor's later views on social policy. But, in passing, he had also taken a swipe at the role of the Christian churches, which he saw as having little relevance to most of the population, and as stifling education. In 1876 the Synod of the Presbyterian Church of Otago and Southland, which had endowed MacGregor's university chair, took exception to the professor's 'materialism' (and, no doubt, to his denunciations of religious hypocrisy), and tried to restrict his influence by dividing the chair into two positions. The university council resisted this interference and MacGregor prevailed, but the wounds resulting from this affair were never healed.
Whatever MacGregor's difficulties with Presbyterian leaders, there was no doubting his popularity with students, many of whom displayed a lifelong loyalty to the man and his ideas. He was regarded as the most brilliant lecturer at Otago university, demonstrating a remarkable ability to enthuse and to inspire classroom debate. He was said to have stamped his opinions and personality upon a large number of future New Zealand leaders, among them Robert Stout, Downie Stewart, T. W. Hislop and John Findlay. On MacGregor's death Findlay wrote this of his teaching: 'His fine presence, his sonorous voice, the sternness and rectitude of his character, and his passion for truth, combined to present a personality that left its impress on every student under him. The atmosphere of his class-room was unlike that of any class-room I was ever in. It was charged with an electricity emanating from the man himself that defies definition. When with flushed face and flashing eye, his voice rose to its full pitch in denouncing the shams of the world, in appealing to our manhood, in exhorting the pursuit of truth at all cost, his class used to sit as if transfixed'.
MacGregor was to come increasingly into contact with those whose circumstances discounted such high ideals of 'manhood', rationality and truth. In 1873 he was appointed inspector of the Dunedin Lunatic Asylum, and between 1876 and 1882 he served as the asylum's medical officer. These official positions prepared the way for his move on to the national stage in 1886. Benefiting from the patronage of Premier Robert Stout, MacGregor was that year appointed inspector of lunatic asylums and inspector of hospitals and charitable institutions. His salary of £1,200 per annum placed him among the highest paid of all public servants, a fact that would later rankle with many politicians.
MacGregor commenced his duties with characteristic zeal and energy, moving on three fronts to eradicate abuses of public relief, reform the country's lunatic asylums and alter patterns of hospital usage. No desk-bound bureaucrat, he spent considerable time travelling, sometimes in the company of his wife, Mary, personally investigating the management of welfare institutions. Early in his inspectorate he descended on the homes of welfare recipients, triumphantly exposing cases of deception and fraud and rebuking local officials for their laxity. There was an inquisitorial element to his activities which did little to endear him to local authorities, let alone the poor.
Convinced that his chief business as a public official was to 'analyse the social significance of the tendencies manifested within my departmental scope', MacGregor became, in his primitive and prejudiced way, one of New Zealand's earliest social researchers. His views were publicised in a series of highly idiosyncratic reports to Parliament. These drew on his reading of social policy in other countries, as well as his outraged observations of the local scene. New Zealand, he believed, was rapidly becoming contaminated by low-quality immigrants and their offspring. He recommended greater emphasis on casework, voluntary charity, classification of the poor, and state intervention at both ends of a spectrum of moral worth: the truly intractable elements should be incarcerated for life and made to work for their support, while at the other extreme, state support should be given to destitute children, who could yet be moulded into good citizens. He also endorsed state pensions for the deserving elderly in recognition of their contribution to New Zealand's development. Even so, these concessions were not unequivocally humanitarian. The state guardianship of children should be accompanied by a sharp watch for 'the consequences of bastardy made easy', and the old-age pension scheme most favoured by MacGregor was that of Denmark, with its rigid moral qualifications. The stern hand of MacGregor can be seen in the moral clauses and means testing of the Old-age Pensions Act 1898. While his harsher recommendations were never implemented, he and his disciples did a good deal to keep poor relief at the meanest of limits, to permanently stigmatise the able-bodied poor, and to set the framework of debate over poverty in New Zealand well into the twentieth century.
MacGregor had equally strong views on mental health. Here, too, he advocated hard manual work and classification of inmates, but he also sought a central psychiatric hospital run on 'scientific' lines, where curable cases could be isolated from the hopelessly ill and 'imbeciles'. He fought in vain against sending senile cases to state-run asylums, on at least one occasion personally discharging a group of elderly patients, who ended up in police cells. Despite his calls for greater expenditure on mental health, however, he was unable to reverse the overcrowding and deterioration of New Zealand asylums. Under MacGregor the Lunatic Asylums Department became more centralised and authoritarian; but, as with poor relief, aspiration far outweighed achievement.
Even more frustrating for MacGregor was the public hospital system. Here his authority as inspector was subverted by an ever-increasing number of parochially minded hospital boards. In theory, public hospitals were for the destitute; in practice, they were increasingly viewed as a community resource to be used by all. MacGregor railed against abuse of the hospital system by those able to afford private treatment, but he proved unable to stem the tide. He had greater success in fostering discipline and training among hospital nurses, and, in the 1900s, oversaw the establishment of the St Helens hospitals for maternity cases. However, credit for these achievements was due at least as much to his able assistant, Grace Neill.
MacGregor's great talents did not show to advantage within the confines of bureaucracy. His style of personal intervention and wide-ranging social commentary brought him into conflict with new expectations of bureaucratic discretion. His friendship with Robert Stout did little to commend him to the Seddon government from the 1890s. In 1898 he was described by the English Fabian socialist, Beatrice Webb, who was then visiting New Zealand, as this 'voluble Highlander' who allegedly wrote anonymous articles for the opposition press. In the same year MacGregor expressed frustration at his lack of success, bitterly wishing upon the public 'such servants as its supineness deserves'. Shortly after this, MacGregor's political masters reined him in.
Duncan MacGregor's last years were marked by disappointment, illness and a much reduced level of activity. He died in a diabetic coma at his home in Northland, Wellington, on 16 December 1906. He was survived by his wife and five children. The inscription in Gaelic on his gravestone read, 'An darach air a spionadh' (The oak tree is uprooted).