Story: Maclaurin, James Scott

Page 1: Biography

Maclaurin, James Scott


Analytical chemist

This biography, written by Brian R. Davis, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.

James Scott Maclaurin was born on 8 November 1864 at Unst, the northernmost of the Shetland islands, Scotland. He was one of eleven children of Robert Campbell Maclaurin, a minister of the Church of Scotland, and his wife, Martha Joan Spence. The Maclaurin family emigrated to New Zealand in three groups in 1874 and 1875, and settled at Alexandra (Pirongia) in Waikato. Maclaurin's father initially served as a missionary, but with the establishment of a state school system in 1877 he became head teacher of a school at Te Awamutu and then later at Hautapu.

James received his secondary education at Auckland College and Grammar School and in the early 1880s began working as an analyst in Auckland with J. A. Pond. In 1888 he entered Auckland University College with his younger brother Richard. He studied chemistry, geology and some physics and was awarded a college Senior Scholarship at the end of his second year. He graduated BSc in 1892 and in the same year proceeded to work for an honours degree with Professor F. D. Brown on the solution of gold in dilute solutions of potassium cyanide. The high quality of his research gained him first-class honours in 1893, and the work described in the thesis was published that year in the Journal of the Chemical Society, London, the first publication in an overseas journal from the college's chemistry department. On 27 December he married Dorcas Macky at Paterangi near Te Awamutu.

In 1895, on the basis of his honours thesis, Maclaurin was nominated by the University of New Zealand for an 1851 Exhibition Science Research Scholarship. Because he wished to retain his position as a private analyst in Auckland he declined the nomination, and the scholarship was awarded to Ernest Rutherford. He continued his work with Brown on the dissolution of gold, and established that oxygen was necessary for the process. This discovery was of major international significance and the basis for much subsequent work on the cyanide process for gold extraction.

In 1897 Maclaurin was awarded a DSc, the second to be conferred by the University of New Zealand. His election as a fellow of the Chemical Society, London, in the same year, was the first for someone living in New Zealand. Maclaurin went on working with Pond and joined him as a partner. From 1896 to 1901 he served on the Auckland University College Council.

In January 1901 Maclaurin succeeded William Skey as analyst to the Mines Department at an annual salary of £400. In November he was appointed analyst to the Department of Health. The family moved to Wellington where James began a 30-year tenure in office. During these years he dealt with a wide variety of chemical and analytical problems across a broad spectrum of the country's activities. Other departments increasingly called on his services, and he became in effect chief chemical adviser to the government.

Maclaurin was colonial analyst from 1906 to 1909, when his title changed to dominion analyst. In the same year he was appointed chief inspector of explosives, and in this capacity he reorganised the administration of the Explosives and Dangerous Goods Act 1908. As analyst to the Geological Survey, he examined rocks and minerals from a variety of districts. His studies of New Zealand coals and their utilisation were linked with a concern for safety in mines. In investigating the mineral waters of New Zealand, he noted the first occurrence in nature of pentathionic acid in water from White Island. He also measured the radioactivity of gases, waters and sinters in the thermal regions. In 1925 he became chief gas examiner with oversight for gas regulations and for gas and meter testing throughout the country.

As a practical, innovative scientist Maclaurin did much valuable work for the Public Health Department. He introduced a new method of freezing-point determination for the detection of added water in milk. In order to justify the raising of the minimum legal standard for fat in milk from 3.0 to 3.25 per cent, he analysed 1,600 samples of milk from widely differing herds in various parts of New Zealand, during spring and summer when fat is at its lowest. He was also responsible for the drafting of legislation and regulations under the Sale of Food and Drugs Act 1907. His care and supervision ensured that food adulteration was consistently checked. In his later years Maclaurin devoted much time to research on kauri gum and New Zealand flax ( Phormium tenax ). An article on the artificial bleaching of flax was published posthumously in the New Zealand Journal of Science and Technology in 1940, but none of his work on kauri gum was published.

Administratively, Maclaurin's major achievement was the building up of the Colonial (later Dominion) Laboratory. When he became analyst there in 1901 he had one cadet assistant and worked in indifferent premises. He soon pressed for better accommodation, and a new laboratory building was opened in 1905. As the work of the laboratory increased, branch laboratories were opened in the 1920s in Auckland, Christchurch and Dunedin. By the time Maclaurin retired in 1930 there was a total staff of 32 chemists.

Maclaurin was quiet and unostentatious, admired and respected by his colleagues and associates. Throughout his career he was always alert for new methods and his work was characterised by skill, patience and attention to detail. Besides being a fellow of the Chemical Society, he was a member of the Society of Chemical Industry and of the Society of Public Analysts, all of Great Britain. In 1926 he was elected a fellow of the New Zealand Institute.

After being in poor health for some years James Maclaurin died in Wellington on 19 January 1939. He was survived by his wife, Dorcas, and four children. His successor at the Dominion Laboratory, William Donovan, wrote that Maclaurin had left behind 'an example of unselfish, untiring scientific service of a standard which will remain an ideal and an inspiration to all scientific workers'.

How to cite this page:

Brian R. Davis. 'Maclaurin, James Scott', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1996. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 17 December 2018)