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Story: Cunningham, Gordon Herriot

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Cunningham, Gordon Herriot


Horticulturist, plant pathologist, mycologist

This biography, written by Joan M. Dingley, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1998.

Gordon Herriot Cunningham was born at Heriot, West Otago, on 27 August 1892, one of seven children of Helen Donaldson Herriot and her husband, Joseph Watson Cunningham, manager of a sheep station at nearby Moa Flat. He was educated at Dunrobin and then at Tapanui District High School. At 14 he worked on his father's farm and two years later became a cadet on John Bennetts's stone-fruit farm in Roxburgh.

In 1909 Gordon Cunningham left New Zealand for Australia. He worked on orchards in Tasmania and South Australia, cut sugarcane in Queensland and took charge of a camel train in central Australia. After his return home in 1910, his father bought him a block of orchard land at Māpua, in the Nelson district. He successfully planted the area with fruit trees using an ingenious method, blasting holes in the heavy clay with gelignite. At the outbreak of the First World War he was again in Otago. He volunteered and was posted to the 14th (South Otago) Company of the Otago Battalion. He contracted dysentery at Gallipoli and was injured by shrapnel while waiting for transport to Egypt. While in hospital in Egypt, and later in Rotorua, he became friendly with Gerald Matthews, a Māori linguist, and began a collection of books on Māori customs, legends and history.

While convalescing at his parents' farm in the Turakina Valley, Cunningham became interested in New Zealand plants and their diseases. A chance meeting in 1917 with J. A. Campbell, assistant director of the Horticulture Division in the Department of Agriculture, Industries and Commerce, led to a temporary appointment as a junior instructor in horticulture. Based in Palmerston North, he conducted most of his work in Hawke's Bay under the guidance of Gordon Esam and T. E. Rodda, from whom he gained a good insight into fruit growing. On 21 February 1918 Cunningham married Maggie Leslie McGregor in Palmerston North; they were to have one daughter.

T. W. Kirk, director of the Horticulture Division, observed Cunningham's interest in plant diseases and about March 1918 suggested he should specialise in this field. Cunningham set up a laboratory at his home in Palmerston North and was appointed to a permanent position in the division in August. Early in 1919 Alfred Cockayne, head of the biological laboratory at Weraroa, Levin, insisted that Cunningham should join his team. In Weraroa Cunningham made lunchtime forays into bush remnants in the area, often in the company of the botanist E. H. Atkinson, gathering many collections of forest fungi. In 1920 the laboratory moved to Wellington to give staff an opportunity to attend Victoria University College. Cunningham graduated with a BSc (1924), MSc (1926) and PhD (1927).

Gordon Cunningham's work was beginning to become known, and in 1924 he was the New Zealand representative to the first Imperial Mycological Conference held in London. He published a book on the fungus diseases of fruit trees in 1925. In 1928 he accompanied H. H. Allan to the South Island on an investigation of hybridism and fungi in subalpine and alpine vegetation.

An increase in the staff and workload of the biological laboratory necessitated its relocation to Palmerston North in 1928. Cunningham took charge of the mycology section of this new plant research station. In 1929 he was promised the directorship of the station and toured England, Europe and North America to study the organisation of horticultural research stations. He also attended the second Imperial Mycological Conference in London.

On Cunningham's return to New Zealand, the promised directorship was withheld. Cockayne had already accepted an appointment in Wellington and the station worked without a resident director for six years. Cunningham accepted the situation and worked harder than ever. He published a book on New Zealand rust fungi in 1931, which resulted in the conferring of a DSc by the University of New Zealand in 1932. In 1934 he attended a meeting in Canberra that successfully negotiated regulations for exporting citrus fruit to New Zealand and apples to Australia. The following year, after a series of field experiments and lectures to growers, he published a work on the chemical control of pests and diseases. In 1944 his book, The Gastromycetes of Australia and New Zealand, was published, the culmination of 20 years' work and over 20 papers on puff-balls and related fungi.

The lack of facilities and accommodation at Palmerston North eventually became unbearable to all staff. In desperation, Cunningham resigned early in 1935 and went mountain climbing and gold prospecting in Central Otago. In 1936, after a change of government, plant research became the responsibility of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research and Cunningham became director of a new Plant Diseases Division, based in Auckland. He spent much time planning buildings and facilities and recruiting staff for the new laboratory, opened in 1939. Cunningham now had what he had long dreamed of: a modern laboratory, associated with adequate land for experimental trials.

Although the Second World War curtailed the development of the new division, Cunningham acquired orchard land at Oratia and set up a field crop disease sub-station in the South Island. He persuaded the New Zealand Fruitgrowers' Federation to establish at Levin a fruit tree nursery to supply high-quality trees, and added to his staff a section to look into timber preservation in New Zealand. Cunningham was also involved in the development of a linen-flax industry in the South Island. Towards the end of the war he was appointed to the New Zealand committee on biological warfare and in 1948, on its behalf, visited Britain. He took this opportunity to look at material on wood-rotting fungi in the herbarium at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and at the British Museum.

From 1943 Cunningham had begun to delegate his administrative responsibilities. His own time was now spent in recording, classifying and describing New Zealand and Australian wood-rotting fungi. His descriptions were accompanied by excellent line drawings. A Nuffield Foundation grant in 1951 provided funds for another trip to examine fungi in the herbaria of Britain and Europe.

Cunningham was a man of great mental and physical energy. In his young days he was an enthusiastic boxer and motorcyclist, and later became a keen mountaineer and gardener. He was interested in education; he conducted staff training courses, examined for the national diploma in horticulture and in 1952 was appointed government nominee on the Auckland University College Council. He was independent of outlook and strongly resistant to any interference from outsiders; he hated incompetence, could cause offence with his sharp wit, and allowed his staff great latitude in their work.

Cunningham retired in 1957. He visited Britain in 1960 for the tercentenary of the Royal Society of London and prepared two manuscripts on wood-rotting fungi; these were published posthumously in 1963 and 1965. After a period of ill health he died at Auckland on 18 July 1962; he was survived by his wife and daughter. Gordon Cunningham had received many honours for his work. He was a fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand, and received its Hutton Memorial Medal in 1935 and Hector Memorial Medal and Prize in 1948. In 1949 he was appointed a CBE, and in 1950 he was made a fellow of the Royal Society of London. Cunningham made an important contribution to the classification and identification of fungi and his work played a major role in the development of the fruit industry in New Zealand.

How to cite this page:

Joan M. Dingley. 'Cunningham, Gordon Herriot', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1998. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/4c47/cunningham-gordon-herriot (accessed 20 June 2024)