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Story: Malcolm, John

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Malcolm, John


Physiologist, university professor

This biography, written by James R. Robinson, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1998.

John Malcolm was born on 31 August 1873 at Halkirk, Caithness, Scotland, one of four children of John Malcolm, a contractor mason, and his wife, Ann Swanson. His was a well-informed Presbyterian family with plenty of books, and John became a relatively free-thinking Presbyterian. He earned his living from the age of 14 as a student-teacher at the local primary school near Corsback, advancing his own education with the aid of the headmaster.

Setting off with little more than the traditional oatmeal and herrings, John Malcolm entered the University of Edinburgh to study medicine in 1892. A brilliant student, he won many awards, including the Grierson Bursary in Anatomy and Physiology, and the Vans Dunlop Scholarship. He graduated MB, ChB with honours in 1897, and was invited by Professor William Rutherford into the physiological laboratory to undertake research that earned him an MD with a gold medal in 1899. Rutherford died that year; his successor, Professor E. A. S. Schafer, retained Malcolm as assistant in physiology (1899–1902), and lecturer in chemical physiology (1902–5). He spent some months in 1901 with Professor Nathan Zuntz in Berlin, and was elected to the Physiological Society (London) in 1902.

In 1903 Wolf Harris, director of the merchant firm of Bing, Harris and Company, gave the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand, £2,000 towards establishing the Wolf Harris chair of physiology. Two years later the university found further funding and Schafer recommended John Malcolm as the first holder. He arrived in New Zealand at the end of April 1905, delivered his first lecture on 1 May, and was to hold the chair for 38 years.

John Malcolm needed all his native thrift and hardiness to set up his department. He had only £200 for equipment, and bought a number of instruments out of his own pocket. He had no help at all until he got his former assistant, Harry Manson, from Edinburgh in 1910, and no professional assistant until he shared one with anatomy in 1914. He started his class in chemical physiology in a room with no water tap, and had to explain to the Council of the University of Otago why he required £65 a year to run his department when other professors asked for £30. Laboratory chemicals and animals had to be purchased. He even had to buy a chair to sit in; his colonial Windsor chair was still in use in 1995. Importing rats for nutritional work was impossible until 1922, and the first batch perished in a fire. He adapted C. S. Sherrington's practical course to use anaesthetised wild rabbits. He also planned the fine new department which opened in 1927.

As the first full-time professor of physiology in New Zealand, John Malcolm introduced experimental methods into the University of Otago Medical School and made an important contribution to the education of many generations of medical practitioners. He was interested in clinical medicine, included applied physiology in his course, and played a large part in developing an excellent medical library.

His appointment was also the first significant landmark in the development of biochemistry in New Zealand. He began work on tutin, a poisonous substance from a native plant that could turn up in honey, and then examined the nutritive value of New Zealand fish and other regional foods. He introduced into New Zealand the use of rats and chemical methods for vitamin assays, which had significant practical applications; a diet that he devised saved the lives of Admiral R. E. Byrd's dogs on his Antarctic expedition in 1928.

John Malcolm carried out all his teaching and research meticulously, but did not fuss. For him, to live was to work. Although he was always struggling, with more students than places in the classes, he made it his business to know them all personally – so much so that Schafer chided him for according them a higher priority than his own research. He retained his pleasant Scottish speech, was known as 'Johnny', and is remembered as an altogether delightful character, soft spoken, modest and ever helpful. He had married Frances Harriet Victoria (Vicky) Simpson on 8 November 1912 at Dunedin. They had three children and lived at 7 Royal Terrace, Dunedin, for their entire married lives. Vicky shared John's kindly interest in the students.

John Malcolm served on the Senate of the University of New Zealand (1914–17) and was chairman of Otago University's professorial board (1913–16) and acting dean of the medical school at times between 1908 and 1913. He commanded the university medical corps from 1909 and resigned as major in 1919. He was a member of the congregation of Knox Church and of the governing bodies of Knox College and Columba College. Although he joined the New Zealand Institute, he declined the fellowship when this became the Royal Society of New Zealand. He was a foundation member of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research in 1926, and chairman of the Nutrition Committee of the New Zealand Medical Research Council from 1937 to 1949. After retiring in 1943, he continued to work on histology. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1933 and was appointed CMG in 1947. By this time he had 28 original publications to his name. Malcolm had little time for recreational pursuits, but enjoyed tramping, fishing, carpentry and the occasional game of golf. He died on 17 June 1954 survived by two sons and a daughter. His wife, Vicky, had died the previous year.

How to cite this page:

James R. Robinson. 'Malcolm, John', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1998. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/4m33/malcolm-john (accessed 20 June 2024)