Malcolm McRae Burns was born on 19 March 1910 at Ashley Bank, North Canterbury, the child of farming parents John Edward Burns and his wife, Emily Jeffrey. He attended primary schools at Ashley Bank, Fernside and then at West Eyreton, after his parents purchased a fine mixed-cropping farm near the Eyre River in 1919–20. It was probably here that he developed his love of farming and a countryman’s understanding of the natural environment, particularly birds, an interest that was to give him lifelong pleasure. He boarded at Rangiora High School, where he took an active part in student affairs and sports, especially cricket. When he finished his schooling as dux his family agreed to help him attend university.
In 1928 Burns enrolled at Canterbury College. He completed his BSc in 1930, graduating senior scholar in botany. In 1932 he graduated MSc with first-class honours after completing a thesis on the soils of Westland rimu forests, and was awarded a postgraduate scholarship to undertake doctoral studies in Britain. He attended the Macaulay Institute for Soil Science, associated with the University of Aberdeen, partly because it charged no fees. In 1934, after completing research on heath soils for his PhD thesis, he was awarded a Commonwealth Fund fellowship to study in the United States.
He took up his fellowship at Cornell University, Ithaca, New York state, joining the Department of Agronomy for two years. The summer travel required for the fellowship saw him journey across the United States in 1935. While at Cornell he met fellow student Ruth Alvina Waugh, whom he married in the university chapel on 2 July 1936. Later that year he brought his new bride to New Zealand and took up a position as a plant physiologist with the DSIR. However, in 1937 he accepted an offer of appointment to Canterbury Agricultural College as senior lecturer in soil science, a position he retained until 1949.
In 1938, in conjunction with his senior colleague, J. W. Calder, Burns laid down fertiliser trials, eventually demonstrating that lime was the missing factor preventing the director of the college, E. R. Hudson, from achieving the expected production from subterranean clover on light soils. The introduction of subterranean clover by Hudson, and the development of techniques to enable it to flourish on hundreds of thousands of acres in Canterbury, was one of the college’s outstanding contributions to practical farming.
Burns also played a prominent role in staff affairs, and it was under his leadership that in 1946 the academic staff set up a teachers’ association. In conjunction with a Canterbury University College group, in 1948 the association helped revive the then largely defunct Association of University Teachers of New Zealand. The following year Burns left the college to become director of the New Zealand Fertiliser Manufacturers’ Research Association in Auckland, a position he held until 1952. In this short period he brought together antagonistic fertiliser interests, securing co-operation among individual manufacturers and with the Department of Agriculture.
Hudson resigned, in controversial circumstances, as director of Canterbury Agricultural College in 1951, and Burns succeeded him on 1 October 1952. His new position allowed him to display his managerial, political, promotional and leadership skills to the full. His philosophy on leadership was expressed in a letter to a former student lecturing in another institution: ‘Never forget … that the morale of any institution is best expressed by the feelings of the most junior staff in all sections of the institution’. Burns knew all the staff and could talk to them knowledgeably about their work.
His 22 years as director, and later principal, of the college (known as Lincoln College from 1962) were marked by growth in the student roll, an upgrading of the physical facilities and, above all, an increase in the academic standing of the institution. A strong advocate of the view that the quality and immediacy of teaching is enhanced by a strong research programme, Burns worked tirelessly to attract good researchers to the staff and provide them with the resources they needed. He became known as an outstanding research manager, and on his recommendation in the late 1960s Lincoln became the first tertiary institution in New Zealand to establish its own research fund, with the resources of the general education grant supplemented by the profits of the college farms.
His knowledge of practical farming was used to good account at Lincoln. At the time of his appointment the principal was expected to have direct oversight of all activities. Many stories were told of Burns instructing farm staff to reset their plough, or to reset the header to reduce the loss of grain with the straw. More importantly, his knowledge enhanced his credibility with farmers in the 1950s and 1960s, when the college sponsored a number of successful farmers’ conferences.
During the 1950s the Colombo Plan resulted in a major increase in the number of students attending the college from South East Asia, particularly Malaya. Malcolm Burns and his wife, Ruth, worked hard to make these students welcome, and his association with them was to have a great impact on his career. In 1957 he was employed as a consultant by the Department of External Affairs to advise on the establishment of a faculty of agriculture at the new University of Malaya. He helped with the development of courses and the appointment of staff, and for the first three years was the external examiner of all final-year students. The success of this project led External Affairs to retain Burns to repeat the exercise at Muang Khon Kaen, in Thailand; he also advised on projects in Indonesia and Western Samoa.
Burns served on the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research from 1955 to 1963 (as chairman from 1959) and was president of the New Zealand Institute of Chemistry in 1956. He was a member of the National Development Council, chairman of the Physical Environment Committee (1968–70), and president of the Royal Society of New Zealand (1974–77). He also served on the South Island Beech Forests Management and Utilization Council, and chaired the Nuffield Foundation’s New Zealand advisory committee, as well as a government-appointed fact-finding group on nuclear power and an international agricultural consultancy. He was awarded a number of distinctions and fellowships, including a CBE (1959), a knighthood (KBE, 1972), an honorary DSc from the University of Canterbury (1974), and fellowships of the Royal Society of New Zealand, the New Zealand Institute of Agricultural Science and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
A man of distinguished appearance, Malcolm Burns was tall and solidly built. He became bald but what hair he had was white from a comparatively early age, and he exuded an air of authority in all company. Building on the foundation left by Hudson and aided by some outstanding staff members, he made Lincoln College into the internationally recognised research institution it had long aspired to be (in 1990 it became Lincoln University). In 1974 Burns retired to Christchurch, where he led an active life, including a heavy involvement in lawn bowls. He died there on 17 October 1986, survived by his wife, two daughters and a son. He is commemorated on the Lincoln campus by the Burns Wing, a multi-storeyed teaching building.