Page 1: Biography
Cunningham, Ira James
Veterinary scientist, scientific administrator, university professor
This biography, written by Bill Manktelow, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000.
Ira James Cunningham was born at Mangatainoka, Wairarapa, on 16 August 1905, the son of James Cunningham, a sawmiller, and his wife, Marie Kristine Johansen. James Cunningham died in a sawmill accident when Ira was only nine, leaving his mother to care for him and his five sisters. He was sent as a boarder to Dannevirke High School, which he left as dux. He then took a position as a cadet in the chemical laboratory of the Department of Agriculture in Wellington and studied part time at Victoria University College. In 1928 he graduated BSc, and in 1929 MSc with first-class honours in chemistry.
In 1929 Cunningham made an exchange visit to the Rowett Research Institute, University of Aberdeen. This marked the beginning of his lifelong interest in trace element nutrition. He also met Marion Margaret MacOwan, a young Scottish science graduate. After a very brief courtship they became engaged. Ira returned to New Zealand with a PhD in copper metabolism to become a research officer in animal nutrition at Wallaceville Veterinary Laboratory, Upper Hutt. Marion completed her PhD studies and followed him to New Zealand. She joined the staff at Wallaceville as a researcher. They married at Wellington on 11 November 1933. Marion Cunningham later worked as a biochemist for the Kāritane Products Society, and as a schoolteacher.
Ira Cunningham’s work at Wallaceville engendered in him a wider interest in veterinary science. As there was no degree course then available in New Zealand, with the support of the Department of Agriculture he went to the University of Sydney to study for his Bachelor of Veterinary Science (BVSc). Returning to Wallaceville after completing his degree in 1938, he was appointed chief biochemist and section leader. After a brief period as a part-time officer in the New Zealand Veterinary Corps at the beginning of the Second World War, Cunningham concentrated on his main work of improving livestock production.
In 1945, with the support of John Filmer, director of the Animal Research Division of the Department of Agriculture, Cunningham became superintendent of the Wallaceville station. The new position suited him extremely well. He was able to continue his research and thoroughly enjoyed the physical and intellectual development of the research station. His period in charge of Wallaceville from 1945 to 1958 was arguably one of the most productive and distinguished in its history. He was a compassionate and considerate leader, but at times rather austere: small talk, to Cunningham, represented a waste of valuable time. He had little patience for those who avoided the rigorous standards of proof which guided his work.
Cunningham had no known political allegiance and no great interest in the internal politics of the Department of Agriculture. None the less, in 1958 he accepted an offer to become assistant director general of agriculture. His scientific expertise was a valuable asset to the department when, in 1960, he led the New Zealand delegation to Canberra to negotiate the price of rock phosphate. More importantly, he was available in 1961 when the problem of insecticide residues in New Zealand meat threatened one of the country’s major exports. He travelled to Washington to discuss the problem with the United States Department of Agriculture. Chlorinated hydrocarbon insecticides were immediately banned from agricultural use in New Zealand and Cunningham rapidly set up a comprehensive laboratory service to ensure that meat was free from insecticide residues.
Cunningham was less happy with the office politics and intrigues of the Department of Agriculture, especially when he was seen as one of the potential contenders for the vacant position of director general. It was probably a relief to him when he was appointed, in 1962, as foundation dean of the new Faculty of Veterinary Science at Massey Agricultural College. He made it clear that the prime duty of the new school would be to serve the animal health needs of the livestock industries of New Zealand, and that training of veterinary students would have a very heavy bias towards basic science – graduates could develop specialised interests later. Any attempt to cover rapidly developing specialist fields would ‘burden the student with a dead weight of detail that would have only a short and probably harmful life in his mind, and contribute in no way to his education’.
The need to convince university authorities of the level of expenditure and changes needed to ensure that Massey’s veterinary degree would be of international standing placed a heavy burden on Cunningham. He set the ground work for the external assessment of the degree by the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, but it was not until 1975 that its holders could practise in the United Kingdom without further examination.
Cunningham’s love of science and his absolute honesty and integrity were outstanding features of his career, and he was often frustrated by those who submerged science under a sea of personal interest, unwarranted bias and intrigue. The Cunningham family environment also reflected the values of Ira and Marion and their respect for academic excellence. One son graduated in veterinary science, the other in engineering, and their daughter in medicine. Cunningham retired in 1971 and died at Palmerston North on 28 August that year. He was survived by his wife and family.
Ira Cunningham’s services to agriculture were recognised in 1959 when he was made a CBE. The degree of DSc was conferred upon him the same year by Victoria University of Wellington for his research on copper metabolism, and he received an honorary DVSc from the University of Melbourne in 1967. He was made a fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand in 1963 and was awarded the society’s Hector Memorial Medal and Prize in 1971. Among elected offices he held were those of chairman of the Veterinary Surgeons Board, president of the New Zealand Veterinary Association, and president of the New Zealand Society of Animal Production. The main lecture theatre in the veterinary buildings at Massey University is appropriately named the Ira Cunningham Lecture Theatre, but his most fitting memorial is the worldwide success of Massey University veterinary graduates.