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Story: Levy, Enoch Bruce

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Levy, Enoch Bruce


Agricultural scientist, scientific administrator

This biography, written by Ross Galbreath, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000.

Enoch Bruce Levy was born on 19 February 1892 at Auckland, the sixth of eight children of William Levy, a nurseryman, and his wife, Esther Ann Bruce. William had been orphaned as a child in Wales and took his name from his stepfather, Samuel Levy, who brought him to New Zealand and left him with the family of William Mason, an Auckland nurseryman.

Bruce Levy left school at 14 but later passed the civil service junior examination and in 1911 obtained a position as a clerical cadet in the Department of Agriculture, Commerce and Tourists in Wellington. His interest in plants soon brought him to the attention of the department’s biologist, A. H. Cockayne, who had him transferred to the biological laboratory. There Levy gained recognition for his work in ‘extension’ – communicating research results to farmers. He took up the campaign begun by Cockayne to improve pastures in New Zealand, urging farmers to top-dress with superphosphate and to grow the most productive grasses and clovers.

Levy became engaged to Phyllis Rosa Kate Mason, an old schoolfriend of his sister, and after she had worked out her bond as a teacher they were married in Auckland on 21 December 1925. They set up house in Wellington, where Levy was completing a BSc at Victoria University College. He finally graduated in 1928, shortly before the laboratory was transferred to Palmerston North to form part of a new Plant Research Station jointly controlled by the Department of Agriculture and the recently established Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR).

The Plant Research Station was a most uneasy assemblage, with the two departments vying for control and bitter divisions between the staff, especially Levy and the mycologist G. H. Cunningham. Even so, Levy achieved much in this period. He had gained new ideas on pasture improvement from a visiting British expert, R. G. Stapledon, who argued that there was much variation within pasture plant species, and pasture could be improved by planting the best strains. Levy began trials in 1928 and by 1931 he and William Davies (a scientist seconded from Stapledon’s institute) succeeded in identifying superior strains of ryegrass and white clover. With further improvement, these (eventually in 1964 given the variety names Grasslands Ruanui and Grasslands Huia respectively) became the standard varieties used by New Zealand farmers and a major factor in the continuing increase in pastoral production.

In 1936 the Plant Research Station was transferred entirely to the DSIR, which reformed its quarrelling groups into widely separated divisions. Levy’s group remained at Palmerston North to become the Grasslands Division of DSIR, with him as director.

In 1937 Levy attended the International Grassland Congress in Wales and went on to tour farming districts in Britain and Europe. In Germany his Jewish-sounding surname gave him some ‘ticklish’ moments. However, he returned with a new perspective on pasture improvement and began to develop the idea, based on his British observations, that if the stock and their manure helped make the pasture grow, then more stock would make even better pasture. Experiments elucidated the process of what Levy called the ‘recycling of fertility’ through grazing animals and he vigorously promoted its importance and the benefits of higher stocking rates.

In December 1951, after 40 years in the public service, Levy retired from the position of director of Grasslands Division. At his farewell his old mentor, Cockayne, eulogised him as ‘the evangelist of grassland farming’. For many years Levy had stumped the country, preaching the need for more superphosphate, for better pasture plants, and the importance of the ‘shower of fertility’ from the stock. He addressed farmers in vigorous and colourful language and, despite his short stature, with great authority; his platform manner was likened to ‘a sergeant-major dressing down the latest batch of raw recruits’. Levy’s book Grasslands of New Zealand (published in 1952, with new editions in 1956 and 1970) was for years the farmer’s Bible, setting out the way to higher pastoral production. Producing food for the world was New Zealand’s proper role and ‘boundless duty’, he insisted; nowhere else could grow grass or produce food from it so well.

Levy’s role in raising pastoral farming to its then dominant position in New Zealand won him many honours, culminating in 1953 with a knighthood and an honorary DSc. In 1956, largely as a result of his influence, the International Grassland Congress came to Palmerston North; he came out of retirement to chair it. In retirement Levy continued work on improving turf for golf courses and bowling greens. He played bowls himself, and also indulged his passion for gardening. The gardens of Aroha, the Levy home in Palmerston North, became a showpiece.

Bruce and Phyl Levy had no children of their own, but in 1940, when children were being evacuated from British cities and some even sent to New Zealand, they had taken in two youngsters, Marjory and Robert Black. Marjory returned from Glasgow to live with them in 1950. After her marriage the Levys became as grandparents to her growing family, and to Robert Black’s after he emigrated as well.

Bruce and Phyl Levy both enjoyed good health into their 80s but eventually in 1980 they left Aroha to live alongside Marjory and her husband at Bethlehem, Tauranga, where Levy continued to garden as long as he could. He died on 16 October 1985. Phyl Levy died in 1997.

How to cite this page:

Ross Galbreath. 'Levy, Enoch Bruce', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2000. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/5l8/levy-enoch-bruce (accessed 13 April 2024)