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Story: McMeekan, Campbell Percy

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McMeekan, Campbell Percy


University professor, agricultural scientist and administrator

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

Campbell Percy McMeekan was born on 29 July 1908 at Otaki, the only son of four children of Alexander Nelson McMeekan, a baker and shopkeeper, and his wife, Ellen (Helen) Kime. His paternal family were Irish, and on his maternal side he was of English Methodist origins. Alexander McMeekan’s peripatetic nature disrupted family life, and his drinking compromised the family to such an extent that his son was wary of alcohol as a young man.

McMeekan was a bright student, who passed the proficiency examination at Midhirst School, then after a brief period at New Plymouth Boys’ High School in 1922 went on to Stratford Technical High School. He was inspired by his agricultural teacher, and after passing the matriculation examination in 1924 became a pupil-teacher at Dannevirke. His family was unable to support his going to university, but at the age of 18 McMeekan won a scholarship and in 1927 began studying agriculture at Victoria University College. In the holidays he returned home, which was now in Patea, and worked at the local freezing works.

When Auckland and Victoria’s agriculture departments were merged at the new Palmerston North campus to form Massey Agricultural College in 1928 he became a foundation student. Professor William Riddet, the dean of animal husbandry, was an important influence. McMeekan enjoyed university life. He was president of the students’ association from 1928 to 1930 and helped establish the college tramping club, where he met Marjorie Doris Crabb. She was eight years older, worked on the Massey staff, and had an adventurous spirit, intelligence, and a similarly irreverent sense of humour. They were married in Palmerston North on 23 December 1932, but did not disclose this to friends for another year; they were to have a son and a daughter.

McMeekan graduated BAgrSc in 1932 and until 1936 was an assistant lecturer at Massey. In this position he controlled the pig husbandry department. He was granted leave to study dairy cattle genetics and the composition of milk at the University of Edinburgh, and successfully sought financial assistance from the New Zealand Dairy Board. However, he ended up going to the Animal Nutrition Research Institute at the University of Cambridge, under John Hammond. This decision was vital in moving his work towards a focus on livestock breeding, fertility, and feeding regimes. He produced his PhD in two years, having been remitted one year based on his New Zealand work, and gained recognition for his nutritional study of growth in pigs. Despite a growing international reputation McMeekan, who was a strong nationalist, had no intention of staying abroad. He did, however, give lectures in other countries before re-establishing himself in New Zealand.

Back at Massey at the end of 1938, ‘Mac’ McMeekan was promoted to senior lecturer in dairy husbandry but became chiefly involved in pig research. In the following year he applied for the new position of professor of animal husbandry at Canterbury Agricultural College, Lincoln, and was keen to get involved in further meat research. McMeekan got the job but resented the domination of the institution by farmers, and repeatedly clashed with the director, E. R. Hudson. He and his wife did not fit in among a conservative staff who were openly critical of his informality and uncouth language.

In March 1943 J. F. Filmer, head of the Department of Agriculture’s newly established Animal Research Division, asked McMeekan to be superintendent of the Ruakura Animal Research Station near Hamilton. The station was being used as a vegetable production unit for the war effort. While he was reluctant to become a public servant, he was eager to re-establish his research credentials. Leaving Lincoln meant a drop in salary, but Filmer and the director general of agriculture, E. J. Fawcett, promised him considerable support and autonomy.

Mac McMeekan revelled in the challenge of creating an animal research facility. He quickly established a 10-year plan that focused research on developing animal production rather than on investigating disease, which had been the station’s initial focus. Many of the studies initiated on rotational grazing and breeding were long-term, but McMeekan immediately encouraged farmers to adopt the best techniques as determined by science. Experiments were closely based on farming practice, and research was aimed at the farmer. This orientation sometimes put him at odds with other scientists, and in his last five years at Ruakura it was a significant source of tension. He was also a forceful communicator and was bluntly honest when research proved unproductive.

The success of the Ruakura field days, which McMeekan initiated in 1949, and his propensity to speak out on scientific issues saw him become a celebrity. Huge interest was shown in the station and it hosted overseas scientists and politicians. The Waikato people took McMeekan to their hearts and understood his reluctance to let public servants interfere in their research facility. Ruakura’s most public success in the 1950s was its discovery of the cause of facial eczema. While he had not been directly involved, McMeekan was obliged to take a high profile on this politically sensitive issue. Over the Christmas period of 1955–56 his public standing grew. He featured in newspapers around the world for turning down a World Bank job at a salary five times greater than his current earnings. He became a national hero and gained unprecedented personal access to the media.

McMeekan was at his best as an innovator and publicist, and created a fine animal research station. However, within a decade his limitations as an administrator were apparent. He spoke out too often when unsure of his ground, played favourites among his scientists, had scant regard for systems, lacked interest in financial accountability, and was accused of using Ruakura facilities for his own benefit. Unfortunately, he also overcame his early aversion to alcohol.

In 1960 there was a major staff crisis at Ruakura. A considerable number of the scientists sought to have McMeekan removed and his position was undermined, and this split the station into two factions. With the retirement of Fawcett and the impending retirement of Filmer, he lost the unquestioning support he had originally received from head office. McMeekan spent much of his final two years seeking another job and trying to avoid dismissal.

Despite these problems, McMeekan applied for the position of director general of agriculture in 1961 and was encouraged in his endeavour, particularly by politicians who did not make the appointment. The director general of lands, D. N. Webb, also applied, and in the public service pecking order his selection would be difficult to challenge. When Webb was successful McMeekan appealed against what he saw as the appointment of an outsider without appropriate professional qualifications. The appeal turned into a public spectacle in which Waikato rallied behind their man. But it was to no avail, and McMeekan’s bid for the job was rejected after a hearing in February 1962.

McMeekan was silent on the outcome of the appeal and was given leave of absence. He joined the World Bank as senior agriculturalist and was responsible for initiating and supervising national agricultural programmes, including livestock lending, in a large number of countries. He held this position until 1965, when he returned home to farm at Putaruru. He was, however, retained by the World Bank as a special adviser and in this capacity devised and managed a research project for Spain. His first marriage ended in divorce on 11 March 1966, and on 21 March he married Daintry Elizabeth King Walker, an agricultural scientist at Ruakura with whom he had owned his Putaruru dairy farm since the mid 1950s.

During the first three decades of his career McMeekan played an active part in agricultural and educational bodies. He was a foundation member of the New Zealand Society of Animal Production, and served on the council of the New Zealand Herd Improvement Society for 10 years. He was also a member of the Massey Agricultural College board of governors (1949–59) and the Senate of the University of New Zealand (1959–61). He wrote numerous articles and booklets on animal production and two standard texts, Principles of animal production (1945) and Grass to milk: a New Zealand philosophy (1960). In 1958 he was made a CBE.

Mac McMeekan died as he had lived – as the centre of attention. On 2 July 1972, after a day’s sailing and drinking in the Hauraki Gulf, McMeekan and two friends returned on the yacht Taitua to the Westhaven Marina. While rowing ashore their overloaded dinghy capsized. The men swam back to the Taitua , but McMeekan, at 17 stone, was incapable of climbing on board. After about three hours in which his companions tried to get him back on the vessel and to attract attention, they attempted to winch him aboard. This failed and he banged his head on the yacht. From then on he was semi-conscious and, in all, it was about five hours before help arrived. By that time he had drowned. He was survived by his wife and two children.

How to cite this page:

Tony Nightingale. 'McMeekan, Campbell Percy', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2000. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/5m24/mcmeekan-campbell-percy (accessed 23 April 2024)