Page 1: Early life
MacDiarmid, Alan Graham
This biography, written by Paul Callaghan, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2011.
Alan Graham MacDiarmid, New Zealand’s third Nobel Laureate, was born in Masterton on 14 April 1927, the youngest of five children of Archibald Campbell MacDiarmid and his wife, Ruby Noel Willis Graham. Alan’s father, a marine engineer, came from New Plymouth, and the MacDiarmids were friends with Ernest Rutherford’s family, at that time living at Pungarehu on the Taranaki coast. Following a shared family holiday in 1892, Archibald recalled being impressed that 21-year-old Ernest (who was later to become New Zealand’s first Nobel Laureate) had made 28 gallons (127 litres) of rhubarb wine.
In 1923 Archibald MacDiarmid moved his family to Masterton, becoming head engineer at the Waingawa freezing works. During the economic depression of the 1930s he was unemployed, and the family moved to Lower Hutt where he found work with a petrol company.
Alan MacDiarmid spoke warmly of the closeness and love of his family and of the generosity of his parents to those less well-off. He attended Waiwhetū primary school in Lower Hutt. During this time, he had an early-morning job delivering milk on his bicycle for a local farmer. Following life-threatening pneumonia at the age of nine, he was sent to recuperate for two or three months with an older sister who lived at Kerikeri in Northland. There he attended a two-room school with mostly Māori friends. In later years, MacDiarmid would enjoy performing a haka to astonished American friends and colleagues.
Alan attended Hutt Valley High School from 1941 to 1943 and worked after school delivering the Evening Post newspaper, developing a work ethic that was to be a guiding principle throughout his life. He said of his early days, ‘It is my home life while growing up through high school, which I consider to have been the single most important factor in any success which I may have had in life. As my parents always said, “…an ‘A’ grade in a class is not a sign of success. Success is knowing that you have done your best and have exploited your God-given or gene-given abilities to the maximum extent.”’ 1