Story: Life sciences

Page 2. Biological research institutions, 20th century

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Government departments

In 1926 the government set up the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR) to co-ordinate scientific research benefitting the economy. The DSIR had a strong biological focus, and among the areas it worked in were crop research, grasslands science, entomology and plant disease. In 1948 an animal ecology section was added, followed by a plant physiology division in 1962 and an applied biochemistry division in 1969.

The Department of Agriculture concentrated on animal research, but also studied pastures and horticulture. From 1972 this work came under the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries.

The Forest Service carried out research through the Forest Research Institute at Rotorua. From 1987 this came under the Ministry of Forestry.

Crown research institutes

The DSIR and other government research bodies were disbanded in 1992. A number of Crown research institutes (CRIs) were set up in their place. In 2014 six of the seven CRIs dealt with aspects of biological science:

  • AgResearch (agricultural research)
  • Environmental Science and Research (environmental and forensic science)
  • Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research (land-based science)
  • NIWA (ocean and atmospheric science)
  • Plant and Food Research
  • SCION (forestry research).

The Polish count’s ecology division

In 1939 a Polish biologist, Count Kazimierz Wodzicki, escaped with his wife Maria from Soviet-occupied eastern Poland. The Polish government-in-exile appointed Wodzicki consul to New Zealand, and he arrived in Wellington in 1941. He stayed on after the war, rather than returning to communist Poland. Wodzicki’s work on introduced wild mammals led the DSIR to establish its own ecology division in 1948. Wodzicki was head of the division until his retirement in 1965.

Museums and universities

In the early 20th century the major museums continued to play an important role in biological research. Auckland Museum was an especially active research centre in the 1930s under its director, zoologist Gilbert Archey. Staff included ornithologist Robert Falla, botanist Lucy Cranwell and conchologist Arthur William Baden Powell. Museums also organised major scientific expeditions, such as an Auckland Museum field trip to the Three Kings Islands in 1934.

There was an increase in university biological research once the University of New Zealand established a research-based doctorate in 1947. The following years saw developments in fields such as marine biology, systematics (the evolutionary relationships of species), ecology and microbiology.

The last of the all-rounders

Charles Fleming, geologist, paleontologist, ornithologist, entomologist and bio-geographer, was one of the last all-round naturalists. While working as a paleontologist at the New Zealand Geological Survey, Fleming devised the first comprehensive idea of New Zealand’s biogeography. In this he traced the patterns of how different species invaded the land. Fleming also carried out a major series of cicada studies, was a keen birder and led a range of environmental campaigns.

Marine biology – an emerging science

In the 19th and early 20th centuries individual scientists such as Frederick Hutton, George Malcolm Thomson and Charles Chilton worked on aspects of marine biology. However, it was only in the 1950s that New Zealand marine biology became an organised science.

Otago University established the country’s first marine laboratory at Portobello, directed by marine biologist Betty Batham. The DSIR set up the Oceanographic Institute, and the New Zealand Ecological Society was founded, with a strong marine research focus.

In the early 1960s three new marine laboratories were established:

  • Canterbury University’s Kaikōura laboratory
  • Auckland University’s research centre at Leigh
  • Victoria University’s laboratory at Island Bay, Wellington.

From the 1970s there was an increased scientific interest in the behaviour and biology of marine mammals. With the development of DNA analysis it became easier to identify individual animals and determine their relationships.

In the early 21st century fisheries research was carried out by Crown research institute NIWA. Work on marine biology was also done by the Cawthron Institute and the Department of Conservation and by researchers based at universities.

The Cawthron Institute

In 1921 a private research facility, the Cawthron Institute, was opened in Nelson. It initially focused on solving agricultural and horticultural problems, and employed a number of botanists, entomologists and mycologists. Among them was Kathleen Curtis, the first New Zealand woman to gain a doctor of science degree.

In the 1980s Cawthron Institute staff began working with Japanese scientists on ground-breaking research to understand and test for toxic algal blooms. Cawthron scientists also worked on other aspects of marine and freshwater ecosystems, including:

  • estuary systems
  • trout mobility in freshwater
  • marine and freshwater biosecurity, including management of pests such as didymo.

In the 1990s the institute worked on developing aquaculture methods for mussel farming. Its Glenhaven Aquaculture Centre was established in 1995. When the institute marked its centenary in 2021, aquaculture and freshwater and marine ecology remained a major focus for Cawthron scientists. Much enlarged (with about 300 employees, 10 times the number in the 1980s), the institute was also investigating the potential of plant-based products such as seaweed and algae, and planning to move into a new science and technology precinct at Port Nelson.

How to cite this page:

Peter Clayworth, 'Life sciences - Biological research institutions, 20th century', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 22 July 2024)

Story by Peter Clayworth, published 22 Oct 2014