Skip to main content
Browse the 1966 Encyclopaedia of New Zealand
Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.


CUNNINGHAM, Gordon Herriot, C.B.E., F.R.S.


Plant pathologist.

A new biography of Cunningham, Gordon Herriot appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.

Gordon Herriot Cunningham was born on 27 August 1892 at Moa Flat, a Central Otago high-country sheep station where his father was manager. After attending local schools he worked on farms both here and in Australia, gaining extensive practical experience in sheep farming, fruitgrowing, and forestry. During the First World War he served with the New Zealand Expeditionary Forces, but was invalided home with wounds received at Gallipoli. Debarred by injuries from further service with the armed forces, he joined the Department of Agriculture as an orchard instructor in 1917 and was transferred the following year to the Department's Biological Laboratory at Weraroa, near Levin, to specialise in plant pathology.

When the Biological Laboratory was moved to Wellington in 1920 Cunningham studied at Victoria University College. During the next eight years, while fulfilling normal duties as plant pathologist, he passed the University Entrance Examinations and gained the degrees of B.Sc. (1924), M.Sc. (1925), and Ph.D. (1927). He also published his first book Fungous Diseases of Fruit Trees in New Zealand (1925), wrote 30 papers on plant pathology, 32 on taxonomic mycology, and initiated an herbarium of New Zealand fungi. In 1924, on the recommendation of Dr E. J. Butler, Director of the Imperial Mycological Institute, London, he represented the Dominion at the First Imperial Mycological Conference.

With a reorganisation of agricultural research in 1928, he was placed in charge of the Mycological Laboratory, Plant Research Station, Palmerston North, where he organised a team of pathologists to work on economic mycology, bacteriology, virology, physiology, and plant protection. At the same time he proceeded with research in systematic mycology and plant pathology. His book The Rust Fungi of New Zealand, for which he was awarded the degree of D.Sc., appeared in 1931, and Plant Protection by the Aid of Therapeutants was published in 1935.

In a further reorganisation of agricultural research in 1936, plant research was transferred from the Department of Agriculture to the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, Cunningham becoming Director of the Plant Diseases Division, with headquarters in Auckland. The erection of a modern laboratory with ancillary facilities on the slopes of Mount Albert gave him a long-awaited opportunity of creating a plant protection service adequate to the needs of New Zealand. In addition to organising his Division, he introduced a voluntary plant therapeutant certification scheme and was instrumental in establishing at Levin the Fruit Tree Nursery of the New Zealand Fruitgrowers' Federation. He also continued his own research, his book The Gasteromycetes of Australia and New Zealand appearing in 1944.

Following his retirement in 1957 at the age of 65, he studied further the systematics of the Basidiomycetes until his death. In these five years he prepared the manuscripts for books on The Thelephoraceae of Australia and New Zealand and The Polyporaceae of Australia and New Zealand, which were published in 1963 and 1964 respectively.

In addition to his scientific publications, which amounted to 220 papers, including six books, Cunningham wrote the biography of Squadron Leader McGregor – Mac's Memoirs.

His contributions to science were recognised by awards of the Fellowship of the Royal Society of New Zealand (1928), Hutton Memorial Medal (1931), Foundation Fellowship of the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science (1937), Hector Memorial Medal (1948), the Fellowship of The Royal Society (1950), and Associate of Honour, Royal New Zealand Institute of Horticulture (1958). In 1937 he received the Coronation Medal and in 1949 his name appeared in the Birthday Honours as a Commander of the British Empire (C.B.E.).

Dr Cunningham was a man of great physical and mental energy. In youth he earned a reputation in boxing and motor cycling. Later he became a keen mountaineer. He was naturally gifted in leading men and his wide experience and keen interest in science and agriculture contributed to his outstanding success as a director of research. He was popular alike with farmers, fruitgrowers, and scientists.

He married Madge Leslie McGregor in 1918. He died at Auckland on 18 July 1962. His wife and a married daughter survived him.

by Edward Edinborough Chamberlain, D.SC., Director, Plant Diseases Division, Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, Auckland.

  • New Zealand Herald, 19 Jul 1962 (Obit).


Edward Edinborough Chamberlain, D.SC., Director, Plant Diseases Division, Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, Auckland.