Tasman Joseph McKee was born in Nelson on 7 May 1911, the son of Annie Isabel Macdonald and her husband, Arthur McKee, a journalist, businessman and pioneer orchardist. Known as Tas, he was educated at Tasman and Mapua Schools, Wellington’s St Patrick’s College, Motueka District High School and Nelson College. He then attended Victoria University College, completing a BSc in chemistry and geology in 1931; he also worked part time for the Shell Company of New Zealand.
In 1932, with his father and brother Guy, Tas McKee established Fruitgrowers Chemical Company at Port Mapua. In an old shed that served as a laboratory, he worked for nine years developing colloidal sulphur, a fungicide, which became an important product throughout the New Zealand fruit industry. He secured a patent for the colloidal reduction process in New Zealand and North America, thus eliminating the need to import products from England. This was a significant first step towards his goal of import substitution and his desire to contribute to New Zealand’s self-sufficiency in mineral and agricultural products. In 1938 the three McKees established Lime and Marble Limited to supply high-grade lime to the Auckland glass works and burnt lime for local industry. This led to the production of industrial fillers for many New Zealand rubber, plastic, glass and chemical manufacturing companies.
On 26 October 1940 Tas McKee married Freda Mary Redding in St Mary of the Angels Church, Wellington. They lived at Ridgeways, Mapua, and raised a family of three daughters and three sons. Freda made a significant contribution to the family business, assisting Tas on many overseas business trips, particularly to Australia and North America, and at Ridgeways providing hospitality to the frequent visitors to the Mapua plant and research laboratories.
From his teenage years McKee had developed keen interests in tramping, skiing, mountaineering, collecting rock samples, watercolour landscape painting and photography, particularly in the Nelson area. In the 1940s his photography extended to 16-millimetre film-making, recording family events, travels, and local community and business activities. (In 1993 these films became the Tas McKee Collection at the New Zealand Film Archive, Wellington.)
Stocky, dark-haired and energetic, Tas McKee became the leading figure in the business after his father’s death in 1943. Spurred on by Prime Minister Sidney Holland’s statement, reflecting the popular view at the time, that New Zealand had few significant mineral deposits, in the 1950s he worked to widen New Zealanders’ understanding of their resources. Lime and Marble Limited became involved in a range of mineral exploration and development projects, pioneering the use of helicopters to reach remote areas, drawing on overseas technical expertise and forming joint ventures with foreign companies.
In the mid 1960s Lime and Marble ventured into oil exploration, a quarter share in Tasman Petroleum leading to the formation of a public company, L. & M. Oil New Zealand. The off-shore oil search was largely unsuccessful, but in the early 1970s gas and condensate were discovered at Urenui, Taranaki. After his death a promising nearby site was named in McKee’s honour, and in 1980 commercial quantities of oil were discovered there.
In 1965 McKee was elected New Zealand’s representative to the council of the Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy. In 1966 he was appointed an OBE for his pioneering work in mineral exploration and development. In response to these honours, he stressed the contribution of the 150 staff at Lime and Marble and Fruitgrowers Chemical Company, and their seven New Zealand-wide subsidiaries. In 1969 he established the McKee Trust to assist former employees and dependants, as well as educational and charitable causes in the Nelson district.
Laboratory and scientific research, focusing on the manufacture and distribution of agricultural chemicals and on mineral exploration and processing, was always at the core of McKee’s business. The laboratories at Mapua became increasingly extensive and sophisticated, employing a team of chemists, technicians and a plant pathologist. McKee’s team also frequently consulted with government-funded research institutions and universities. By the early 1970s the firm had developed a significant export trade to Australia in micronised limestone.
From the 1930s to the 1960s the agricultural chemicals produced changed from lime and sulphur to persistent organo-chlorines like DDT. These in turn were gradually replaced by the more toxic but less persistent organo-phosphates. However, in 1972 McKee read Rachel Carson’s Silent spring and realised there was no future in persistent agricultural chemicals. He was a member of two working parties that reported to the National Development Conference in 1968–69, and was subsequently appointed to the Environmental Council.
McKee’s increasing awareness of the need to balance mineral exploitation with conservation was reflected in his last public address, to the 12th Science Congress held at Massey University in 1972, when he argued that it was ‘the mining industry’s responsibility to restore mined out areas to a condition acceptable to the community’. He was adamant that previous practices such as ‘indiscriminate clearing and burning of natural forest cover for farms, uncontrolled dumping of waste rock from mining activities, and reckless discharging of waste products into the nearest waterway’ could no longer be tolerated. After McKee’s death the family business merged with Transport (Nelson) Holdings and in 1976 became part of the TNL Group; in 1980 Fruitgrowers Chemical Company was sold to BP (New Zealand). In 1988, because of major pollution problems, the Port Mapua operations closed down.
Freda McKee died in 1969, and Tas married Margaret Josephine Luoni in Sydney on 7 February 1973. However, on 3 March he died suddenly on a flight from Fiji to Sydney. He was buried at Waimea West, Nelson. Described as ‘something of a crusader in the field of mineral prospecting’, Tas McKee made a major contribution to the development of New Zealand’s chemical, mineral and oil industries.