by Melissa Rodgers

Obituary - Malcolm (Malc) Hughlings Douglas

Inspiring, funloving worker for the land and its people

MALC Douglas spent his career as a public servant and strongly believed science should be for the people and the betterment of society. During his life as a leading ecologist and scientist, he lived up to these ideals.

Mr Douglas, who died in August aged 79, is remembered by friends and family as a kind, fun-loving man with a twinkle in his eye.

He had an active and inquiring mind, combining his love of the land and its people with an explorer’s wide-ranging enthusiasm for nature.

Mr Douglas was born in Oamaru to Helen and Archie Douglas. His father was the district doctor for Upper Clutha, so his first years were spent in Wanaka with his twin brother, James, two older sisters,

Margaret Ann and Alison, and younger brother Robert.

When Malc was 6 his father was appointed senior lecturer in preventive medicine at Otago Medical School, and the family moved to Dunedin.

The twins were educated at Maori Hill School and then at Otago Boys’ High School. It was not an advantage being a small, skinny kid, but his sense of humour and gentle nature meant he quickly made friends. His sporting abilities helped too: Malc played cricket and became a member of the First XV.

He went on to complete science intermediate at Otago University before studying at Lincoln College, Canterbury University, from which he graduated with a bachelor of agricultural science in 1964.

He entered into Lincoln life with gusto. Escapades included membership of the ‘‘Lincoln Ballet’’, which danced the cancan at the University of Canterbury Capping Revue, and flitting across the stage in a tutu for a Swan Lake excerpt at a Lincoln concert.

He was also one of the 10 BAgrSci students who pushed a hospital bed around Hagley Park for 71 hours continuously in 1961. Twenty four sets of castors were worn out before 327.6km were clocked up, beating a Massey University mark and setting an Australasian record.

After completing the practical requirements for his degree, Mr Douglas used his summer vacations to join the alpine grassland survey teams working for the NZ Forest and Range Experimental Station based at Rangiora. He took part in surveys of the major North Island ranges, the Eyre mountains, and the Hurunui, Waimakariri and Hokitika catchments. This gave him a wide breadth of knowledge of the New Zealand mountains and their flora and fauna.

His friend Alan Nordmeyer described him as ‘‘one of the best ecologists in the country, knowing the country, the vegetation, and the animals so much better than most’’.

Following his survey experiences, he became a biologist in the Protection Forestry Division of the NZ Forest Service in Wellington, investigating the ecology and control of tahr using aerial poisoning techniques. This required long hours in the Dobson and Carneys Creek catchments recording tahr numbers and habits.

For Mr Douglas, part of the joy of these surveys was the camaraderie of hours spent on the hill and in huts with his mates. Friend Mick Calder recalls being persuaded to take an unpaid ‘‘holiday’’ counting tahr at Carneys Creek, where the hills were ‘‘not too steep’’.

Mr Douglas was one of the first to record the spectacular daily vertical movement of tahr herds to their feeding grounds.

In 1966 Mr Douglas moved to Australia with his first wife, Elizabeth (Lib) Lawson, to take a more settled job as a pasture specialist in the Victorian Department of Agriculture at Horsham, Western Victoria. The environment was challenging but Mr Douglas loved the area, especially the magic of the Little Desert with its migratory birds and unique flora.

This was also a very sad time with the unexpected death of his wife. Mr Douglas, however, continued to work in Horsham. As the principal editor of The Natural History of Western Victoria, he felt great satisfaction when the Little Desert was made into a national park.

In 1971 Mr Douglas met and married Joanna (Jo) Cowan and in 1974 they moved back to Wellington with their infant daughter Helen.

He became the technical adviser for the Mountain Catchment Committee, where he contributed to the development of high-country water and soil policy. He also co-wrote the film When Men and Mountains Meet, produced for the National Water and Soil Organisation.

Most of the policy work Mr Douglas undertook was related to the South Island, so the family soon moved to Christchurch. When the Mountain Catchment Committee was disestablished he was appointed senior soil conservator for the Canterbury and West Coast Catchment

Board. During this time he and his wife were busy with their growing family. They had two more daughters, Annie and Jane, and a son, James. Jane died of leukaemia in 1980.

At this stage Mr Douglas wanted to be more involved in science, and with the family in need of a change, they moved to Omarama, where Mr Douglas became officer-in-charge of Tara Hills Research Station. In addition to running the research station he rekindled his research interests in lucerne and pasture production and became involved in the highly emotive high-country issues of rabbits, wildling pines and irrigation. At times his straight talking and forthright views on these issues raised the ire of local run holders.

Mr Douglas managed the research station in his own informal and creative manner, combining both initiative and innovation. When equipment was neither available nor affordable Mr Douglas improvised, believing nothing was impossible. Rules and regulations were merely rough guidelines and could be broadly interpreted when it suited.

New crops research at Tara Hills showed the potential to produce high-quality culinary and medicinal herbs and essential oils, and in 1987 a purpose-built research station was established at Redbank, near Clyde. Redbank became the key site for the national new crops programme and there Mr Douglas built up a great team to investigate new crop opportunities for Central Otago.

In close association with analytical chemists of the Plant Extracts Unit, University of Otago, the Redbank team produced extensive scientific and practical information on a huge range of products for the perfume, flavour, medicinal, food and ornamental plant industries. The lavender and saffron crocus industries were developed from this research.

Mr Douglas also led the native ornamental programme at Invermay Research Centre and was constantly looking for new opportunities. He led a nationwide survey to evaluate the variation in chemotypes of manuka as well as plant collecting in the subantarctic islands. The database compiled from his countrywide exploration of manuka plant populations remains a major resource for those exploring the potential of that industry for oil, honey and other products.

It was a sad day for Malc and his team when Crop and Food Research wound down the new crops programme and closed Redbank. Mr Douglas relocated to Invermay Research Station in 2000 and retired in 2004.

In his retirement, he continued his scientific writing and his lifelong habit of speaking up against what he perceived as societal injustices and bureaucratic shortsightedness. In particular he railed against New Zealand’s contestable model for funding science, which in the latter years of his career had meant many hours of drafting interminable funding proposals rather than progressing research in the field.

A hallmark of his career was his commitment to communicating research results. He had a strong view that science results should be for the public good, enabling growers to work collectively and cooperatively to create new industries for New Zealand.

He published more than 70 papers and articles and presented the results of his research to farmers and growers at numerous field days or in person. This legacy continues to inform growers and entrepreneurs in their evaluation of diverse crop plants of significance or commercial interest today.

Retirement meant more time for preserving his family history and working on the family property at Waianakarua. His dedication to planting trees and his systematic and rigorous pest control has left a lasting legacy and helped the local native bird population to flourish.

Mr Douglas loved ambitious projects that could grow and expand to suit the needs of the family. Over 40 years, with extensive help from family and friends, the Douglases created a house using reclaimed limestone blocks and timber grown on the family property. In his retirement, Mr Douglas tackled the audacious project of relocating and renovating the abandoned cottage in which his grandmother was born in 1862.

He had a great knack of weaving friends and family into his ventures, and his many projects engaged and inspired people of all generations. And with the day’s work done, he found joy in taking the kids eeling or hunting, or scheming up the next project.

Mr Douglas trod with a soft but determined footprint, improving what he could and generating new knowledge for the benefit of society. His inquisitive mind, quirky sense of humour, enthusiasm and hospitality will be warmly remembered and deeply missed.

He is survived by his wife, Jo, his two daughters, Helen and Annie, son James and six grandchildren.