The Spike or Victoria University College Review Silver Jubilee 1924
Richard Cockburn Maclaurin
Richard Cockburn Maclaurin
Any record of V.U.C. would be incomplete without a special page devoted to the memory of R. C. Maclaurin. These lines are not intended as an analysis of his amazingly brilliant career, or an enumeration of his distinctions—a task already admirably performed in Sir Robert Stout's monograph—but as a tribute, from one who knew him well, to his services to Victoria College. When he accepted one of the original professorships here, Maclaurin was already known in the university world as a man of all-round culture, personal charm, and enough spice of ambition to be a hostage for prudence of conduct to authority. To such a man as Lord Kelvin he was known as a mathematician of the highest original power. With the ball at his feet, and the choice of two great careers, in each of which he had already won his spurs; with no need of money, for he had already won a modest independence; at 29, Maclaurin accepted an insignificant post in New Zealand, at an institution scarcely of university rank, just struggling doubtfully into existence. He was a man entirely modest; I have known no other man who so completely made his associates forget that he overtopped them all; but he was reasonably conscious of what he was and could do. Gradually, to those who knew him intimately, came the conviction of a deep-lying vein of altruism and self-sacrifice in the man. Not that he would ever reveal, even perhaps ever himself be really conscious of, any inner motive the world would hold quixotic. Still, in coming here, he was probably responding to an instinct of "playing the game." To New Zealand and her democratic educational institutions, he owed his chance in life: in his inmost mind, he was paying a debt. But, though he paid his debt in self-sacrifice to the development of our educational system, he had no particular admiration for it, or for democracy: too much sense of humour. And the vein of quixotic attachment to New Zealand was no bar to great worldly shrewdness. He never meant to stay here: I remember him saying that a professor here must go home frequently if he did not want to be forgotten; and he did. His sense of humour was never ungentle, and never found unreasonable expression; but no man has derived more delicious amusement from the social and political absurdities of his environment. He was an exquisite raconteur, and Wellington in the days of "King Dick," with the battle of sites, the Boer War and the war of precedence, provided ample material for his humour. That vein of self-sacrifice lay deep, under a surface of urbane culture, wide general reading and knowledge of literature (never obtruded), infinite common sense. Privately I have known him tell unpalatable truths in the hope of doing real service to a friend: but why make oneself disliked where no service could be done? Treat a fool according to his folly. So that he was no tilter at windmills. He would do his best, manfully, to stem the tide of human prejudice and narrowness: when the waves threatened to rise high, he would leap aside dexterously, and laugh unconcerned.
It may be interesting to recall that after leaving New Zealand he gave it as his final judgment that, for the development of the higher education here, the system of an examining university must be abandoned.page break page break
The Staff. 1924
Back Row.—E. P. Neale. M.A., D Sc. (Economics), D. McLeod, M.A,. BSc. (Mathematics). I. L. G. Sutherland. M.A. (Philosophy), A. M. Cousins, LL M (Law)
F. G. Maskell. M.Sc (Biology). A. D. Monro. M.Sc. (Chemistry). Professor Murphy (Economics). E K. Lomas (Education)
Second Row.—G. G. S. Robison, MA. (Registrar). Professor Cotton (Geology), Professor Tennant (Education). Miss McKay (Law). Miss E. Pigott. M.A. (Biology),
Mile. d'Ery (Mod. Languages), Miss Thora C. Marwick. M.Sc. (Physics). Professor Florance (Physics). Prolessor Sommerville (Mathematics)
Front Row.—Professors F. P.Wilson (History), Robertson (Chemistry). Garrow (Law), Adamson (Law), Brown (Classics). E.J. Boyd-Wilson (Languages) Mackenzie
(English). Kirk (Biology). Hunter (Philosophy). Rev. B. H. Ward. B.A. (Librarian)
It is not possible here to do more than to indicate how often his tact and unassuming wisdom helped to clear troubled waters in the first difficult years of Victoria College. Just how much we owe him cannot be estimated now: but we can say, as we remember him and grieve over his early death, that he is the man of whose association with ourselves we are most proud.