Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.

MACLAURIN, Richard Cockburn


University teacher and administrator.

A new biography of Maclaurin, Richard Cockburn appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.

Richard Cockburn Maclaurin was born in Selkirk, Scotland, on 5 June 1870 and brought to New Zealand at the age of four. He had a brilliant school and university career, taking first-class honours in mathematics at Auckland University College in 1890. Elected to a foundation scholarship at St John's College, Cambridge, in 1891, he was bracketed with the Senior Wrangler in 1896, and took the Smith Prize in mathematics. He then went over to law with the McMahon studentship at Lincoln's Inn, was elected to a fellowship of St John's in 1897, won the Yorke Prize in 1898, and proceeded to Strasbourg to study philosophy. Solid as well as brilliant and versatile in learning, greatly gifted as a conversationalist, Maclaurin might have done exceedingly well in the Old World; but he had also in his character a curious mixture of worldly wisdom, sense of duty, and sense of intellectual adventure, and his next move, in 1899, was back to New Zealand to the chair of mathematics in the newly created university institution at Wellington, Victoria College. He was careful, nevertheless, not to lose touch with England and established institutions. He took his Cambridge LL.D. in 1904.

Maclaurin was an admirable and stimulating lecturer, and his tact, wisdom, and practical shrewdness made him invaluable in the concerns of the new college: he was first chairman of its professorial board and was also an admirable personality in student social life; though an academic, he could not but be respected in the general community. He was a member both of the Wellington Club and of a Masonic Lodge. He taught some law, as well as mathematics, from the beginning. Few good mathematicians presented themselves and, though he was unwilling to leave the mathematical field altogether, in 1907 he became professor of law, dean of the faculty of law, and honorary professor of astronomy (succeeding Salmond in the chair of law). Unfortunately for the college, Columbia University in the same year offered him its chair of mathematical physics, which he accepted. He was not a man the New Zealand of that day could hope to retain indefinitely, and he had already stayed seven years instead of the five he had designed for himself. Maclaurin stayed at Columbia, in its turn, only one year. Offered the presidency of the rather moribund Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he saw its possibilities as an organ of scientific education; his great, though hitherto latent, administrative talent had full scope, and in a few years he had given it real eminence. The strain, however, of raising endowments told desperately on his rather slight physique, and he died on 15 January 1920.

MacLaurin was perhaps too variously gifted for him to produce many books or to reach full fruition as a scholar in any department. He did, however, publish On the Nature and Evidence of Title to Realty (1901), his Yorke Prize essay, papers in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, and a Treatise on the Theory of Light (1908). His marriage in 1904 to Alice Young, of Auckland, was a happy one; they had two sons. On the New Zealand educational scene he was a dazzling visitant rather than a formative influence; his real creation and monument was the institution he gave his life to in America.

by John Cawte Beaglehole, C.M.G., M.A.(N.Z.), PH.D. (LOND.), Professor of British Commonwealth History, Victoria University of Wellington.

  • Richard Cockburn Maciaurin: President of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Pearson, H. G. (1937)
  • Victoria University College, Beaglehole, J. C. (1949)
  • New Zealand Magazine, Jan-Feb 1944.

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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.

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