Story: Maskell, William Miles

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Maskell, William Miles

1839–1898

Farmer, entomologist, administrator

This biography was written by Clare F. Morales and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 2, 1993

William Miles Maskell was born at Mapperton, Dorsetshire, England, on 5 October 1839. He was the son of Mary Scott and her husband, William Maskell, an Anglican clergyman who joined the Catholic church in the 1850s. Maskell was educated at the Catholic St Mary's College, Oscott, Birmingham, and in Paris, before serving for three years in the 11th (North Devonshire) Regiment of Foot.

In 1860 Maskell emigrated to New Zealand, arriving in Lyttelton in August on the William Miles. He visited Auckland and Wellington before taking employment, in October 1861, on Frederick Weld and Charles Clifford's Flaxbourne run in Marlborough. He may have had his own farm sometime between May 1861 and May 1863, when he returned to England. Maskell returned to New Zealand in 1864 or 1865, and by September 1865 had taken up the 2,000-acre Broadleaze property near Leithfield, in Canterbury.

In 1866 Maskell was elected to represent Sefton on the Canterbury Provincial Council. He held the seat until 1876 when the provinces were abolished, and served as provincial secretary and provincial treasurer in 1875–76. In 1874 he was appointed secretary of the newly formed University of New Zealand; he became registrar in 1876, and kept the post until his death. He lived in Christchurch during the chancellorship of H. J. Tancred, moving to Wellington about the time that James Hector assumed the position in 1885. He married Lydia Cooper Brown at Leithfield on 15 September 1874. There were two ceremonies: one Catholic, one Protestant. Lydia died on 5 October 1883, and he married Alice Ann McClean at Wellington on 29 April 1886. It seems there were no children of either marriage.

It was probably as a result of his farming experience that Maskell, about 1873, became interested in entomology, particularly in the class of agricultural pests known as scale insects (Coccoidea). His initial work was on the New Zealand scale insects and his book, An account of the insects noxious to agriculture and plants in New Zealand (1887), remains a standard reference work. Maskell also studied the Australian Coccoidea. As his work became well known, he was sent material for study and description from Asia, Fiji, Hawaii, South Africa, and the Americas. He proposed over 330 species-group names, including those of many economically important species.

Maskell's expertise was based on his fascination with microscopy. He used his skills in this to go beyond classification based on the external characteristics of scale insects to a study of their internal anatomy. This, combined with his interest in biology and physiology, and his appreciation of the necessity of studying males and immature stages in addition to mature females, put him in advance of his contemporaries and many of his successors.

By 1889 Maskell had become the world's foremost authority on scale insects. His work was, nevertheless, criticised: his drawings were considered rough and lacking in detail, and there were some inaccuracies in his descriptions. Many disapproved of his disregard for the prevailing rules for naming new taxonomic groups, and his poor preparation of specimens before mounting them on microscope slides. Fortunately, Maskell kept duplicate specimens as dry, unmounted material for future study. His slide-mounted and dried material is located at scientific institutions and museums throughout the world.

Maskell was always interested in the practical application of his studies. He experimented with pest control remedies such as kerosene, and was a strong advocate of the biological control of pests. He helped Albert Koebele of the United States Department of Agriculture in his successful search in Australia and New Zealand in 1888–89 for Rodolia cardinalis (the cardinal ladybird); this was a predator of the Australian cottony cushion scale, which had become a serious pest of citrus in California. Maskell's work helped to save the industry.

Maskell's scientific work was not confined to the scale insects. He wrote on a variety of other arthropods, on protozoa, and on microscopic algae. He published over 70 papers and letters, more than half in the Transactions and Proceedings of the New Zealand Institute. His description of the rock paintings at Weka Pass, North Canterbury, is considered noteworthy. In 1879 he was selected as a fellow of the Royal Microscopical Society, London.

He served on the board of governors of the New Zealand Institute in 1885–86 and from 1888 to 1897, and was treasurer of the Philosophical Institute of Canterbury from 1879 to 1884, and president of the Wellington Philosophical Society in 1888. A vigorous opponent of Darwinism, he took a prominent part in contemporary scientific debate. The establishment of the Department of Agriculture in 1892 probably owed something to his advocacy; he also advocated the appointment of a trained entomologist to study the insects attacking New Zealand's crops and farm animals.

William Maskell was six feet tall, with square shoulders and an upright figure. Heavily bearded, slow in gait and speech, he had something of the appearance of a farmer rather than a scientist. Nevertheless, despite his lack of formal training, he made a notable contribution to the science of entomology and to the more practical business of controlling New Zealand's insect pests. He died at Wellington on 1 May 1898; the date of Alice Maskell's death is not known.