Story: Atkinson, John Dunstan

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Atkinson, John Dunstan

1909–1990

Horticultural scientist, scientific administrator

This biography was written by E. G. Bollard and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 5, 2000

John Dunstan Atkinson was born in Wellington on 3 March 1909, the son of Mary Herrick Hursthouse and her husband, Samuel Arnold Atkinson, a solicitor. To his immediate family he was known as Dunstan, but because of his striking red hair when young he earned the nickname ‘Torchy’. Use of this name was almost universal among his friends and scientific colleagues, and persisted in later life even after his hair had turned grey. He was a member of the Atkinson–Richmond–Hursthouse clan of Taranaki and Nelson; his grandfather, Sir Harry Atkinson, was premier of New Zealand for a number of years between 1876 and 1891.

Atkinson was educated at Wanganui Collegiate School (1923–26) and, after a preliminary year at Victoria University College, entered Massey Agricultural College as a foundation student in 1928. Standing six feet two inches tall, he played rugby and helped found the college tramping club in 1930. He completed a master’s degree in economic mycology with first-class honours in 1932, before joining the Plant Research Station, then based at Palmerston North. There, G. H. Cunningham became his scientific mentor and friend, an association which was to continue until Cunningham’s death in 1962. Atkinson’s professional relationships with several other members of the station, particularly E. E. Chamberlain, also developed into lifelong friendships. On 23 May 1934 he married Ethel Mary Thorp at Motueka; they were to have two sons.

Atkinson’s first major research assignment had a significant outcome. A worsening fruit-pitting disorder in the Nelson district was threatening the viability of the local apple industry. In studies over two seasons he was able to demonstrate that the problem was caused by a deficiency of boron in the soil. This was easily and cheaply remedied, and the discovery contributed to the continuing profitability of the apple industry in affected areas. Moreover, his work highlighted the significance of trace elements in plant nutrition.

In 1936 the Plant Research Station was reorganised and Atkinson, now a member of the Plant Diseases Division of the DSIR, moved to a new laboratory at Mount Albert, Auckland. However, planned expansion of its work was halted with the outbreak of war in 1939, with many young scientists soon enlisting for active service. Atkinson’s father had been killed in action during the First World War, and he was keen to join up. He went overseas in September 1941 with the 7th Reinforcements and served in anti-tank and field artillery regiments through the North African and Italian campaigns. He attained the rank of major and was mentioned in dispatches.

In 1948 Atkinson was appointed director of a new DSIR unit, the Fruit Research Station (later Division), also based at Mount Albert. In this role he recruited research staff and established research orchards in New Zealand’s principal fruit-growing areas. In 1968, when this division was merged with the Plant Diseases Division, he became its overall director, serving until his retirement in 1974.

Despite his heavy administrative workload Atkinson was able to continue significant personal research. He initiated work on the time–temperature relationship for frost damage to flowers and developing fruits in Central Otago orchards. In collaboration with Chamberlain, his research on virus diseases in fruit trees helped New Zealand to become a leader in this field and greatly benefited the local fruit industry. Much of Atkinson’s work and experience in this and other fields was collected in a major text, Diseases of tree fruits in New Zealand , published in 1971.

A characteristic of his own scientific work – and that of the institutes he directed – was close liaison with the fruitgrowers’ organisations, which helped to ensure the prompt application of relevant scientific findings. Appointed to the Agricultural Chemicals Board in 1969 as a nominee of the minister of science, Atkinson was known as a defender of agricultural chemicals, including the herbicide 2,4,5-T, arguing that their use was essential to maintain world food supplies. He became deputy chairman of the board and served until 1983.

Atkinson was elected to the council of the Auckland Institute and Museum in 1960 and was its president from 1976 to 1980. He was made a fellow of the New Zealand Institute of Agricultural Science (1967) and the Royal Society of New Zealand (1969). In 1972 he was awarded a DSc by Massey University and in 1975 he was appointed an OBE. Immediately after his retirement he was commissioned to write a history of the DSIR, which was published in 1976. In later life he enjoyed yachting, fishing and gardening. Torchy Atkinson died at Birkdale, Auckland, on 27 February 1990, survived by his wife, Ethel, and his two sons.