Story: McDowall, Frederick Henry

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McDowall, Frederick Henry

1900–1975

Dairy scientist and administrator

This biography was written by Ian L. Campbell and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 5, 2000

Frederick Henry McDowall, one of a small group of pioneering scientists in the dairy-processing industry of New Zealand, was born at Waianiwa, near Invercargill, Southland, on 1 September 1900. His parents, Montgomery McDowall and his wife, Mary Ann Eggleton, farmed a property at Taramoa. At Taramoa and Ryal Bush primary schools Frederick showed academic promise, and from Southland Boys’ High School (where he was dux in 1917) he entered the University of Otago as a University National Scholar. Part-time teaching and further scholarships supported his university studies. With an excellent all-round academic record, he graduated MSc with first-class honours in chemistry in 1922. For his studies from 1924 to 1927 at University College, London, involving work on the essential oil of the ngaio tree, he was awarded a DSc. McDowall then obtained an assistant lectureship at University College, but in 1928 he was appointed chief chemist with the newly constituted Dairy Research Institute in Palmerston North, New Zealand, a post he was to hold for 36 years.

In New Zealand, he faced a daunting task: he knew little of the dairy-processing industry and had no staff; he was accommodated in a small wooden building in the grounds of the Batchelar Homestead, itself the temporary home of the newly created Massey Agricultural College; laboratory equipment purchased in Europe had not arrived; and the experimental dairy factory to provide pilot-scale processing in parallel with bench-type research was incomplete. In this situation he set out to visit dairy factories throughout the country, observing the conditions and processing methods, and meeting managers and operatives, many sceptical that a young organic chemist might be able to assist them with their problems.

McDowall developed an ability to work with people of varied disciplines and status, including animal scientists, microbiologists, engineers, produce graders, butter-makers, factory managers and directors. Together with foundation appointees, director William Riddet and bacteriologist Hugh Whitehead, he succeeded in building up the institute until it became the most significant influence in the technological progress of the New Zealand dairy-processing industry.

By the end of the 1930s much had been achieved. McDowall now led a capable staff housed in well-equipped laboratories on the main Massey campus. He had been engaged in diverse investigations, including methods of cleaning dairy equipment, the chemistry of cheddar cheese making, payment for milk for cheese, neutralisation of cream for butter-making, analytical methods for milk constituents, and the disposal of dairy factory effluent. Substantial recognition, acceptance and support had been gained from the dairy industry.

On 10 February 1932, at Palmerston North, Frederick McDowall married Lillian Grace Allen. She died on 20 August 1936, leaving three young children. McDowall’s second marriage, to Grace Edith Wall, an entomologist, took place on 16 November 1938 at Levin. The two boys from this marriage and the three older children were raised by the parents as a closely knit family.

The Second World War years and those immediately following brought responsibility and opportunity to dairy scientists. Dairy products were considered important for wartime nutrition and the war had generated special problems for transport and storage. Among significant projects on which McDowall worked were an investigation of the vitamin and mineral content of New Zealand milk, and the acclaimed development of a process for converting butter into anhydrous milk fat (which could be stored without refrigeration), and its reconversion into an acceptable butter.

At the invitation of the Army Education and Welfare Service, McDowall wrote a booklet on butter-making for ex-servicemen. He saw the need for a more comprehensive publication, and this became the major single project of his professional career. The difficulties of producing a technical publication of the quality, size and scope he visualised were enormous, but with characteristic drive and determination he overcame all obstacles. The result was a monumental, two-volume, 1,590-page work, The buttermaker’s manual , published in 1953, which became the landmark reference text in the field. It won for the author worldwide recognition and, in 1957, the prestigious Imperial Chemical Industries prize.

McDowall was involved in a variety of projects in the post-war period, including the elimination of landcress taint in cream and butter; steam distillation of taints from cream; continuous butter-making; the effect of bloat treatments on milk quality; detection of mastitis in dairy cattle; and casein manufacture. On Whitehead’s retirement in 1964 as director of the institute, McDowall was appointed his successor. He held this position for 17 months, during which he finalised plans and contracts for the new building that was to become the permanent home of the Dairy Research Institute. A wing of that building bears his name. He retired on 31 August 1965.

The dairy industry continued to call on his services as a consultant. In 1958 McDowall was awarded the gold medal of the Australian Society of Dairy Technology. He was made an OBE in 1960, elected a fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand in 1962, and received the Distinguished Service Award of the New Zealand Society of Dairy Technology in 1967. Through his 136 published papers and books he was well known and respected throughout the dairy world.

In his student days Frederick McDowall had been a keen mountaineer and he later actively supported the fledgeling Massey College tramping club. He enjoyed trout fishing, gardening and the arts, especially poetry, prints and painting, repertory theatre and classical music. A staunch Presbyterian, he served the Palmerston North St Andrew’s Church as an elder. McDowall died in Palmerston North on 27 December 1974 survived by his wife, Grace, and his five children.