Story: Miller, David
Entomologist, university lecturer, scientific administrator
This biography was written by Graeme W. Ramsay and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 5, 2000
David Miller, one of New Zealand’s leading scientists, shares with R. J. Tillyard the distinction of founding professional entomology in New Zealand. Their work was based on the contributions of several great amateurs. He was born in Glasgow, Scotland, on 21 February 1890 to Mary Martin and her husband, Matthew Miller, a physician. The family moved to New Zealand and settled in Dunedin during 1901. Because of his delicate health, David was tutored privately during his secondary school years. In 1906 he began study at the University of Otago, where the zoologist William Benham emphasised the importance of the study of insects to human well-being, thus firing his enthusiasm and starting him along his future scientific path. However, through illness he was unable to complete his academic qualifications at this time. On 16 May 1916, at Devonport, he married Lena Davies, with whom he had two sons.
That year his professional entomological career commenced when he was invited by the Department of Agriculture to join its Biological Laboratory in Levin to investigate the insect fauna of New Zealand flax. After the end of the First World War he was seconded to the Department of Health to study mosquitoes. Many returning servicemen had contracted malaria, and there was a grave risk that malaria-carrying mosquitoes could become established in New Zealand and transmit the disease to the rest of the population. The Biological Laboratory moved to Wellington in 1920, and Miller resumed his academic studies at Victoria University College in 1922; he graduated PhD in 1928.
A school of forestry was established at Auckland University College in 1924, and schools of agriculture at Auckland and Victoria University Colleges in 1925. David Miller was appointed lecturer in applied zoology and he taught at the school of forestry. He also became honorary zoologist to the New Zealand Forest Service and in 1925 his important Forest and timber insects in New Zealand was published.
In 1928 Miller succeeded Tillyard as head of the Cawthron Institute Department of Biology, in Nelson, where he lived for the rest of his life. His work on forest and timber insects continued, leading to his establishment of the Forest Biological Research Station at Nelson in 1929. The success of the New Zealand timber industry is largely due to research initiated by Miller on methods of timber preservation, particularly the control of insect pests.
During the economic depression of the early 1930s, appreciating the need to have public support and interest in scientific research, Miller campaigned vigorously to obtain backing from primary producer organisations, local bodies and banks to keep the services of the highly skilled staff he had attracted. Because he was successful, New Zealand was able to help lay the foundations of two international institutions: the Commonwealth Institute of Entomology and the Commonwealth Institute of Biological Control, both located in London. Parasites were imported into New Zealand for the biological control of pests such as white butterfly, diamond-backed moth, pear midge, gum-tree weevil, sheep-maggot fly and grass-grub. Plant-feeding insects were imported for the biological control of weeds. New Zealand became a world leader in the field of biological control.
In 1937 Miller took charge of the newly established Entomological Research Station in Nelson, a position he held until 1956, when he became director of the Cawthron Institute. He retired in 1959, but continued to work and publish. His services were recognised by honours from several scientific societies, both national and international. He was a fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand and the Royal Entomological Society of London, and a recipient of the Hutton Memorial Medal. He was made a CBE in 1958.
David Miller had a profound influence on the development of New Zealand entomology. He wrote Garden pests in New Zealand (1934), Native insects (1955), and Common insects in New Zealand (1971), which was considered the best popular book about New Zealand insects. In addition he published 162 scientific papers, reviews, articles and reports, including the basic reference Catalogue of the Diptera of the New Zealand sub-region (1950). His ‘Insect people of the Maori’ is the main source of information about Maori insect names and knowledge. Miller’s greatest contribution was the comprehensive Bibliography of New Zealand entomology, 1775–1952 (1956), listing more than 12,000 references, a work of the highest academic and scientific standards.
Softly spoken with twinkling blue eyes, David Miller enjoyed recounting anecdotes about his contemporaries ‘with delightful dry Scottish humour, while puffing away on his pipe, from which he was almost inseparable’. He disdained mediocrity and pretentiousness. He died in Nelson on 28 April 1973, survived by his wife, Lena, and a son.