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Published: 1 July 2014

Early developments in New Zealand microbiology

John Tagg A , Frank Austin A , Terry Maguire A and Sandy Smith A

The inception of microbiology in New Zealand was, as elsewhere, strongly linked to the investigation of infectious diseases in humans. However, since the country’s economy has always been firmly based on primary industries, the need to maintain animal and plant health was also a powerful early influence.

Historical overview

Bacteriology was taught to medical and botany students at the University of New Zealand in the last decade of the nineteenth century. In 1905 the first research and diagnostic station for the study of animal diseases in Australia or New Zealand (Wallaceville Animal Research Centre) was established by the Department of Agriculture. Bovine mastitis was among the first problems to be investigated. Additional research centres were subsequently launched, focusing on other major infectious diseases of livestock including clostridial diseases, leptospirosis, brucellosis, salmonellosis, toxoplasmosis and facial eczema.

In the mid-1920s the two Agricultural Colleges of the University of New Zealand (Massey in Palmerston North and Canterbury at Lincoln) introduced microbiology as a subject in the agricultural science courses, and students received instruction about the role of microorganisms in plant diseases. At about the same time, the Plant Diseases Division of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR) broadened its field of investigation to include plant diseases caused by viruses, fungi and bacteria. The first government-supported industrial research institute, the Dairy Research Institute, was also established during this period.

During the past 80 years major expansions have occurred in the teaching of microbiology and in the government-funded employment of microbiologists. Since the early 1990s, various research centres (e.g. the DSIR, and Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries Divisions, the Forest Research Institute and the Communicable Disease Centre) have been amalgamated and/or assigned to one of the newly-established Crown Research Institutes, such as Landcare Research, HortResearch, AgResearch, Crop & Food Research and Environmental Science & Research. All have major microbiological research interests and knowledge bases.

Medical microbiology

With the appointment of a bacteriologist to the Dunedin (Otago) Medical School in 1911, the bacteriology course for medical students was extended, and a beginning was made in investigative work on tuberculosis, bacterial meningitis, poliomyelitis, typhoid fever, diphtheria and scarlet fever, all of which were prevalent at that time.

A second medical school was established at the University of Auckland in 1968, and the University of Otago Medical School established Clinical Schools in Christchurch and Wellington. Several other universities (e.g. Canterbury, Massey and Waikato) also formed new departments specialising in various aspects of clinical microbiology. The teaching of immunology flourished at Otago, as recognised by the renaming (in 2004) of the Microbiology Department as New Zealand’s sole Department of Microbiology and Immunology.

Medical microbiology research received an impetus with the establishment of the Medical Research Council (now the Health Research Council) of New Zealand in 1937. In the 1940s it was supporting research on haemolytic streptococci, phage-typing of staphylococci and leptospirosis. The Medical Research Council formed a Virus Research Unit in Dunedin (1949) to provide a diagnostic service to hospitals and to conduct research into viruses causing human disease. Early topics included viral diagnostic serology, poliovirus immunity, arboviruses and viral hepatitis. Other projects funded in the late 1950s–1970s were concerned with bacterial plasmids, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Candida albicans, dermatophytes, molecular biology of bacterial viruses, tumour virology, interferon and the biological control of mosquito vectors of dengue viruses and filaria.

During the 1980s and 1990s the Health Research Council funded projects concerned with influenza, hepatitis and papilloma viruses, virus vaccines, leprosy, streptococcal diseases, oral microbiology, gastrointestinal microbiology, kidney infections, protozoal and fungal infections and antimicrobial resistance.

More recently (2000s) research support has responded to the widespread publicity and debate surrounding the emergence of multi-drug resistant ‘superbugs’, the potential H5NI bird flu pandemic, invasive meningococcal disease, Campylobacter and Legionella infections, tuberculosis and rheumatic fever.

A small number of specialty research groups having a medical microbiology and/or immunology focus have been established for varying periods. As well as the Virus Research Unit at Otago, these have included portions of the Dental Research Unit in Wellington, the Disease Research Laboratory and an Oral Biology Research Unit at Otago and a Protozoology Research Unit at Massey. Immunology research has also been carried out by the Malaghan Institute in Wellington. The only other major research centre for medical microbiology is the Environment Science and Research Communicable Disease Centre at Porirua, although several hospitals (e.g. Auckland, Middlemore, Waikato and Christchurch) have been actively engaged in infectious diseases-orientated research. The oral probiotic company BLIS Technologies Ltd was launched in the year 2000 from research at Otago University.

Microbiology at universities


Sydney Champtaloup was the first Chairman (1911–1920) of ‘Microbiology’ (Department of Bacteriology and Public Health) at the University of Otago (then part of the University of New Zealand), followed by Charles Hercus (later Sir Charles Hercus) during 1921–1954. However, microbiology as a science discipline first really flourished during John Miles’s tenure as Chairman (1955–1977)1.


The BAgSc course, initiated in 1926, included the subject ‘Microbiology’ – a simple unit based on the relevance of microbes to plant diseases. Post-1950, while still primarily specialising in plant pathology, there has been an increasing emphasis on soil and water microbiology.

One of the early students was Royd Thorton (MAgrSc, 1948), who later became Director of the Cawthron Institute. Harvey Smith, another Masters student in the late 1940s later became Director of the Crop Research Division of DSIR. Both Smith and Thorton were prime movers in the establishment of the New Zealand Microbiological Society (NZMS) (see below).


Microbiology at the University of Canterbury had its origins within the Botany Department where short lecture/laboratory courses on fungi were offered in the mid-1950s. Subsequently, the first specific appointee in microbiology (the plant pathologist John Allen) pressed for a degree in general microbiology and this led to the institution in 1964 of an Honours degree in Microbiology within the Botany Department. The appointment in 1969 of a Reader in Microbiology (John Waid, who in 1974 became foundation Professor of Microbiology at Latrobe University) increased interest in soil microbiology, while additional appointments in the mid 1970s further strengthened plant pathology and soil microbiology teaching and research.


In 1958, all microbiology teaching and research at Massey University was conducted by three teaching staff employed part-time from the New Zealand Dairy Research Unit. The Department provided an introductory course in microbiology for agricultural students, a diploma course in dairy microbiology and a course in plant pathology including postgraduate studies.

In 1966 Don Bacon became the first Professor of Microbial Genetics and later Microbiology. Gradually the staff expanded and taught courses in medical microbiology, wine microbiology, mycology, protozoology, genetics, virology, immunology and cell biology. Close associations were formed with the Faculty of Veterinary Science. At its height in the mid 1990s, the Department of Microbiology and Genetics had around 40 academic and support staff. However, with the demise of the Departmental structure at Massey, microbiology disappeared as a distinct entity, and all microbiology teaching and research became broadly contained within the Institute of Molecular BioSciences.


Microbiology began at Waikato with the appointments of Hugh Morgan (1973) and Chris Harfoot (1975) within the school of Biological Sciences. Students now graduate with a BSc often combining microbiology with genetics or biochemistry. Microbiological research was given a great boost by the establishment around 1980 of the Thermophile Research Unit.


When the decision was taken to establish a Medical School at the University of Auckland (circa 1962), Dick Matthews, a plant virologist, was appointed Professor of Microbiology in a Cell Biology Department which focused on research and postgraduate teaching. In the late 1970s a second attempt to initiate Microbiology centered upon the establishment of a Chair in Microbiology within the Pathology Department. However, the appointment of cellular immunologist, Jim Watson, to the position, led to a spin-out Department of Immunology (subsequently changed to Molecular Medicine) being formed and the concept of a department focused on the core discipline of microbiology was not achieved.

The founding of the NZMS

By the 1950’s the various microbiologists in universities, hospitals, government-supported research centres and industry all worked in small isolated groups and only rarely met. The only opportunities for joint discussions were at Section meetings of the infrequent Science Congresses organised by the Royal Society of New Zealand (RSNZ) and the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science (ANZAAS). It was during the 1954 RSNZ Science Congress in Auckland that Royd Thornton and Harvey Smith of the Plant Diseases Division of the DSIR convened a meeting to consider the formation of a microbiological society. Provisional rules were minuted and in May 1956 the inaugural meeting of the Society was held at Victoria University college in Wellington. This pre-dates the May 1959 launch of the Australian Society for Microbiology2.

The foundation President Mr J. O. C. Neill (Figure 1) chose for his inaugural address a philosophical dissertation on the importance of microbial activities to other living organisms, the origin of life and evolution3. This was followed by 12 scientific papers3, 11 having a focus on plant microbiology, clearly showing which group was principally behind establishment of the Society.

Figure 1. Joc Neill, first President of NZMS.


We are indebted to Paul Mulcock, Dick Bellamy, Don Bacon, Brian Jarvis, Tim Brown, Hugh Morgan, Chris Harfoot and Tony Cole for their contributions to the booklet The First 50 Years. A brief history of the New Zealand Microbiological Society written by the present authors together with the late Sandy Smith to coincide with the 50th Meeting of the Society held in Dunedin in November 2005. Excerpts from that booklet are accessible on the NZMS website4. The present text draws heavily upon information in that publication and also the article written by Frank Austin in 1974 for the American Society for Microbiology5. The authors (JT, FA and TM) respectfully dedicate this present article to the memory of our colleague and friend Sandy Smith.


John Tagg is a Professor Emeritus in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the University of Otago. Currently a research consultant to the Dunedin-based company BLIS Technologies Ltd, he is a Past President and Honorary Member of the New Zealand Microbiological Society.

Frank Austin spent almost the entirety of his working career (1950–92) in the University of Otago Virus Research Unit, during which time he obtained a MSc in microbiology and PhD in virology. Frank’s research interests included polio, arbo, hepatitis and influenza viruses. In 1993 he was elected an Honorary Member of NZMS.

Terry Maguire was in 1964 the first PhD to graduate in Microbiology at the University of Otago. Prior to his official retirement from the Virus Research Unit in 1997 his principal research interests were insect-transmitted viruses and hepatitis, but he subsequently continued to be involved in virus vaccine development.

Sandy Smith. A popular teacher and Head of the Department of Microbiology at Otago, Sandy’s principal research contributions were in the fields of medical mycology and antibiotic resistance. Sandy passed away in August 2007.

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