John Macmillan Brown was born on 5 May 1845 in the Ayrshire town of Irvine, Scotland. Registered at birth simply as John Brown, he was the sixth child of Ann Brown and her husband, James Brown, a shipmaster. A woman 'of the true old puritan type' who set a high value on education, Ann Brown saw to it that her daughters attended ladies' schools and her sons the excellent Irvine Academy.
John was a natural student, and when his father suffered financial losses he supported himself, first at the University of Edinburgh and later at Glasgow, by giving private tuition. Excelling in both English literature and mathematics, in his last year at the University of Glasgow (1868–69) he won a Balliol scholarship in mathematics (which he turned down) and a Snell exhibition for Classics and philosophy. Going up to Oxford in October 1869, he quickly attracted the attention of Benjamin Jowett, the intellectually dynamic master of Balliol College. Jowett's famous Sunday salons, at which his best students mingled with the intelligentsia of Victorian England, made a lasting impact on Macmillan Brown. But he was troubled already by the insomnia that was to afflict his later life, and, unable to complete his final examinations, he went down from Oxford, content with a second-class degree and Jowett's assurance that he was 'as a student and a man, in the first class'.
A man of wide-ranging interests and an insatiable curiosity about the world around him, Macmillan Brown regained his health by working in Scotland for the Geological Survey of Great Britain. Then, having rejected the offer of employment on a prominent London journal, he applied for a university position in New Zealand. In 1874 he was selected as professor of Classics and English, one of three foundation chairs at the newly established Canterbury College in Christchurch. He had found his life's work.
By background, training and temperament Macmillan Brown was well suited to the demanding role of mentor and administrator, as well as teacher, in a young colony whose material resources were limited. Combining the Scottish ideal of extending higher education to all deserving young people regardless of their class, with a concern for the Oxford values of free intellectual enquiry, he moved quickly to put Canterbury College in the forefront of higher education in New Zealand. Regarded as the chief creator of the college's academic traditions – 'I am Canterbury College', he is reputed to have said – he preached the gospel of scholarly asceticism and work. He himself laboured 16 hours a day, teaching, marking and examining English literature and composition, Latin and Greek, as well as inspecting secondary schools and examining for teachers' certificates. When he gave up teaching Classics in 1879 (on the appointment of the first professor in Classics) it was only to substitute history and political economy.
Rather short in stature with dark hair, a serious expression and piercing eyes, John Macmillan Brown had little sense of humour; but a commanding personality contributed to his reputation as perhaps the outstanding university teacher in New Zealand before 1900. He was primarily concerned to build character and improve moral standards through the study of great literature. His mastery of English literature was legendary and his lecture notes were sold, at first by enterprising students, for distribution throughout New Zealand. Not contenting himself with classroom responsibilities, Macmillan Brown also took a keen interest in his students' welfare. In addition to acting as unofficial rector in the early years of the college, he supplied students with books from his own substantial library, helped to set up student organisations such as the Canterbury College Dialectic Society, and assisted needy students to find work. Emulating the practice of Jowett at Balliol, he continued his labours on Sundays when he entertained his classes in groups at Sunday breakfast. This, he wrote, 'influenced both character and manners, developed conversational capacity and brought students into intimate relationships, if not friendship.'
Aspiring teachers predominated among Macmillan Brown's large classes. His first priority was to educate graduates who would staff the country's growing number of secondary schools, and he did everything in his power to inspire and encourage future educators. Maintaining close links with the Christchurch Normal School, he was so successful that Canterbury College earned a reputation as a nursery of headmasters and headmistresses.
Macmillan Brown was also one of the first practical promoters in Australasia of higher education for women. He had hardly arrived in Christchurch when, in January 1875, he was requested to admit the gifted Helen Connon to classes at Canterbury College. Macmillan Brown agreed, and when Helen Connon was enrolled as a matriculated student in 1876, Canterbury College became the first Australasian university institution to admit women to degree classes on an equal basis with men. She became the second woman in the British Empire to graduate BA and the first to receive a degree with honours.
For his time, John Macmillan Brown's attitude towards the education of women was an enlightened one. But his ideal of a woman was of one who, possessed of energy like his own, could happily combine a demanding career and marriage. Immensely proud of the beautiful and much admired Helen Connon, he fully supported her dedication to the building up of Christchurch Girls' High School, of which she became principal. He also asked her to marry him. She made him wait, but eventually, on 9 December 1886 at Christchurch, they married, and set up house on five acres of land in Wairarapa Terrace, Fendalton.
Macmillan Brown, who had previously lived at the Christchurch Club, was an extremely hospitable man: married life enabled him to entertain not just students but a great many other friends and acquaintances. The couple's first child, Millicent Amiel (who became the mother of James K. Baxter), was born in January 1888, and their second daughter, Viola Helen, in November 1897. The burden of her dual role, and the strain imposed by marriage to a man who demanded almost as much of others as of himself, finally became too great for Helen. In 1894 she resigned from Christchurch Girls' High School. However, it was not just his wife whose health was affected by the immense energy of Macmillan Brown: he himself was increasingly troubled by headaches, eye-strain and insomnia, and resigned his chair in 1895.
The son of a seafaring man, Macmillan Brown was a born sailor whose best relaxation was to go to sea. He relished the chance to travel to distant places. Late in 1884 he sailed for England, visiting South America on the outward journey and the United States of America on his way home. In England he made the momentous decision to refuse the offer of a new chair of English literature at Merton College, Oxford. On his return journey he broadened his circle of intellectual acquaintances through meetings with prominent American educators, publishers and writers, including Walt Whitman, Oliver Wendell Holmes and W. D. Howells. Further extensive European travel with his wife followed in 1892 and 1896.
After a visit to the United States alone in 1899, Macmillan Brown, his family and a governess set out for Europe once more in 1900, ostensibly to help Helen overcome her chronic insomnia, but also to investigate settling in England. During the two years they were away Helen Macmillan Brown suffered her second miscarriage, from which she never fully recovered. In 1903, concealing her deteriorating health from her husband and not seeking medical advice, she accompanied him on a visit to Auckland that she privately dreaded, not least because of the parsimony which made him reluctant to use cabs. Taken seriously ill in Rotorua, she died there on 22 February 1903.
John Macmillan Brown was left to raise, with the help of a housekeeper, a five-year-old and a teenage daughter. Abandoning the struggle to educate the strong-willed and independent Millicent himself, he sent her to the University of Sydney and later to Newnham College, Cambridge. After her marriage in 1921 to Archibald Baxter, an Otago farmer, they saw little of each other. But he adored Viola, who resembled her mother and was devoted to him. She shared his life in their socially active Cashmere Hills home and it was only after his death that she married Angelo Notariello, an opera singer, and moved to England.
His retirement from Canterbury College in 1895 had been by no means the end of Macmillan Brown's distinguished career, which his old university, Glasgow, recognised in 1909 with the award of an honorary LLD. Always active in university administration, he was a member of the royal commission on higher education from 1878 to 1880 and of the senate of the University of New Zealand from 1877 until his death in 1935. In 1920 he took lectures at the University of Otago after the sudden death of the professor of English, Thomas Gilray. He was vice chancellor of the University of New Zealand from 1916 to 1923 and chancellor from 1923 until 1935.
A great deal of Macmillan Brown's energy in the years following the relinquishment of his university chair went into scholarly research and writing. In addition to a continuing concern with education, he had two main areas of interest: English literature and the cultures of the Pacific region. From an early period his lecture notes on English literature had been printed and circulated widely. These formed the basis of his Manual of English literature (1894), and his studies of Thackeray's Henry Esmond, Shakespeare's Julius Caesar and The merchant of Venice, Shelley's Prometheus unbound, Milton's Samson agonistes and Carlyle's Sartor resartus. Under the pseudonym Godfrey Sweven he also published two Utopian novels: Riallaro, the archipelago of exiles (1901) and Limanora, the island of progress (1903).
His scholarly investigations into the flora, history, art and anthropology of the countries of the Pacific were backed up by long and often arduous voyages throughout the region. In addition to books on the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) and the origins and ethnology of the Maori and Polynesian people, he published more than 20 articles in these areas in a variety of journals. By the standards of later anthropological scholarship, however, his contribution was not a particularly significant one, and his work was regarded with scepticism and strongly criticised by Apirana Ngata and Te Rangi Hiroa (Peter Buck).
John Macmillan Brown died at Christchurch on 18 January 1935 at the age of 89; he was cremated at Andersons Bay, Dunedin. For several days afterwards the Christchurch newspapers lauded his achievements. Not the least of these was the bequest of a considerable part of his private fortune to the university college he had helped to found. This was not inappropriate since it was his university teaching, together with his thrift and financial acumen, which had made him wealthy. A condition of his original appointment had been that his annual salary of £600 should be supplemented by student fees; this was a substantial amount for, as he wrote, 'my salary was ever increasing as my classes grew.…I had a living advertising medium in the enthusiasm of my students.' He also had lucrative investments in business.
After his death Millicent and Viola received not ungenerous annuities; but he bequeathed to Canterbury College his private collection of some 15,000 books on New Zealand and the Pacific, together with a generous sum of money to house and augment it. Funds were provided, too, for bursaries in memory of Helen Connon and a lecture series in the area of his own writing. Another lasting memorial provided for in his will was finally established 53 years later, when in 1988 the University of Canterbury set up the Macmillan Brown Centre for Pacific Studies. Such a 'School of Pacific Ocean Studies', the Christchurch Press had observed in 1935, would be 'a splendid and fitting climax to the Chancellor's long record of distinguished service to his college and university'.