Ivan Lorin George Sutherland was born in Masterton on 10 May 1897 to Robert Sutherland, a sawmill hand, and his wife, Rose Julia Clarke. His parents were actively involved in the Salvation Army, the Women's Christian Temperance Union of New Zealand and local community affairs. But rural education rather failed to develop Sutherland's worth. He left Masterton District High School without qualification, worked for a while in a bank, and then, at the age of 19, left for Wellington intending to become a Methodist minister.
At Victoria University College his talent blossomed under the powerful mentoring of Thomas Hunter, then professor of mental and moral philosophy. He graduated in 1918. He then enlisted in the army, but a serious illness led to an early discharge. Returning to the tutelage of Hunter, Sutherland completed his MA, gained a postgraduate scholarship and wrote a thesis for the Jacob Joseph Scholarship. In this, he stated his belief that all people, whatever their circumstances, possessed spiritual worth. Sutherland's attempt to realise this in practice informed much of his subsequent career. Study for a PhD at the University of Glasgow (1924) completed his academic training. During this time he had direct contact with many of the social theorists whose writings he had been studying over his formative years: Graham Wallas, Leonard Hobhouse, Bertrand Russell, and the Fabians at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
Immediately on his return to New Zealand in 1924, Sutherland teamed up with a young group of political activists who set out to become consultants and advisers to the government. Over the next decade this group, which came to include Alister McIntosh, John Beaglehole, W. B. Sutch and R. M. Campbell, provided intellectual fibre to politics and administration, through writing, broadcasting and public speaking. Hunter fostered Sutherland's career further, eventually finding him an assistantship, then a lectureship at Victoria.
From about 1928 onwards Sutherland became increasingly interested in Maori affairs, forming a close relationship with Apirana Ngata, whose policies for land reform captured his imagination. With Ngata he journeyed to various East Coast locations and later to Northland and the Pacific islands. He also developed a close friendship with Te Puea Herangi and visited her land development projects.
When accusations of malpractice were made about the administration of Ngata’s schemes, Sutherland was incensed. Although a commission of inquiry into the administration of the Native Department largely exonerated Ngata, he resigned from cabinet in 1934. Sutherland reported the matter in The Maori situation, a spirited book which was also an excellent survey of the situation confronting Maori as the economy emerged from depression. Sutherland later became an official adviser to the department, guiding and being guided by Jock McEwen, who was later to become its secretary. In 1940 Sutherland edited a collection of essays, The Maori people today. So popular was it that two reprints followed. It remained a benchmark in Maori studies until the 1960s.
Sutherland's work in Maori affairs was increasingly subordinated to the development of his academic field and the struggle to make progress in the social sciences in an alien atmosphere at Canterbury University College. He had applied for a chair at the University of Otago in 1933 but was rejected. The religious orthodoxy of that institution favoured more classical approaches to mental and moral philosophy; Sutherland was already pushing for recognition of the new field of psychology, and his publication record was light. Nevertheless, in 1937 Canterbury University College awarded him the professorship of philosophy and psychology. He married Nancy May Webber, a physical instructress, at French Pass, Marlborough, on 18 May that year. They had three daughters and two sons, including two sets of twins.
Wartime soon engulfed Sutherland in a busy round of activity. He assisted Jewish refugees and worked in army education and postwar reconstruction, including a trip to Japan with the occupation forces. His earlier interest in the League of Nations transformed into advocacy of local support for the United Nations. He became a welfare adviser to the Department of Maori Affairs and, at the request of Ngata, wrote the commemorative booklet for the hui held in Ruatoria in 1943 to mark the posthumous award of the Victoria Cross to Lieutenant Te Moana-nui-a-Kiwa Ngarimu.
But all this usefulness was bedevilled by pressing problems within the university. Sutherland's staff were turning his department from its broad base in humanist social philosophy towards the experimental tradition of Cambridge psychology. His former student Ernest Beaglehole had, with his wife and colleague Pearl, in 1937 returned to New Zealand as a world leader in ethno-psychology and had begun writing in the very field Sutherland had made his own. There was never hostility or competition, indeed the warmest of relationships and support existed; it was simply a fact that the Beagleholes, through field work and writing, had risen to pre-eminence.
Around 1950, Sutherland sought leave and funding so that he could wrench himself free from the morass of university involvement and undertake his proposed masterwork. To his Maori associates this was described as the detailed survey that his earlier work prefigured; to others it was proposed as a survey of Maori welfare needs in areas such as housing and employment, or as a thorough study of the mental world of the Maori.
This intention was never to be realised. The combined effects of academic frustration, unfulfilled idealism and intolerable work pressures led to deepening depression, hospitalisation and his eventual death from barbiturate poisoning on or about 21 or 22 February 1952. He was survived by his wife and children.