William Maxwell Hamilton was born on 2 July 1909 at Warkworth, the youngest of four children of William Hamilton and his wife, Isabella Wilson. He grew up on the east bank of the Mahurangi River on the family dairy farm and orchard, working long hours there throughout his boyhood. From 1914 to 1922 he attended Warkworth School, travelling to and fro by dinghy and the school launch. He was a pupil in the first secondary class when the school became Warkworth District High School in 1923. From 1926 to 1927 he was a pupil-teacher at the school and he matriculated in 1927. That year his father became ill and he left school to manage the family farm and build up a herd of pedigree Friesians. He was Max to his family and local friends, but later in his university and professional life he was known as Bill.
In 1930 he attended Massey Agricultural College for a short course on dairy farm management, emerging as the top student. This was a turning point for him. With family support he determined to qualify in agricultural science. After an intermediate year at Auckland University College he enrolled at Massey for a BAgrSc degree. In 1935 he was awarded a Senior Scholarship and a Shell Scholarship and qualified for the National Diploma in Horticulture. He was president of the students’ association for two years. In 1937 he graduated MAgrSc with double first-class honours in field husbandry and agricultural economics with theses on the history, geology and botany of Little Barrier Island and on the New Zealand citrus industry. This academic achievement combined with his practical farming experience equipped him for his subsequent career in research leadership and administration.
He joined the Plant Research Bureau of the DSIR in 1936, and continued his thesis work with a survey of the citrus industry in Northland and an investigation of production problems of coconuts, cocoa and bananas in Western Samoa. In 1937 he was posted to London to relieve New Zealand’s scientific liaison officer while he was at home on refresher leave. The outbreak of war delayed his return until late in 1940. By then he had established personal and institutional contacts which were invaluable for the future development of the DSIR.
Based in Wellington, he worked on the development of the linen flax industry for war requirements, carried out an economic survey of the dairy industry (for which he was awarded a DSc by the University of New Zealand), and relieved Frank Callaghan, chief executive officer to the Plant Research Bureau, who was on extended sick leave. On 22 September 1945 at Warkworth he married Alice Annie Morrison, a schoolteacher; they were to have two sons and one daughter.
From 1945 Hamilton took a leading part in planning the DSIR’s contribution to post-war development. The department was restructured into three groups, and in 1948 Hamilton was appointed assistant secretary responsible for agriculture and biology. Convinced that the country’s economic future depended on scientific research that was focused on its resources and potentials, he set out to recruit and retain scientists of the highest calibre and to provide them with the best possible facilities and conditions. He worked with Charles Watson-Munro on a scheme, innovative at the time, linking salary rates to scientific output. This was accepted by the State Services Commission and the basic principles were subsequently widely adopted in the public service as a whole, as were many of his management methods.
In 1953 Hamilton was appointed secretary (later redesignated director general) of the DSIR. The government, concerned over research expenditure, had severely cut the DSIR’s budget. Hamilton set out to convince the government that scientific research was essential for New Zealand’s future development, and to allay suspicions of wasted money by maintaining transparent accountability for resources provided by the government. He developed the DSIR as a confederation of specialist research units, some based on scientific disciplines, some on the industries they served, and put great emphasis on co-operation and collaboration among them. He controlled the direction and emphasis of the DSIR’s programme; secured the involvement of industries in research planning; encouraged co-operative projects with universities, locating several DSIR units alongside university campuses; and fostered the development of research associations (independent institutions owned and operated jointly by government and industry).
Under his leadership the quality and quantity of scientific output increased dramatically and the DSIR established an international reputation for excellence in many fields. His strong scientific base, his capability in administration, and his personal integrity gained the trust and respect of successive cabinet ministers and public service authorities. The DSIR became recognised as thrifty, financially responsible and effective at applying basic science to applied ends and at creating community understanding of the practical value of scientific knowledge. This confidence resulted in the government providing a steady increase in resources for the DSIR’s operations.
Internationally, Hamilton was held in high regard. He took a leading role in the Commonwealth Scientific Committee and chaired its 1964 conference. He was a member of the executive council of the Commonwealth Agricultural Bureaux, and was awarded the first Commonwealth Foundation lectureship in 1968 to advise and lecture in developing African countries on the organisation of scientific research. He was made a CBE in 1970.
Throughout his career his wife, Alice, supported him with a warmly hospitable home. On his retirement in 1971 they returned to Warkworth and created a large and beautiful garden, which attracted many New Zealand and overseas visitors. William Maxwell Hamilton died at his home on 14 August 1992, survived by Alice and a son and a daughter. Six weeks earlier, consequent on the restructuring of public service scientific research into a ministry and a number of Crown research institutes, the DSIR had ceased to exist. His service to science is commemorated in the naming of the Hamilton Building at the Mount Albert Research Centre, and in the Hamilton Track on Little Barrier Island.