Robert Malcolm Laing (1865-1941).
Born in Dunedin in 1865, Laing was educated at Otago Boys' High School and Canterbury University College, graduating M.A. in 1889. After teaching at Timaru, he was appointed a master at Christchurch Boys' High School in 1886. There he continued till 1924, influencing a long line of pupils. After retiring he lived at Cashmere Hills, Christchurch, paying frequent visits to his cottage at Arthur's Pass. His death on 19th May, 1941, was mourned by many. “His passing,” we read in the annual report of the Canterbury Branch, “severs a link with the Society's most active period and with many notable scientists who predeceased him.”
Laing's public career as a scientist began with his election as a member of the Philosophical Institute of Canterbury in 1883, when F. W. Hutton was president. A member he continued to be till his death, and he left a record of quiet devoted service not easy to parallel. He was elected to the Council in 1887, was Secretary from 1888 to 1892, Vice-President 1893, President 1894, Vice-President 1895, Council member 1896 to 1907, Vice-President 1908, 1909, President 1910, Vice-President 1911, Council member 1912, to 1916.
Throughout this period Laing was steadily working at his special subject, the marine algae of New Zealand, and was elected a Fellow of the New Zealand Institute in 1922. He was President of the Canterbury Institute for a third time in 1927, in which year he was one of the editors of the Natural History of Canterbury, contributing several of the chapters. In one of these, “The History of Botanical Research in Canterbury,” he dismisses his own work with the all too brief, “Mr R. M. Laing has collected and described the marine algae of the district.” His first publication was a thoughtful paper on “The Classification of the Algae” in 1885, and in all he published over twenty papers on the marine algae of New Zealand, mostly in our Transactions.
Laing experienced to the full the difficulties of a pioneer in an almost untouched field working in a country remote from the centres of learning in his specialty. He persevered in face of all the difficulties, with less than the support and encouragement he deserved from his contemporaries, and his unflagging enthusiasm brought him to success and some measure of recognition. With the recent revival of interest in our marine algae the students of to-day have recognised the debt they owe to Laing for the excellent foundation on which they can now build. Some of his more important papers are : “The Algae of New Zealand, Their Classification and Distribution” (Presidential Address, 1894), “Revised List of New Zealand Seaweeds” (1901, 1902, 1905), “The Seaweeds of Norfolk Island” (1901, 1906), “The Ceramiaceae” (1905), “The Marine Algae of the Subantarctic Islands of New Zealand” (1909), “Reference List of New Zealand Marine Algae” (1927, 1930, 1939), “New Zealand Bangiales”, (1928), “New Zealand Species of Gigartina” (1929, 1931).
His interest in the land vegetation and flora was keen, and he made several excursions to little known areas, besides doing a great deal of detailed work on Banks Peninsula and the Canterbury foothills. Of the fifteen papers published as a result, the following deserve special mention : “The Plant Formations and Associations of Campbell Island” (1908), “Botany of the Spencer Mountains” (1912), “The Norfolk Island Flora” (1915), “The Vegetation of Banks Peninsula” (1919, 1924). His pleasant days at Arthur's Pass bore fruit in “The Vegetation of the Upper Bealey Basin” (with W. R. B. Oliver, 1928), and “The Small-leaved Species of Pittosporum” (with H. W. Gourlay, 1935).
In 1936 appeared Laing's obituary notice of L. Cockayne, whom he had had the pleasure of proposing in 1895 as a member of the Canterbury Philosophical Institute. This notice gives a reasoned evaluation of the advances made by Cockayne, and reveals his own wide acquaintance with general botanical and evolutionary problems. No account of Laing's work and influence should fail to stress the value of his Plants of New Zealand, published in the first instance (1906) with the assistance of Miss E. W. Blackwell, and culminating in the fourth edition in 1940. Probably no book has done so much to assist the amateur botanist and Nature lover to secure an accurate and vivid knowledge, of the flora of New Zealand. No publication has done so much to educate and delight the general public interest in our plants. To clear accounts of the species, beautifully illustrated, are added commentaries on modern views and researches, written in a way that all can understand. Many generations yet will draw inspiration from the pages of this classic work.
Laing was a student of human affairs, as well as a student of Nature, interested especially in the progress and welfare of humanity. Loving to reflect upon and discuss the esoteric, he was also imbued with the spirit of practical help, as witnessed by his work for the New Zealand Howard League, of which he was President in 1930. These wider interests found some vent in addresses to the Philosophical Institute on such topics as “Hypnotism” and “Thought Transference,” while his ex-Presidential Address in 1911 was devoted to “A Study in Multiple Personality.”
Laing shared with his fellow pioneers the desire to help and encourage younger workers, and give them the benefit of hard-won experience, and these younger workers will not let his memory die. So one remembers Laing, modest, whimsical, helpful, interested in humanity. He claimed no high place for himself, but what he knew and thought he passed on eagerly to others. As the years go by he will be found to have builded better than he knew.