Faculty of ScienceFaculty of Science

History of Herbarium Founder, Don McNair

Don McNair, Herbarium Founder examining a specimen for identification.

Dr Donald Livingstone McNair (1920 - 2014), Doctor of Science honoris causa (The University of Newcastle, 1966), lived his entire life in Newcastle. He combined a career as an auto-electrician with an extraordinary passion for plant taxonomy and ecology. Plant specimens were collected on his many work-related travels through NSW and interstate, augmented by a focus on cataloguing the flora of Port Stephens. His botanical training was formalized in the late 1950’s when he undertook community program courses and established a long-term relationship with plant taxonomists at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney.

This acquired knowledge was energetically channelled back into the local community through various initiatives. These included Co-founder of The Society for Growing Native Plants (Newcastle Group; 1959), first Honorary Curator and Director of the Hunter Regional Botanical Gardens (1985-1990) and first Director of The Don McNair Herbarium, The University of Newcastle (1995-2014). These institutional initiatives were matched by a substantial contribution to education that increased markedly following his retirement in 1983. Courses in botany were delivered under the auspices of the WEA (Newcastle, Dungog and Sydney), Technical and Further Education (TAFE, Newcastle) and Community Programs, The University of Newcastle. He also served as a tutor in a number of courses offered in the Departments of Environmental Sciences and Arts and Design, The University of Newcastle.

As a researcher in natural history/botany, Don McNair made a significant contribution through his courage and preparedness to engage with the scientific community. The transition from a keen observer to an interpreter of the natural world was progressed by his appointment as visiting Convocation Scholar, Botanist in Residence (1985) and subsequently as an Honorary Research Associate, Department of Biological Sciences (1986 – 1993), The University of Newcastle. During this time he completed two publications, “Flora of Port Stephens and Myall Lakes Region, NSW” and “Aspects of Flora Regeneration following Sand Mineral and Silica Sand Mining in the Port Stephens and Myall Lakes Region”.

Perhaps Don McNair’s greatest legacy to both teaching and research has been the donation of his herbarium to The University of Newcastle, formally opened in 2003. He worked tirelessly in the herbarium aided by his volunteers until his health prevented him from travelling to the University. He then continued to work on various documents related to the Herbarium from his nursing home room. He believed that his collection “will be vital in recording environmental and plant changes, particularly in response to climate change”. To this end, on his death, Dr Don McNair bequeathed to The University of Newcastle, funds to sustain The Don McNair Herbarium and to foster postgraduate research in plant systematics.

Don McNair in the field collecting specimens.

In 1996, The University of Newcastle recognized his lifetime work in Botany and his contribution to the Hunter community by conferring on him the award of an Honorary Doctor of Science (honoris causa).