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Cunningham, Thomas Murray (1926–2001)

by Ken Felton

The annals of science record the pioneering work of [Thomas] Murray Cunningham in the processes of natural regeneration of eucalypts in high rainfall areas. That work was an important part of the scientific basis for field practice in the artificial regeneration of eucalypts in much of Australia. In the case of Tasmania, a currently growing area approaching 200,000 ha is a testament to Murray’s skills. This resource will supply products in perpetuity, both wood and non-wood, Murray being passionate in his advocacy of management which balances wood and non-wood values, for the benefit of people. He will be fondly remembered, as an intelligent, thoughtful and incisive person, with great talents, but free of vanity.

Murray Cunningham was born in 1926 in St Helens, in the north-east of Tasmania, but his family soon moved to Fingal, a coal mining and pastoral settlement, also in the north-east, where his father was headmaster of the local school. Murray boarded at Scotch College in Launceston for five years before moving to university studies. Through this time he was active in fishing, sailing, shooting and watching other people swim. Later in life he became keen on golf, meeting his wife Phyl on a golf course. They had two children, Ian and Wendy, and three grandchildren, Melissa, Angela and Alex. He was committed to them all.

Murray was a deeply thoughtful and caring person, with a love for life and forestry. His formal study of forestry began at the Australian Forestry School in Canberra in 1948, having previously obtained a BSc from the University of Tasmania with majors in Botany and Chemistry. He graduated from the AFS in 1949, winning the Schlich Memorial Medal in a class of 37, and began working for the Forestry Commission of Tasmania, with plantation silviculture as his main field. In 1955, he was given leave of absence and took up the inaugural Australian Paper Manufacturers fellowship at the University of Melbourne, setting out ‘to achieve an understanding of as many as possible of the biological factors which influence the regeneration of Eucalyptus regnans forests in association with their utilisation’. Murray writes (in Bulletin 1 of the School of Forestry of the University of Melbourne):

In Victoria the lack of regeneration in areas cut-over prior to the 1939 fire was apparently not obvious, probably because these cut-over areas were commonly burnt by wild fire soon after logging. Since 1939, fire control in Victoria has advanced considerably and areas cut-over since then have commonly not been burnt. The result has been a more general awakening to the fact that E. regnans forests do not in general regenerate easily and completely after logging.

His studies led to a PhD from the University of Melbourne in 1958 for the thesis ‘The Natural Regeneration of Mountain Ash (E. regnans)’, which forms the basis for Bulletin 1 of 1960, The Natural Regeneration of Eucalyptus regnans, which contains recommendations on ‘broad techniques which will give adequate regeneration of this species’. Murray concludes, ‘There can be no single answer to the problem of regenerating the forests, different techniques being applicable or most economic in differing circumstances’. Which perfectly summarises features of good silviculture, a solid basis of scientific fact, applied in a cost-effective way, with a perceptive understanding of the conditions of the forest.

In 1958 Murray returned to the Forestry Commission as a Senior Research Officer, in charge of silvicultural research in plantations and native forest and in fire and fire effects. Importantly, he was also responsible for the development of regeneration practice in native forests and assisting in planning for works in plantations and native forests. His influence on forest management and policy development steadily increased, and from 1971 Murray was Management Officer with the Commission, with responsibility for assessing forest resources, estimating allowable cuts and planning the use and development of forests. Policy development became a major task when he was appointed a Forestry Commissioner, a post he held until his retirement from paid employment in 1984, at the age of 58. Unfortunately, his poor health meant he could not seek to become Chief Commissioner.

Murray was a senior manager at the time when forestry activity in Tasmania dramatically expanded. Pulpwood exports in the form of woodchips began in the early 1970s, and allowed the systematic regeneration of cut-over eucalypt forests to substantially increase. Further, revenue from the increased sales has funded the additional inventory, planning and research that have propelled Tasmanian forestry along the path of sustainable management. Murray contributed his skills in communication, and his abilities to motivate others and solve problems, to the team which managed all this change. His views were eagerly sought by successive Ministers for Forests, Commissioners, staff of the Commission at all levels, and the wider community, as he advised, rebuked, humoured and encouraged.

Doctor C, as he was often known, was active in the affairs of the Institute, which gave him several honours. The first was in 1956, when he received the Hedges Bequest for a paper titled, ‘Seed production and seed fall of Eucalyptus regnans’. He was made a Fellow in 1969, one of the first group so honoured. And in 1984, he was given the N.W. Jolly Medal, the highest award of the Institute, for his outstanding contribution to Australian forestry. He will be sorely missed.

Original publication

  • Forester, vol 43, no 1, March 2002, p 22

Additional Resources

Citation details

Ken Felton, 'Cunningham, Thomas Murray (1926–2001)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 22 September 2017.

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