Wednesday, May 17, 2006
  John Jose Hancock 1910-2006
Obituary: John Hancock

By Adam Gifford

* John Hancock, agronomist. Died aged 95.

In 1948 the New Zealand Herald reported that the Department of Agriculture's animal research station at Ruakura had established the largest herd of identical twin calves in the world.

That herd was the work of Ruakura's research officer, John Hancock, and it allowed the country to take rapid strides in the management of farm animals.

Hancock was born in Finland to a Swedish-speaking family, but always described himself as a Yorkshireman.

After earning a degree in agricultural science at Helsinki University and a spell managing Finland's Ayrshire cattle breeding programme, he migrated to New Zealand in 1938, bringing his wife, Rakel, soon after.

He worked in farm labouring jobs in Kaukapakapa, the King Country and the Wanganui back country, coming to Ruakura in 1941 as a shepherd.

When Campbell McMeekan arrived as superintendent at Ruakura in 1943, he recognised that Hancock's qualifications had been overlooked and had him transferred to the scientific staff.

Hancock embarked on a flurry of research and publication which led to him being made a Doctor of Science by Massey University.

As a trained geneticist, he was interested in the potential of identical twins for research. Waikato's large cattle population and the willingness of farmers to participate in research allowed him to gather pairs, after first developing tests to determine the calves were identical and not fraternal twins.

He established that the grazing, resting and other habits of twins were practically identical, as was their butterfat production. This meant any differences when the twins were separated were due to nurture. It was on the basis of this research that the science of stocking rates, on which every New Zealand farmer depends, was developed.

Dr Lindsay Wallace, a former director of Ruakura, says using twins meant an enormous saving in cost of animals and the land area needed for research.

Hancock also studied the grazing habits of dairy cattle, spending time just observing how long they grazed, how they rested, the minutiae of their lives. This resulted in discoveries such as the causes of bloat.

Hancock's work in New Zealand became his ticket to an international career. In 1953 he took a job with the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (the World Bank) in Washington. He subsequently oversaw the Food and Agriculture Organisation's animal production work in South America and set up the World Bank's agriculture development operations in Rome.

Dr Hancock died in Rome on April 16. He is survived by his children John, Elissa, Robert, Gitta and Jim, and his wife, Malou.
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