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Alexander, Frederick Matthias (1869–1955)

by Michael Roe

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

Frederick Matthias Alexander, n.d

Frederick Matthias Alexander, n.d

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an22676564

Frederick Matthias Alexander (1869-1955), founder of the Alexander technique, was born at Table Cape, north-west Tasmania, on 20 January 1869, son of John Alexander, blacksmith, and his wife Betsy, née Brown. John's father Matthias had suffered transportation for joining the 'Captain Swing' riots of 1830. Frederick attended the local school and was tutored out of hours by his perceptive teacher. He first worked as a clerk at the Mount Bischoff mine, Waratah. Already he felt a lifelong urge for somewhat melodramatic theatre; he revelled in Shakespeare and as a hobby recited ballads to the miners. About 1890 he went to Melbourne, took lessons in acting and began to give public readings. He spent some months in 1894 in New Zealand, largely in Auckland, then returned to Melbourne.  

By then Alexander had turned to teaching stage skills, especially breathing and voice production. Further, he already maintained that correct posture was essential to physical, emotional, and spiritual health. Modern civilization, he came to believe, had caused mankind to get head, neck, and trunk awry. The individual made the disastrous mistake of relying on feel of muscular comfort; it was necessary to 'inhibit' such response and to impose 'primary control' on the 'psycho-physical unity'. He never quite succeeded in finding the words to express his meaning; touch, charisma, and exhortation were his media.

In 1899-1904 Alexander worked in Sydney where in December 1903 he publicly argued that his breathing method might cure tuberculosis. He received support from the pediatrician C. P. B. Clubbe and the surgeon (and stage enthusiast) W. J. S. McKay and planned to publish a book. Instead, in 1904 he moved to London and wider fame. Here too his first pupils came from the stage, Henry Irving among them. Alexander's scope was widening, however, as became evident in his first major publication, Man's Supreme Inheritance (1910). This attempted to spell out the ideas which underlay 'the Alexander method'. William James, F. W. H. Myers, and I. P. Pavlov were acknowledged; warmest praise went to R. W. Trine, propounder of 'the New Thought'. This suggests the provenance of Alexander's ideas. He had a modest place among those thinkers of the early twentieth century, inspired especially by Nietzsche and Bergson, who strove to achieve a new, creative intensity of human feeling and performance. The quality of Alexander's intellect, while not contemptible, was limited: his forte was actually to imbue many pupil-patients with this intensity.

From 1914 Alexander also taught regularly in the United States of America and his clients included many eminent people: John Dewey, Aldous Huxley, G. B. Shaw, Gerald Heard, Wesley C. Mitchell, William Temple, Stafford Cripps, Major C. H. Douglas. Dewey adapted Alexander's notions into his writings on education while Huxley presented them in various books, notably Eyeless in Gaza and Island.

Alexander was only a little affected by this acclaim. He continued to write books expounding his views, but always saw his teaching as a profitable business rather than a cult or subject for academic inquiry. He enjoyed good living and was a fanatic gambler on racehorses. Even some admirers have seen him as akin to the confidence man who really did discover how to make gold bricks. According to E. Maisel, in 1920 Alexander married a widow, 'an Australian actress' Edith Mary Parsons Young, née Page; they had adopted a daughter; the marriage was unhappy well before Mrs Alexander's death in 1938; and he had a housekeeper-mistress and a natural son by her. From the 1890s Alexander had been assisted by a brother Albert Redden, while later another brother Beaumont was close to him professionally and personally.

During World War II Alexander moved with his school to Massachusetts. Although he remained active into old age, his influence receded after the war. He died in London on 10 October 1955 and was cremated. Interest in him revived strongly in the late 1960s, perhaps prompted by the neo-romanticism of those years refurbishing the notion of expanded consciousness. The most dramatic manifestation came from Professor Nikolaas Tinbergen: accepting the 1973 Nobel Prize in Physiology/Medicine, he said that Alexander's 'story of perceptiveness, of intelligence, and of persistence, shown by a man without medical training, is one of the true epics of medical research and practice'. A secondary literature on Alexander has developed steadily.

Select Bibliography

  • E. Maisel, The Alexander Technique (Lond, 1974)
  • M. Roe, ‘F. M. Alexander: a prophet from Australia’, JRAHS, 60 (1974)
  • N. Tinbergen, ‘Ethology and stress diseases’, Science, 185 (1974).

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Citation details

Michael Roe, 'Alexander, Frederick Matthias (1869–1955)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 24 October 2016.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

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