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Bruce, Alexander (1827–1903)

by C. J. King

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

Alexander Bruce (1827-1903), chief inspector of stock, was born on 27 April 1827 at Keig, Aberdeenshire, Scotland, son of Alexander Bruce, a prosperous farmer and cattle dealer, and his wife Agnes, née Mitchell. After attending Marischal College, Aberdeen, he worked with his father for two years, and then for five years with a land agent and solicitor. In 1852 he emigrated to Australia, partly for health reasons, planning to take up farming. A dishonest partner absconded with their joint capital and Bruce's first job was at the General Post Office, Melbourne. Three years of unsuccessful farming in the Ovens district followed and in 1858 he became poundkeeper at Ten Mile Creek (later Germanton, now Holbrook), in New South Wales. He was appointed inspector of cattle in 1861, chief inspector of sheep in 1863 and the first chief inspector of stock in 1864, holding this position until 1902. He was an officer of the Lands Department in 1861-74 and of the Department of Mines and Stock in 1874-1902. In this long public service he created almost single-handed a departmental stock-disease control organization and a veterinary service which were direct precursors of the present organizations in New South Wales, although he died before the Stock Branch and its activities were transferred to a separate Department of Agriculture in 1908.

Bruce's training was that of a layman, yet from 1861 his major responsibilities centred on the control of communicable disease in stock and the constant threat to the highly vulnerable pastoral industry by the entry into Australia of foot and mouth disease, rinderpest, swine fever, glanders and other known epizootics of animals. When his career began stock runs were largely unfenced, disorder ranged throughout a vast and uncharted countryside and science was unknown. Bruce grew in stature with ever-enlarging responsibilities. He had uncommon intelligence, tact and patience, and his capacity for work in a peculiarly difficult environment was remarkable. The volume, variety and detail of the legislation and offices created for him by successive governments in the face of vested interests and ignorance is a measure of the influence he wielded. Self effacing even to believing that public servants should not be given a vote, he was yet a fierce lobbyist for legislation affecting his responsibilities and haunted the precincts of parliament when his bills were debated. By 1889 he had a staff of 48 inspectors in 62 districts, with responsibilities covering control over biologics, noxious animals and pests, border inspections, quarantine, registration of sheep, horse and cattle brands, supervision of travelling stock, reserves, routes and commons, impounding of trespassing stock, animal health and management, and the investigation and control of stock disease.

In 1861-63 when the violent epizootic of contagious pleuro-pneumonia in cattle, which had gained entry into Victoria in 1858, rapidly spread through New South Wales and Queensland, Bruce won repute for the early adoption of the 'seton' method of in-contact vaccination and for the vigour and thoroughness of the controls he introduced. His approach was likewise direct and thorough with the ubiquitous scab in sheep which had flared up in 1863-64 after some years of low incidence. Banning all patent nostrums and home-made cures and prescribing by regulation that a tobacco and sulphur dip could alone be used, Bruce enforced a policy of destroying all affected animals. By 1868 scab, which had been a constant trouble from the earliest settlement, had been eradicated in New South Wales. When imported sheep brought another outbreak in 1884 Bruce was suspended but reinstated after a royal commission. Instrumental in having the Pasteur anthrax vaccine manufactured locally as early as 1890, he was responsible also for the erection of the border stock fence on the colony's northern boundary by the New South Wales government in 1897 after cattle tick spread from the Northern Territory into Queensland in 1890.

Of Bruce a striking picture of a white-bearded Victorian 'builder of Empire' emerges. He was broad shouldered and of medium build, with striking blue eyes under bushy eyebrows; a strict but fair disciplinarian, he was nicknamed 'Tiger' within the service but 'Sandy' by his relatives. Stern, deeply religious and inflexible in purpose and strength of will, nevertheless his innate kindliness was reflected by the adoption into his already large family of three orphans whose parents had died of typhoid. Wholly dedicated to his work and with few other interests outside it and his family, he was accustomed even at home to work long hours in his mosquito-proof study, where many reports were prepared and at times the elder children were pressed into service as amanuenses.

In 1873 Bruce visited Europe and on his return published a Report on the Infectious and Contagious Diseases in Stock Prevailing in Europe (Sydney, 1874). In 1892-93 he visited the Chicago Exhibition, taking samples of home-grown produce including preserves made by his wife. By then his vision of Australia's future had broadened and his interests were with matters of trade such as the development of a meat export industry. Long active on the committee of the Agricultural Society of New South Wales, he initiated in 1890 the motion which next year led to the prefix 'Royal' being added to the society's name. A contemporary of such men as H. C. L. Anderson, W. J. Farrer, N. A. Cobb, W. S. Campbell, G. L. Sutton and F. B. Guthrie, he would appear to have been, like them, totally engrossed in pioneering scientific exploration. The Agricultural Gazette printed many of his articles, and he was the initiator and guiding spirit behind the Intercolonial Stock Conferences in 1874, 1886, 1889 and 1891, searching for ways to improve scientific endeavour and to encourage trained veterinarians to enter the public service. Although Australia has no native fauna apart from the dingo likely to be a reservoir of infectious disease, the continent's escape so far from deadly epizootic diseases remains a remarkable fact. Throughout his life Bruce was obsessed with the fear of such diseases gaining a firm foothold.

Bruce's achievement was to create a service dedicated to disease prevention and equipped to bring science to bear upon problems where at the beginning there had been little else but the 'adventitious aid of blatant demagogues'. After his death on 14 October 1903 at Chatswood an obituarist in the Sydney Stock and Station Journal referred to the respect shown by his contemporaries. 'He was a quiet man who was to be found at the Stock Office early and late, and so wrapped up in the affairs of the department was he, that he remained “in harness” until a little more than a year ago (i.e., till over 75 years of age), despite the fact that ill-health made it a painful matter for him to attend to his duties. Mr. Bruce was a clean living, conscientious gentleman, and as such, he will be long remembered'. He was buried in the Congregationalist section of the Gore Hill cemetery, survived by his wife Maria Rachel, née Pabst, whom he had married at Albury on 15 March 1860, and by seven of their eight children.

Select Bibliography

  • E. Digby (ed), Australian Men of Mark, vol 2 (Syd, 1889)
  • G. H. Abbott, ‘Remiscences of Newtown and Neighbourhood’, Journal and Proceedings (Royal Australian Historical Society), vol 24, part 1, 1938, pp 1-16
  • E. J. McBarron and H. R. Seddon, ‘Aspects on the Life of Alexander Bruce, (1827-1903) First Chief Inspector of Stock, New South Wales, (1864-1902)’, Veterinary Inspector, vol 30, 1966, pp 77-83.

Citation details

C. J. King, 'Bruce, Alexander (1827–1903)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/bruce-alexander-3091/text4577, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 17 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

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