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Chisholm, Alexander Hugh (Alec) (1890–1977)

by Tess Kloot

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

Alexander Hugh (Alec) Chisholm (1890-1977), journalist, ornithologist and encyclopaedist, was born on 28 March 1890 at Maryborough, Victoria, seventh of eight children of Colin Chisholm, a native-born grocer, and his Scottish-born wife Charlotte, née Kennedy. Alec attended Maryborough State School until the age of 12. During his formative years, after work and farm chores, he educated himself, learned shorthand, wrote poetry, fossicked for gold, collected stamps and cigarette cards, and enjoyed amateur theatricals. An insatiable reading appetite and an astounding memory were to serve him well.

In his autobiography, The Joy of the Earth (Sydney, 1969), Chisholm claimed that, from early childhood, he was aware of nature surrounding him. Whenever he could, he escaped to the bush and in 1907 commenced a diary in which the entries were almost entirely devoted to birds. That year he became a member of the (Royal) Australasian Ornithologists Union and in 1908 published six articles in Emu. A conservationist long before it became fashionable to be one, he attacked the plume trade in an article in the Maryborough and Dunolly Advertiser which won him many friends, among them (Dame) Mary Gilmore; in 1911 he accepted a job as a reporter on that newspaper. An invitation to join the Bird Observers' Club led to his lifelong association with natural history societies; once nature study was accepted as a school subject, he addressed children and coached teachers.

Four major moves and the irregular hours of journalism enabled Chisholm to lead a life of varied and ceaseless activity. He often turned his experiences into books. In 1915 he moved to Queensland as a reporter on the Brisbane Daily Mail. There he contacted local birdwatchers, joined clubs, and became honorary advisor and lecturer (1918-22) on natural history to the Queensland government. In 1921 he promoted legislation protecting native fauna and made court appearances to prosecute offenders. Through journalism, he championed the causes of birds. His sustained efforts led to the rediscovery in 1922 of the Paradise Parrot (Psephotus pulcherrimus), now possibly extinct. When dignitaries went birdwatching, he was called upon to act as guide: he would count among his acquaintances Sir Philip Game, Lord Alanbrooke, Viscount Dunrossil and Sir Henry Abel Smith.

In 1922 Chisholm transferred to Sydney's Daily Telegraph. On 8 November 1923 at the Sacred Heart Church, Rosalie, Brisbane, he married a nurse Olive May Haseler (d.1970). While in Sydney he chaired (1924-26) the combined meetings of the ornithological section of the Royal Zoological Society of New South Wales and the State branch of the R.A.O.U., and served as a trustee (1927-32) of (Royal) National Park. From 2UW radio on 3 July 1931 he participated in the first, live broadcast of a lyrebird's calls.

Returning to Victoria in 1933, Chisholm joined the Argus and Australasian in Melbourne. An admirer of Donald Macdonald, he succeeded him as nature and sports writer. Appointed editor in 1937, he resigned next year and spent eight months lecturing in Britain, the Netherlands and Germany. Again using newspapers to achieve his aims, he sought material relating to John Gould. This highly successful plan, related in Strange New World (Sydney, 1941), led to the discovery of Gouldiana, historical documents pertaining to Australia and John Gilbert's diary. Back in Melbourne, Chisholm joined the Herald. He was press liaison officer to the governor-general, the Duke of Gloucester, for three months in 1945 and edited the 1947 edition of Who's Who in Australia.

In 1948 Chisholm resigned from the Herald and moved permanently to Sydney to undertake the single, largest assignment of his career—as editor-in-chief of the ten-volume Australian Encyclopaedia (Sydney, 1958). This achievement earned him in 1958 the O.B.E. which, with the Australian Natural History medallion (1940), became his most prized awards. He also began an association with the Sydney Morning Herald that lasted until his death.

As well as the hundreds of articles which he contributed to ornithological and natural history magazines, Chisholm published such monographs as: Mateship with Birds (Melbourne, 1922), Birds and Green Places (London, 1929), Nature Fantasy in Australia (London, 1932), Bird Wonders of Australia (Sydney, 1934), The Story of Elizabeth Gould (Melbourne, 1944), The Making of a Sentimental Bloke (Melbourne, 1946) and Scots Wha Hae (Sydney, 1950). After Edmund Banfield's death, Chisholm had edited Last Leaves from Dunk Island (Sydney, 1925). He was represented in several anthologies, and his innumerable articles appeared in a wide range of newspapers and journals, as well as in the Australian Dictionary of Biography. His forewords, introductions, reviews and obituaries provide valuable background to Australian bird-lore, history and his own life. An excellent photographer at a time when it took herculean strength to manage the equipment, he illustrated his books and articles with his work.

President of the Queensland Gould League of Bird Lovers (1920-22), the R.A.O.U. (1934), the Royal Australian Historical Society (1959-61), the B.O.C. (1937-38) and the Field Naturalists' Club of Victoria (1937-38), Chisholm edited some of their journals. He received over twenty awards and honorary fellowships in Australia and overseas; he unveiled historic markers in three States, delivered memorial lectures and was patron of various events, notably the Maryborough Golden Wattle Festival. The price of this hectic life was bouts of ill health, and operations for gall-stones and stomach ulcers.

Chisholm was short and slight, with piercing, blue eyes and a mass of wavy hair. In later years he was a familiar figure in his hat and gabardine overcoat, carrying a suitcase and walking stick. Imperious and querulous, he gained the respect—and incurred the wrath—of many people, but remained passionately faithful to the causes in which he believed. He died on 10 July 1977 in his flat at Cremorne Point and was cremated with Presbyterian forms. His daughter survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • H. M. Whittell, The Literature of Australian Birds (Perth, 1954)
  • Wild Life (Melbourne), Mar 1940
  • Victorian Naturalist, 75, Nov 1958, p 133, 94, Sept-Oct 1977, p 188
  • Emu, 77, no 4, Oct 1977, p 232
  • T. Kloot, 'Alexander Hugh Chisholm: 1890-1977', Australian Bird Watcher, 7, no 4, Dec 1977, p 103
  • Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, 63, no 3, Dec 1977, p 206
  • Ibis (London), 120, no 2, 1978, p 241
  • New South Wales Field Ornithologists Club, Newsletter, 30, Apr 1978
  • Chisholm file (from Royal Australasian Ornithologists Union Archives, privately held)
  • Chisholm collection (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Tess Kloot, 'Chisholm, Alexander Hugh (Alec) (1890–1977)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/chisholm-alexander-hugh-alec-9741/text17205, published in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 25 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

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