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Collie, Alexander (1793–1835)

by B. C. Cohen

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

Alexander Collie (1793-1835), surgeon and settler, was born on 2 June 1793 at Wantonwalls farm in the parish of Insch, Aberdeenshire, Scotland, the son of Alexander Collie and his wife Christina, née Leslie. His baptismal certificate was witnessed by John Collie of Priestwells and James Leslie of Dunnideer. His brother George was born in 1790 and was the grandfather of Professor Norman Collie of Edinburgh and London; another brother, James, born in 1782 was the grandfather of Sir John Collie, M.D.

Alexander completed his medical course at Edinburgh and at 18 went to study surgery in London, where on 14 January 1813 he was examined, and admitted F.R.C.S., London, after paying his fee of £22. Unable to obtain a post with the East India Co. he accepted appointment as assistant surgeon in the navy. His first ship was the frigate Doris, in which he visited Tenerife, China, and the East Indies, and won £350 as his share of prize money from the captured Hunter of Boston. On return he passed his examination for surgeon at the Transport Board and spent some years in Europe studying botany, mineralogy and chemistry. His next appointment was in the sloop Gannet which patrolled English and Irish waters. In 1824 he was appointed to H.M.S. Blossom, which was fitted for a voyage of discovery to north-west America. On an extended voyage he visited Africa, Brazil, Chile, the Sandwich Islands, California, Kamchatka and Formosa. In Mexico Collie had the Mexican Jay, Calocitta collie, named after him. One object of the trip was to place stores to be used by Captain (Sir) John Franklin, but although they searched the appointed rendezvous they did not meet the explorer. Collie wrote a 'Journal of Events of the Trip of the Blossom' but it was not published because of disputes with his commander, Captain Beechey.

His next appointment was in H.M.S. Sulphur which convoyed the Parmelia with Lieutenant-Governor (Sir) James Stirling aboard, to found the new colony of Western Australia. Collie supervised the loading of the medical stores. He also complained to Commander Dance about overcrowding the ships and this was corrected before they left England in February 1829. His first medical duty at sea was the confinement of Mrs Stirling, whose son became an admiral fifty years later. The Sulphur arrived at Rottnest Island on 3 June 1829. Collie spent the early weeks on Garden Island where the first hospital tent was erected. His spare time was occupied in botanical studies. He was allotted 1500 acres (607 ha) on the Swan River and in 1831 received another 500 acres (202 ha) at Albany.

With Lieutenant Preston on 17 November 1829 he set out to explore the south-west. They discovered two rivers, named by Stirling the Collie and the Preston. In 1830 the governor appointed him to investigate conditions on the unfortunate Peel estate. He found there had been twenty-eight deaths and much sickness; the food was bad, water polluted and there were no nursing facilities. His finding that the manager, Thomas Peel, was generally incompetent led to government assistance and speedier release for Peel's indentured settlers.

Collie carried on general medical practice until 1831 when he was appointed a justice of the peace and the first government resident at Albany. Although he continued his botanic hobbies and exulted in his magisterial authority, his own health began to worry him. What he thought was asthma, but was more probably pulmonary tuberculosis, gradually wore him out. He gave up the idea of marriage because 'no one would marry a broken winded animal such as I'. After eighteen months at Albany he returned to Perth to succeed Dr Charles Simmons as colonial surgeon.

On St George's Terrace he built the best house in Perth with great trouble and many setbacks. It cost £500 and he hoped to let it for £120 a year. In 1834 he was living in his new house 'with bells hung and knocker up—rareties in this savage land'. His health was still deteriorating and he decided to return to England, but he was too late. Although he embarked in H.M.S. Zebra for Sydney he got no farther than King George Sound. He died on 8 November 1835 at George Cheyne's house in Albany; at his request he was buried beside his faithful exploring companion, the Aboriginal Markew (Makkare).

His will was witnessed by Peter Broun, John Septimus Roe, Drs Harris and Davidson, and Commissary John Lewis. In the coalmining town of Collie named after him there is erected a granite monolith, a fitting monument to honour his memory. Another enduring memorial is his humane and influential report to Governor Stirling on 24 January 1832, printed in the appendix of the report of the select committee on Aborigines in 1837 (425).

Select Bibliography

  • C. Bryan, ‘Surgeon Alexander Collie, R.N.’, Medical Journal of Australia, 18 Apr 1936, pp 537-40
  • West Australian, 13 Mar 1936
  • Alexander Collie letters (State Library of Western Australia).

Citation details

B. C. Cohen, 'Collie, Alexander (1793–1835)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/collie-alexander-1911/text2267, published in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 2 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

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