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Lawson, Abercrombie Anstruther (1870–1927)

by C. J. Pettigrew

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

Abercrombie Anstruther Lawson (1870-1927), botanist, was born on 13 September 1870 at Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, fourth son of William Lawson, sailor and shipyard worker, and his wife Janet (Jessie) Kerr, née Coupar. The family from Fifeshire, Scotland, had migrated to Hamilton in 1866 and in 1881 moved to Toronto, where Lawson was educated at the Harbord Street Collegiate Institute. When his father's health failed, his mother wrote novels and worked as a journalist to educate the ten children. After a year at the University of Toronto, Lawson claimed to have studied medicine and botany at the University of Glasgow, Scotland, in 1895-96. He graduated at the University of California, Berkeley (B.S., 1897; M.S., 1898). After a year as assistant in botany he spent 1901 at the University of Chicago with Professors Coulter and Chamberlain in the new Hull laboratories and was awarded a Ph.D. (1901). Lawson returned to California and spent five years teaching at Stanford University under Professor D. H. Campbell. In 1907 he was appointed lecturer in botany at the University of Glasgow and in 1910 was awarded D.Sc. for papers on the special morphology of the Coniferales.

In 1913 Lawson became foundation professor of botany at the University of Sydney. The university had obtained the services of a man well versed in and strongly committed to the theory of evolution which was then revolutionizing comparative morphology, a major branch of botanical studies. His research interests, based on collections and observations made on major expeditions, contrasted with the more descriptive and less theoretical concerns of economic botany and traditional taxonomy which had dominated botanical research in Australia.

From the first day Lawson stressed laboratory work and pressed for a new building to house his department. Insisting on adequate laboratory facilities, he rejected attempts to locate the department in the arts building and soon occupied a large part of the Macleay Museum. World War I delayed his plans but a new building, largely to his design and built on to the museum, was opened in 1925. Lawson also emphasized the importance of field excursions as a teaching technique, a long-hallowed tradition of Scottish universities. About 1925 he formally introduced the study of ecology into the teaching programme.

An entertaining lecturer and assiduous in his attention to students, Lawson retained a close interest in teaching methods. While at Glasgow he had visited the principal European botanical institutions to study teaching methods and research techniques, and in 1923 visited several Canadian universities. His enthusiasm had its reward. Not long after his arrival in Sydney botany had become a major field of study within the university's science programme and by the early 1920s its first honours students had graduated.

By the 1920s Lawson had built up a very productive research team including John McLuckie and Patrick Brough, his former students from Glasgow. His main research interest was in the origin and evolution of gymnosperms, non-flowering seed-bearing plants such as conifers and cycads. He firmly championed the study of native plants and joined the campaign which resulted in the Wildflowers and Native Plants Protection Act, 1927. His work on the origin and evolution of Australian flora was published posthumously by McLuckie.

Lawson's popular extension lectures on Australian flora were illustrated by lantern slides, made from photographs taken on many excursions, which he had coloured by hand using a difficult and exacting technique perfected by himself. A collection of 1000 slides was given to the university on his death. This artistic flair pervaded his private life, and he had a fine collection of antique furniture and English, French and Chinese porcelain, paintings (one by Turner) and etchings. Lawson's character baffled his acquaintances. Intensely proud of his Scottish descent, he was reserved yet given to whimsy. He affected a certain naivety which friends claimed belied his true nature. He never married. According to an obituarist 'he treated women with a detached courtesy as of a celibate priest. For the friendship of men he had that genius which the old Greeks have idealised'. Handsome and clean-shaven, he had classically moulded features and wavy hair. He resided at the Australian Club and later at Potts Point.

He was a fellow of the Linnean societies of London and New South Wales, and of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (winning its Makdougall-Brisbane prize for 1916-18) and a member of the Royal Society of New South Wales. In 1926 the University of Adelaide conferred upon him an ad eundem D.Sc. Before his election as a fellow of the Royal Society, London, could be confirmed, Lawson died on 26 March 1927 in St Luke's Hospital, following an operation for a diseased gall bladder; he was buried in the Presbyterian section of South Head cemetery. His brother Andrew was professor of geology in 1899-1928 at the University of California. Another brother, James Kerr-Lawson, was a noted portrait painter. His portrait of A. A. Lawson hangs in the botany department, University of Sydney.

Select Bibliography

  • Francis E. Vaughan, Andrew C. Lawson (Glendale, California, 1970)
  • Dictionary of American Biography, supp 5, 1951-55 (NY, 1977)
  • Nature (Lond), 119, 21 May 1927
  • Hermes (Syd), 33 (1927), no 1
  • University of Sydney Science Journal, 11, 1927
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 3 June 1919, 4 Dec 1924, 28 Mar, 2 Apr 1927
  • miscellaneous records (Botany Dept, University of Sydney)
  • Botany School papers (University of Sydney Archives).

Citation details

C. J. Pettigrew, 'Lawson, Abercrombie Anstruther (1870–1927)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/lawson-abercrombie-anstruther-7116/text12275, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 13 December 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

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