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MacCormick, Sir Alexander (1856–1947)

by Douglas Miller

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

Sir Alexander MacCormick (1856-1947), surgeon, was born on 31 July 1856 at North Knapdale, Argyleshire, Scotland, son of Archibald MacCormick, farmer and coastal trader, and his wife Mary, née Campbell. He was educated at Lochgilphead School and studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh (M.B., Ch.M., 1880) with (Sir) Thomas Anderson Stuart, Robert Scott Skirving and (Sir) Arthur Conan Doyle. He spent a year at Liverpool, England, as house surgeon to E. R. Bickersteth, one of the first surgeons to adopt Lister's methods.

When Anderson Stuart came to Sydney to found the medical school at the university in 1883, MacCormick joined him in July as demonstrator in anatomy and physiology. In 1885 he was awarded an M.D. and gold medal by the University of Edinburgh for his thesis on the musculature of the native cat. That year he was appointed an honorary assistant surgeon at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and in 1890 senior surgeon and lecturer at the university in the principles and practice of surgery. His skills as a surgeon and outstanding diagnostician, as well as his introduction of Listerian antiseptic methods, led to rapid success and wide recognition. Reputedly the first man in Sydney to wear a white coat while operating, he was dubbed by his colleagues 'The Hokey Pokey Man'. Taciturn by nature, he did not enjoy lecturing and was not good at it, but taught by example and was always ready to answer questions. Physically very strong and apparently tireless, he worked through long lists.

At All Saints Church, Woollahra, MacCormick married Ada Fanny Hare, sister of C. W. Cropper, on 26 February 1895. He served in the South African War as an honorary major with the New South Wales Medical Corps from January 1900 and was mentioned in dispatches in September 1901. He was president of the New South Wales branch of the British Medical Association in 1905, and between 1884 and 1915 published over thirty articles in the Australasian Medical Gazette and other journals. He was elected an honorary fellow of the Royal Colleges of Surgeons, England, in 1900 and Edinburgh in 1905, and was knighted in 1913. That year he retired from Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and was appointed honorary surgeon to St Vincent's Hospital, which he remained until 1931.

On the outbreak of war in 1914 MacCormick went to England and joined the British Expeditionary Force in November. As a colonel and consulting surgeon he served in France at the Boulogne base. He took with him a supply of Thomas knee splints and in vain urged their use by field ambulances. Also commissioned in the Australian Army Medical Corps, he was sent to Lemnos where he was 'unable to do any operating at all'. Frustrated, he returned to Sydney in February 1916 but after the death in action in October of his eldest son he rejoined the A.I.F. in May 1917: in France his talents were again largely wasted. Back in Sydney in February 1918, he had become a consultant at Prince Henry Hospital and the Military Hospital, Randwick.

From 1903 MacCormick had owned a private hospital, The Terraces, at Paddington; he also built a seven-storey block of flats and consulting rooms in Macquarie Street and in 1912 a house, Kilmory, on Point Piper, where he lived quietly. He was a director of the Australian Mutual Provident Society in 1919-31 and the Bank of New South Wales in 1930-31, president of the Central District Ambulance Committee and an executive-member of the Navy League. In 1926 he gave The Terraces with an endowment of £25,000 to the Presbyterian Church in memory of his son; it became known as the Scottish Hospital. He was appointed K.C.M.G. that year and in 1927 was a foundation vice-president of the College of Surgeons of Australasia.

Sailing was MacCormick's great pleasure. He bought the yacht, Thelma, and successfully raced her in the 1890s. Joining the Royal Sydney Yacht Squadron in 1893, he was commodore in 1897-1900 and in 1913-20. In 1913 he had built a cutter, Morna, for cruising. He was a founder and first commodore of the Prince Edward Yacht Club in 1920. In 1927 he visited Scotland to supervise the building of a schooner, Ada. With four others he sailed her through the Panama Canal reaching Sydney after a four-month voyage. He was made a member of the Royal Yacht Squadron at Cowes and became the only yachtsman on Sydney Harbour privileged to fly the white ensign.

Rugged and sunburned, with a bristling moustache, MacCormick had 'a heavy physique without anything soft in it … large square hands and keen bright blue eyes'. With a Scot's 'canny sense of humour he smiled more with his eyes than his mouth'. He never spared himself in the case of the sick and even in old age would rarely delegate responsibility.

MacCormick retired to the Channel Islands in 1931 and sailed in Scotland in the summers. He dramatically escaped from Jersey in his yacht crammed with refugees only hours before the Nazis arrived. He lived in London for the rest of the war but died at St Brelade, Jersey, on 25 October 1947, survived by his wife, son and two daughters. His portrait by John Longstaff is held by the University of Sydney.

Select Bibliography

  • A. G. Butler (ed), The Official History of the Australian Army Medical Services in the War of 1914-1918, vols 2, 3 (Canb, 1940, 1943)
  • P. R. Stephensen (ed), Sydney Sails (Syd, 1962)
  • G. N. Griffiths, Point Piper, Past and Present (Syd, 1970)
  • J. A. Young et al, Centenary Book of the University of Sydney Faculty of Medicine (Syd, 1984)
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 24 Jan 1948
  • Scottish Australasian, 21 Nov 1923, 21 Feb 1928
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 15 May 1917, 20 May, 3 July 1926, 30 Mar 1927, 30 Jan 1928
  • MacCormick, small war diary 1915 and 1917 (Royal Australasian College of Surgeons Archives, Melbourne)
  • letters from MacCormick 1913-19 (privately held).

Citation details

Douglas Miller, 'MacCormick, Sir Alexander (1856–1947)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 25 October 2016.

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

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