Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Macdonald, Donald Alaster (1859–1932)

by Hugh Anderson

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

Donald Alaster Macdonald (1859?-1932), journalist and Nature writer, was born probably on 6 June 1859 at Fitzroy, Melbourne, elder son of Donald Macdonald and his wife Margaret, née Harris. His father farmed near Keilor, but after their mother died Donald and his brother lived with an aunt in the town. He was educated at the local state school, becoming a pupil-teacher in 1876 before joining the Corowa Free Press and in 1881 the Melbourne Argus. On 26 February 1883 at Scots Church, Melbourne, he married Jessie Seward; their only daughter was born two years later.

As 'Observer' he soon made his mark as a cricket and football commentator; his vivid accounts, without tiresome detail, revolutionized cricket reporting. For some forty years he travelled overseas with every Australian team. He sometimes signed himself 'D.M.' in the Argus, and in the Australasian 'Gnuyang' (a gossip) and for his weekly column 'Woomera'.

Sent by the Argus, Macdonald was the first Australian war correspondent at the South African War during which he was beseiged at Ladysmith. His delayed dispatches were carried on the same steamer that returned him to Australia, suffering from dysentery. Published in the Argus, they were 'discussed in every home and hotel bar' and reprinted as How We Kept the Flag Flying (1900). The response to a lecture in the Melbourne Town Hall led to a year's leave to tour Australia, New Zealand and Britain. In 1909 and 1910 Macdonald repeated his lecture, 'Scenes and sensations of battle', at the Portsea summer schools for teachers.

His early sketches of country life and his Nature reflections in the Argus and Australasian were easy, unstudied reveries, tinged with humour. Pieces on subjects as diverse as the red kangaroo, life in the Riverina and Sunday in Sydney were seen by the author as 'moments of respite from the duties of daily journalism'. A selection published as Gum Boughs and Wattle Bloom (1887) had a remarkable success.

On his return from South Africa he established a weekly column in the Argus called 'Nature Notes and Queries'. It was extended to 'Notes for Boys' in 1909 and suggested his next work, the Bush Boy's Book (1911), enlarged in four more editions in 1927-33. In 1922 a Nature book for children, At the End of the Moonpath, was published, and his daughter made a selection of his writings in The Brooks of Morning (1933). Macdonald had also compiled the Tourists' Handbook of Australia (1905) and written a novel, The Warrigal's Well (1901), in collaboration with J. F. Edgar.

A 'big man, with shrewd and pleasant features', he 'retained that grace and charm of style in his writings which revealed, as clearly as talking with him did, his rare personal qualities'. In ill health for many years, Macdonald died of emphysema on 23 November 1932 at Black Rock, and was buried in Fawkner cemetery. His wife and daughter survived him. A fountain memorial, designed by Stanley Hammond, is in Macdonald Park, Beaumaris.

Macdonald was 'about the most versatile man on the Melbourne Press' and one of the best-known journalists in Australia. As a writer on Nature he influenced a whole generation. According to the Argus, many children 'who first saw their own country through the eyes of Donald Macdonald have learned to know it and to love it through their own'.

Select Bibliography

  • C. Barrett, Wanderer's Rest (Melb, 1946)
  • C. McKay, This is the Life (Syd, 1961)
  • A. H. Chisholm, The Joy of the Earth (Syd, 1969)
  • F. K. Norris, No Memory for Pain (Melb, 1970)
  • Victoria Education Gazette, 20 Feb 1909
  • Newspaper News, 1 Dec 1932
  • Labor Call, 30 Aug 1923
  • Argus (Melbourne), 24, 26 Nov 1932
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 24 Nov, 3, 10 Dec 1932.

Citation details

Hugh Anderson, 'Macdonald, Donald Alaster (1859–1932)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/macdonald-donald-alaster-7335/text12731, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 27 September 2016.

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

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