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McAlpine, Daniel (1849–1932)

by Neville H. White

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

Daniel McAlpine (1849-1932), vegetable pathologist, was born on 21 January 1849 at Saltcoats, Ayrshire, Scotland, third son of Daniel McAlpine, schoolmaster, and his wife Flora, née Nicol. His father, a noted Gaelic scholar and staunch Presbyterian, taught at the Ardeer School where the young McAlpine received his early education. After teaching there himself he matriculated at the University of London in 1873 and attended lectures at the Royal School of Mines, South Kensington, in biology by T. H. Huxley in botany by (Sir) William Thistleton-Dyer, in geology by (Sir) Archibald Geikie and in paleontology by R. Ethridge. In these subjects he excelled and was appointed professor of natural history at the new Veterinary College, Edinburgh, and, in 1877, lecturer in biology and botany at the Watt-Heriot College. He also lectured in the pharmaceutical department at the Edinburgh School of Medicine. While in Edinburgh he prepared a biological atlas (1880), a zoological atlas (1881) and a two-volume botanical atlas (1883) as well as a booklet on elementary physiology and physiological anatomy (1883).

On 24 December 1878, at Govan with Wesleyan Methodist forms, McAlpine married Isabella Jamieson Williamson. Deciding to migrate to Australia after the death of their infant son, they arrived in Melbourne in 1884. Next year McAlpine was appointed to a lectureship in biology at Ormond College, University of Melbourne, and in 1886 became visiting lecturer in botany at the Melbourne College of Pharmacy, a position he held until 1911, reportedly never missing a lecture and never a minute late. He also lectured at the School of Horticulture, Burnley Horticultural Gardens, and examined for technical schools and the Melbourne Veterinary College. On 12 May 1890 he was appointed to the Victorian Department of Agriculture as vegetable pathologist 'to attend to all diseases of plants that might form the subject of inquiry'. This was reputedly the first full-time appointment of its kind in the British Empire and was undoubtedly a consequence of the devastating epidemic of wheat rust in 1889; immediately prior to his appointment McAlpine had joined a committee of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science to investigate the problem.

During his period with the Victorian government McAlpine helped to organize four intercolonial conferences on rust in wheat, being chairman of the last in 1896, and co-operated very closely with the wheat experimentalist William Farrer. He produced the first monographs published on plant diseases in Australia: Fungus Diseases of Citrus Trees in Australia (1889); Fungus Diseases of Stone-Fruit Trees in Australia (1902); Rusts of Australia (1906) including a general discussion of rusts which was extolled at the time as 'by much the best account … available in the English language'; Smuts of Australia (1910); and Handbook of Fungus Diseases of the Potato in Australia (1911). They were all profusely illustrated by photographs, an art at which he excelled. His Systematic Arrangement of Australian Fungi (1895) was considered a masterpiece. He also published prolifically in government and scientific journals.

McAlpine's work, according to his daughter, was 'all absorbing and his hobby', occupying him 'far into the night and at weekends'. All work was done from a small room of his home at Armadale until offices were provided by the government in 1906. His correspondence was written in longhand from his expertly drafted shorthand notes; he provided his own microscopes and equipment. An assistant, G. H. Robinson, was appointed in 1900, followed in 1908 by C. C. Brittlebank, a farmer and microscopist who eventually became McAlpine's successor.

In 1911 McAlpine was assigned to the Commonwealth and State governments for four years to undertake researches into bitter pit of apples, a disease he had reported in 1900. Realizing the difficulties such an investigation posed, he was reluctant to accept the post but did so 'for the credit of Australia'. He made detailed observations of the disease and published five reports but, unable to discover the cause, found himself arrayed against the Victorian government botanist Professor A. J. Ewart, who mistakenly attributed bitter pit to traces of poison in the soil.

McAlpine was an honorary member (from 1894) of the Caesarian Leopold-Caroline Academy of Natural Phenomena, Germany, and a corresponding member (from 1902) of the Linnean Society of New South Wales. During a Victorian royal commission on fruit, vegetables and jam in 1915 attention was drawn to his lack of university qualifications: he had in fact refused an honorary LL.D. from the University of Edinburgh before migrating, considering it would be an embellishment unnecessary in his new country. Representations were made to the commission by J. H. Lang on behalf of fruit-growers urging McAlpine's reappointment as bitter pit investigator and the expansion of his research brief, but his services were dispensed with from July 1915 and he retired, greatly disappointed and without a pension, first to Croydon and later Leitchville.

McAlpine's relationships with fellow scientists had always been cordial. At the Pan Pacific Congress held at the University of Melbourne in 1923 the meeting regretted McAlpine's absence and expressed 'its deep appreciation of the value of his contribution in plant pathology'. An originator of his discipline, he was, with N. A. Cobb, a pioneer of its application in Australia. He died at Leitchville on 12 October 1932 and was buried in Cohuna cemetery, survived by his wife and five daughters, one of whom, Constance, was married to James MacDougall. The Daniel McAlpine memorial lectures were initiated in 1971 by the Australian Plant Pathology Society.

Select Bibliography

  • Parliamentary Papers (Legislative Assembly, Victoria), 1901, 3 (36), p 236, 1915, 2 (58), p 426
  • Victorian Naturalist, 66 (1949-50)
  • Australian Plant Pathology Society, A.P.P.S. Newsletter, 5 (1976), no 1
  • Hunt Institute biograhies (Australian Academy of Science Library)
  • McAlpine papers (State Library of Victoria)
  • letters from W. J. Farrer to McAlpine (State Library of New South Wales)
  • private information.

Citation details

Neville H. White, 'McAlpine, Daniel (1849–1932)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mcalpine-daniel-7283/text12629, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 5 December 2016.

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

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