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McDonell, Alexander (1900–1980)

by R. J. W. Selleck

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

Alexander McDonell (1900-1980), schoolteacher and educational administrator, was born on 15 March 1900 at Mildura, Victoria, third son of Melbourne-born parents George Bain McDonell, labourer, and his wife Caroline, née Anderson. Alexander retained strong memories of his country childhood in a straitened, hard-working family: living in bag houses, tents and a galvanized home without running water, watching his father shoot snakes and sulphur-crested cockatoos, having a split over his eye mended by cobwebs from a straw broom, and stacking sultanas and raisins on wooden trays for drying. Most of his primary education was obtained at the Nichols Point State School. In 1913, having completed his merit certificate, he moved to the newly opened Mildura Agricultural High School at which he won a scholarship to enable him to continue his schooling. On 1 February 1916 he was appointed as a pupil-teacher.

Driven by the hope of a predictable income as well as by patriotism, his father had enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 12 July 1915 and sailed for the Middle East. Alex continued at school and assisted his mother with the management of their block. When his father returned in 1918, Alex entered Melbourne Teachers' College on a secondary studentship. At the University of Melbourne (B.Sc., Dip.Ed., 1923) he was prominent as a debater and sportsman; he captained the college's football team in 1918, and its sporting team which competed against Teachers' College, Sydney, in 1920. His college report (1921) noted: 'Fine, vigorous, all round man, in study, sport, social life and teaching. Is bound to do well'. At the Presbyterian Church, Tarnagulla, on 23 May 1925 McDonell married Jean Victoria Alexander, a 24-year-old schoolteacher to whom he had been engaged for three years. They had met at college, but delayed their marriage because Alex was providing his family's only regular income while his parents developed a soldier-settlement block at Birdwoodton, near Mildura.

In 1922 McDonell had been appointed to Mildura High School (formerly the Agricultural High School). He transferred in 1926 to Bendigo High School. There he built a reputation as an outstanding teacher of mathematics and science, and played an active part in the city's sporting life, particularly its cricket and football teams. Recognition of his abilities led to his transfer in 1929 to the Teachers' College, where he worked until 1937 while studying at the University of Melbourne (B.A., 1936; B.Ed., 1937). Work and study did not prevent him from calling Australian Rules football for the Australian Broadcasting Commission in the late 1930s. McDonell's professional career blossomed and in 1937 he was made an inspector of secondary schools. His prodigious memory, which enabled him to greet teachers by name and recall their careers, became legendary. He was appointed chief inspector of secondary schools in 1953, assistant-director of education in 1958 (the first person to hold that position) and director of education in 1960.

McDonell's senior administrative career in the Victorian Education Department coincided with a period of exceptional growth and stress, and his first concerns were to build schools, to alleviate the crisis in overcrowded classrooms, and to tackle the acute shortage of qualified teachers. He remained suspicious of, and quietly resisted, the increasing involvement of parents and teachers in the administration of the school system and in the curriculum debates which developed as secondary education became part of the experience of most children. Conservative, fair-minded, wary of religious or political zealotry, efficient, and intensely dedicated to his professional duties, he held the traditional views of an educational administrator who was the product of a highly centralized system. He admired that system and its teachers, and gave them the same sort of loyalty he had given his parents.

Although McDonell retired from the department on 15 March 1965, he continued to contribute significantly to the wider educational community. At the University of Melbourne he was a member of the council (1957-65) and the Schools Board (1942-58); at Monash University he belonged to the interim council (1958) and council (1958-65). He assisted in the development of the Victoria Institute of Colleges, served (1961-64) on Sir Leslie Martin's committee on the future of tertiary education in Australia, and chaired the A.B.C.'s advisory committee on school broadcasts which introduced television into schools. Survived by his wife, son and daughter, he died on 24 February 1980 at Blackburn South and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • Education Department (Victoria), Vision and Realisation, L. J. Blake ed (Melb, 1973)
  • A. McDonell, Memoirs (manuscript, privately held)
  • teachers' and professional registers, History Section, Education Department (Victoria), Melbourne
  • correspondence, especially Secondary Schools Division, VPRS 10249, andTeachers' Colleges, VPRS 10563 (Public Record Office Victoria)
  • private information.

Citation details

R. J. W. Selleck, 'McDonell, Alexander (1900–1980)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mcdonell-alexander-10939/text19437, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 23 October 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

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