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Mitchell, Sir Mark Ledingham (1902–1977)

by John Jenkin

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

Sir Mark Ledingham Mitchell (1902-1977), biochemist and university chancellor, was born on 13 June 1902 at Fitzroy, Adelaide, younger child and only son of (Sir) William Mitchell, a professor from Scotland, and his South Australian-born wife Marjorie Erlistoun (d.1913), daughter of Robert Barr Smith. Mark attended Queen's School, North Adelaide, and the University of Adelaide (B.Sc., 1923) where he graduated with first-class honours in physiology. Proceeding to the University of Cambridge (M.Sc., 1929), he entered Christ's College and studied biochemistry in the department in which J. B. S. Haldane was reader. In 1927 he returned to the University of Adelaide to lecture in the department of biochemistry and general physiology under Professor Brailsford Robertson. Mitchell was lecturer-in-charge (1933-37) of the department while the chair was vacant. He also worked as an editor of the Australian Journal of Experimental Biology and Medical Science, and as editor-in-chief (1936-63) nurtured its growth and international recognition.

On 29 July 1937 his father, by then vice-chancellor, offered the university £20,000 to endow a chair of biochemistry. The proposal was accepted at a council-meeting on the following day. Appointed to the chair in 1937, Mitchell held it until 1962. As professor, he undertook little research, but was widely regarded as a 'competent and conscientious' teacher. He supervised a few postgraduate students, and taught biochemistry to dental, medical and science undergraduates. By 1949 he had expanded his Handbook of Practical Biochemistry (1934) into a Manual of Practical Biochemistry for Medical Students. He understood and supported his staff, and represented Australian university medical schools on the National Health and Medical Research Council. Much of his time was spent on administration. A member (1949-65) of the university council and deputy vice-chancellor (1951-65) during the controversial tenure of A. P. Rowe, he demonstrated a 'rare ability to create in negotiations an atmosphere of mutual understanding, respect and complete trust'.

Mitchell was a long-time director and later life member of the Young Men's Christian Association of Adelaide; in addition, he presided over the National Fitness Council of South Australia (1952-73) and the South Australian Council of Social Service (1954-73). A keen promoter of health and sport for young people, especially boys from disadvantaged backgrounds, he organized activities for them at the university, in his homes in North Adelaide and on his properties on Kangaroo Island. The boys played football and tennis in Saturday competitions which he arranged and sponsored, and learned bush skills on the island. He donated a number of sporting trophies, notably the Mark Mitchell shield (1923) for a football competition between the State's public schools. In 1961 he became a vice-president of the South Australian National Football League. His own love of the outdoors found expression in travelling through inland South Australia, coastal fishing and yachting.

Tall, dark and slim, he had continued to live with, and in the shadow of, his father who died in 1962 at the age of 101. Mark Mitchell was instinctively shy, but affable in company. A member of the Adelaide Club, he entertained larger parties of his guests at the South Australian Hotel and kept them amused with his anecdotes. In 1957 he was knighted. He was a benefactor and chairman (1959-74) of the South Australian Museum which established the Mark Mitchell Research Foundation for museum research. The University of Adelaide, to which he had given money unobtrusively for almost forty years, appointed him emeritus professor in 1962. Accepting an invitation (1966) to be the first chancellor of the Flinders University of South Australia, Sir Mark filled the office with dignity for a term of five years. He died on 8 July 1977 at the Regal Park Motel, North Adelaide, and was cremated. His estate, sworn for probate at $1,854,884, was divided between family, friends, charitable organizations and the two universities he had served. The University of Adelaide named its Centre for Physical Health after him. His portrait by Robert Hannaford is held by Flinders University.

Select Bibliography

  • A. E. Simpson, The National Fitness Council of South Australia (Adel, 1986)
  • Australian Journal of Experimental Biology and Medical Science, vol 56, part 4, 1978
  • Flinders University Archives
  • University of Adelaide Archives
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

John Jenkin, 'Mitchell, Sir Mark Ledingham (1902–1977)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mitchell-sir-mark-ledingham-11139/text19839, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 4 December 2016.

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

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