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Morton, Alexander (1854–1907)

by Peter Mercer

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

Alexander Morton (1854-1907), museum director and naturalist, was born on 11 September 1854 near New Orleans, United States of America, son of Thomas William Morton, who migrated to Queensland as general manager of the Manchester Queensland Cotton Co. Alexander was a seaman for about two years, at first on a vessel bringing Melanesian labour to Queensland cotton and sugar plantations. He visited England and Europe briefly but returned to Australia and studied the natural sciences. In 1877 he was appointed curator's assistant at the Australian Museum, Sydney. That year Morton accompanied the explorer Andrew Goldie on his expedition to New Guinea; his collections, mainly of birds from forests near Port Moresby and from Yule Island, proved his ability and he was sent to Palmerston (Darwin). In 1881 he visited the Solomon Islands and in 1882 explored the Burdekin and Mary rivers in Queensland and Lord Howe Island. When he left the museum it retained him as a field collector.

On 25 January 1884 Morton was appointed curator of the Royal Society of Tasmania's museum in Hobart. He was also given charge of its library, which he ordered and catalogued, including a register of all papers published in the society's journal. In 1885 the Royal Society's museum and gardens were renamed the Tasmanian Museum and Botanical Gardens and incorporated with a board of trustees. Morton was reappointed curator and became secretary as well. From January 1904 he was director of both the museum and gardens. He was also honorary secretary of the Royal Society from 1887 to 1907. He helped to establish the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery at Launceston and acted as honorary curator in 1891-96.

Under Morton 'one of the finest and largest museums in the Commonwealth' was developed. Two new galleries were opened in 1889. He was keenly interested in acquiring an art collection in Hobart, and a floor of the new wing temporarily became an art gallery; extensions opened in 1902 provided a permanent gallery and more than trebled the museum's display space. He concentrated on display until, by 1891, he had reorganized the museum, using the latest British Museum labelling methods, and evolved a highly regarded system of classification and arrangement.

Morton was an executive commissioner for Tasmania at the Melbourne International Centennial Exhibition (1888-89), honorary secretary of the Tasmanian section of the Paris Exposition Universelle (1889) and director of the executive management committee of the Tasmanian International Exhibition (Hobart, 1894-95). As general secretary of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science (Hobart, 1892), he edited its report and papers. A member of the Technical Board of Hobart and a commissioner of fisheries for Tasmania, he was also a member of the permanent committee of the Tasmanian Improvement and Tourist Association, a committee-member and secretary of the Hobart Horticultural Society and honorary secretary of the Domain Committee. He was a fellow of the Linnean Society, London (1889).

Persevering and valued for his warmth and loyalty, Morton was described as 'a steady, intelligent, hard-working man, whose soul is wrapped up in natural history'. He was a Freemason and an adherent of the Free Church of Scotland. On 8 July 1884 he had married Caroline Eliza Mills in Hobart. He died of heart disease on 27 May 1907 at Sandy Bay and was buried in Cornelian Bay cemetery. His wife, three daughters and a son survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • Cyclopedia of Tasmania, vol 1 (Hob, 1900)
  • S. L. Clemens, Following the Equator (facsimile, Melb, 1973)
  • R. Strahan et al (eds), Rare and Curious Specimens (Syd, 1979)
  • Papers and Proceedings of the Royal Society of Tasmania, 1906
  • Papers and Proceedings (Tasmanian Historical Research Association), 28, no 1 (Mar 1981)
  • Bulletin, 25 May 1905
  • Mercury (Hobart), 28 May 1907
  • scrapbooks prepared by A. Morton, 1887-1900 (held by Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, Hobart)
  • Council, Royal Society of Tasmania, minute books, 1882-1907 (University of Tasmania Archives)
  • Tasmanian Museum and Botanical Gardens, correspondence, 1874-1907, and Trustees, minute books, 1886-1907 (Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery)
  • private information.

Citation details

Peter Mercer, 'Morton, Alexander (1854–1907)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/morton-alexander-7666/text13411, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 21 July 2018.

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

View the front pages for Volume 10

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