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Osborne, William Alexander (1873–1967)

by Barry O. Jones

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

William Alexander Osborne (1873-1967), professor of physiology, man of letters and broadcaster, was born on 26 August 1873 at Holywood, Down, Ireland, son of Rev. Henry Osborne, Presbyterian clergyman, and his wife Martha Jane, née Alexander. His parents were acquainted with the physicist Lord Kelvin and the historian Lord Bryce. Osborne was educated at the Upper Sullivan School, Holywood, and Queen's College, Belfast (M.B., Ch.B., 1895), topping his final year. His father had pushed him into medicine, despite his 'vehement protests' he said late in life, but he 'escaped into science'. After demonstrating at Queen's, he took up an 1851 Exhibition scholarship at the University of Tübingen, Germany (D.Sc., 1899), studying biochemistry and physics. In 1899 he was appointed lecturer at University College, London, and assistant professor in 1902 under Professor E. H. Starling.

With command of German, French, Italian, Spanish and Norwegian, as well as Latin and a little Greek, Osborne had phenomenal literary knowledge. 'Tall, athletic, strikingly handsome, blue-eyed and blonde', he was an accomplished boxer and shot. On 10 December 1903 at Armley Anglican Church, Leeds, he married Ethel Elizabeth Goodson. In 1906 they wrote together a German grammar for students of science.

Osborne had the backing of Starling and Professor Sir William Ramsay when on 30 December 1903 he was appointed professor of physiology and histology at the University of Melbourne, taking over from (Sir) Charles Martin. His reputation was already brilliant.

The legend that he simultaneously applied for the Melbourne chair in English literature has no basis, although he often said he would have preferred English or history to physiology. His wide range of interests was often held against him as evidence of dilettantism, although his knowledge of many subjects was profound. He called this division between the two cultures 'the great frustration of my life'.

He was quickly disillusioned by conditions at the university which provided no funds for research equipment or assistant staff in his discipline and he deplored the backwardness in organic chemistry. In the absence of a professor, he acted as dean of agriculture in 1906-11 and later he taught pharmacology himself for many years, and in 1906 established a lectureship in biochemistry to which he eventually recruited William Young.

The range of 'Ossie's' lectures, his wit and anecdotes, opened up new worlds to his students; he was especially generous of time to his 'apostles', the best dozen students each year. They included (Sir) Macfarlane Burnet, (Dame) Kate Campbell, (Sir) John Eccles, Charles Kellaway, G. C. McK. Mathison (killed at Gallipoli) and (Sir) Douglas Wright. Osborne was dean of the faculty of medicine from 1929, president of the professorial board (1919-21) and council-member (1919-22, 1924, 1928).

His further research, especially until 1914, was of a high order but did not fulfil his early promise. Nor did his department develop far as a research centre. Funds were always short, after World War I there was great pressure of student numbers, perhaps he spread his interests too widely, and his versatility was used against him by critics. Some of his best work was done outside the university, especially in dietetics—he made a large contribution to the Victorian Pure Food Act of 1905 and his Primer of Dietetics (1910) was a standard work which went into several editions. He attempted to advise Captain R. F. Scott on nutrition for his ill-fated second Antarctic Expedition (1911-12) but his warnings about scurvy were disregarded. During World War I he carried out notable work on an anti-gas respirator.

In September 1915 Osborne gave the concluding lecture, in a series on national efficiency organized by Frederick Hagelthorn, on the need to develop scientific research in Australia and to make it relevant to the needs of society and industry. Stimulated by the recent provision of direct funding for research in Britain, they agreed on the need for Commonwealth government sponsorship. Following a discussion in December between Osborne and Prime Minister Billy Hughes, at a formal lunch at the university Hughes promised lavish support for scientific research; this led to the formation of the Advisory Council of Science and Industry in March 1916, and eventually to the foundation of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research. Osborne was not appointed to the Advisory Council, where Professor (Sir) Orme Masson soon took the dominant role and received major credit for establishing C.S.I.R.

Osborne was a contributor to the Melbourne press from his arrival, a frequent leader-writer for the Age (1912-13) and published a volume of verse, The Laboratory and Other Poems (1907). He wrote a biography (1920) of his friend William Sutherland who conducted original research in the viscosity of fluids and gases, anticipating Einstein, but was regarded as insane by Melbourne academics. He wrote the incisive and critical The Visitor to Australia (1934) for Victoria's centenary year. His Essays and Literary Sketches (1943) and Essays and Studies (1946) ranged from Diocletian's price-fixing edict of 301 to the medical condition of historical figures.

His memory was stacked with an extraordinary range of experiences: he had talked with a Miss Asche who had seen the redcoats marching off to suppress the Irish rebellion of 1798; Alice Brunty, a domestic at his mother's home, was an aunt of the Brontë sisters; he met survivors of the potato famine of 1846-47; he saw Disraeli at close quarters; he met the Tichborne claimant; talked with Oscar Wilde, 'Buffalo Bill' Cody, Joseph Lister and A. E. Housman; dined with William Randolph Hearst and Winston Churchill at San Simeon, and was a friend of Mary Pickford.

In 1912 Osborne gave up smoking so he could afford an antique Roman marble bust of Marcus Aurelius. His library was impressive, while his collection of autographed documents was unique in Australia: Galileo, Erasmus, Melanchthon, a score by Purcell, much Napoleana, Dr Guillotin, Edgar Allan Poe, Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Watt, Banks, Darwin and Herschel. Most items were later destroyed by bushfire, but fifteen are preserved in the National Library of Australia.

He travelled extensively, particularly in the 'Wild West' of the United States of America and Mexico, and had an impressive display of Indian artefacts. He was an accomplished boomerang thrower and archer.

Disappointed not to have been elected F.R.S., Osborne was never offered an Imperial honour—at a time when they were reasonably common at the university. His notorious contempt for politicians and cutting tongue presumably contributed to this, and he might have declined anyway. His political philosophy was a commitment to natural selection and he only voted under compulsion, never for a candidate with an Irish name.

His antagonism to Catholics and southern Irish was of Paisleyite dimensions, although he never called himself an Orangeman. The pamphlet What We Owe to Ireland (1918) roundly asserted that the Catholic Irish were 'a race low in the scale of civilisation' and his views reflected the eugenics of Karl Pearson, with whom he had worked. (He used to call Archbishop Daniel Mannix 'the hooligan of Maynooth'.) Nevertheless, next to Rabbi Jacob Danglow, his closest friend was Fr Jeremiah Murphy: the three used to argue interminably about the Bible over dinner. He had a low opinion of Japanese, Negroes and Aborigines, but admired Jews and Hungarians. Osborne also detested lawyers, exceptions being made for his fellow rationalist Sir John Latham and Sir Owen Dixon. He was a good hater and his dislike for Masson and Professor Richard Berry was heartily reciprocated.

Osborne's versatility and range of interests were extraordinary. He was a member of the Victorian branch of the Round Table in 1910-21, founded Melbourne Rotary in 1921, was president of the Melbourne Shakespeare Society and of the Victorian branch of the Australian Forest League, vice-president of the Classical Association of Victoria, chairman of the Free Library Movement, and committee-member of the Royal Historical Society of Victoria (1930-37). He was a member of the Melbourne and Wallaby clubs (the latter for sixty years) and of the Wine and Food Society. In the 1920s he developed a keen interest in the technique of films, visiting Hollywood four times, when he was a Commonwealth film censor (chief censor, 1928-29).

Osborne's academic honours included D.Sc. (Melb, 1904), honorary fellowship of the American College of Surgeons (1929), fellowship of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians (1938), honorary D.Sc. (Belfast, 1938) and honorary M.D. (Melb, 1962). He retired in 1938 to his 500-acre (202 ha) farm at Kangaroo Ground. From 1938 Osborne was the star performer on 'Information Please', a panel quiz-programme originating from 3DB, Melbourne. His encyclopedic recall received considerable exposure and he dominated the programme without break until it ended in 1955.

During World War II he advised the Australian Army on diet and was an interpreter-assessor for German internees. He was a rigorous and not always liberal chairman of the advisory board of the Commonwealth Literary Fund in 1944-46 (his knowledge of Australian writing was limited), developing some respect for Ben Chifley, the fund's chairman.

In later years Osborne lived mainly at Magnetic Island, Queensland. He took a keen interest in Townsville University College to which in 1962 he gave over 500 volumes, mostly English and American literature, especially poetry. An indefatigable correspondent, typing his own letters until the age of 93, he made lucid tape-recordings of his reminiscences for his pupil and friend Dr Geoffrey Kaye: transcripts of some chapters are in the National Library of Australia and in the University of Melbourne archives, which also holds fifteen diaries, many letters and papers.

Osborne had a keen sense of humour, delighted in gaffes, was an excellent after-dinner speaker and a formidable polemicist, with a ribald atheism. (He habitually called Christmas 'the Mithraic festivities'.) He could be seen as warm and generous, cold and wounding: often he was both and he was susceptible to the flattery of both sexes.

Osborne died in Diamond Valley Hospital, Melbourne, on 28 August 1967 and was cremated. His wife, son and three daughters survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • R. S. Ellery, The Cow Jumped Over the Moon (Melb, 1956)
  • G. Currie and J. Graham, The Origins of CSIRO (Melb, 1966)
  • K. F. Russell, The Melbourne Medical School 1862-1962 (Melb, 1977)
  • People (Sydney), 3 June 1953
  • Victorian Historical Magazine, 38, no 4, 1967, 47, no 1, 1976
  • Melbourne University Gazette, Sept 1967
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 16 Dec 1967, and for publications
  • Australian Journal of Science, 30, no 6, 1967
  • Meanjin Quarterly, 3 (1968)
  • Osborne papers (University of Melbourne Archives and State Library of Victoria)
  • Mendelsohn papers (National Library of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

Barry O. Jones, 'Osborne, William Alexander (1873–1967)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/osborne-william-alexander-7929/text13799, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 19 December 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

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