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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Stirling, Sir John Lancelot (1849–1932)

by Hans Mincham

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

This is a shared entry with Edward Charles Stirling

Sir Edward Charles Stirling (1848-1919), surgeon, scientist and politician, and Sir John Lancelot Stirling (1849-1932), politician, were the sons of Edward Stirling (1804-1873) and his wife Harriett, née Taylor. Their father arrived in South Australia in 1839; he eventually bought the pastoral stations of Highland Valley in the Mount Lofty Ranges and Nalpa on Lake Alexandrina. In 1855-61 he was in partnership with (Sir) Thomas Elder, Robert Barr Smith and John Taylor, as Elder, Stirling & Co., which financed the Wallaroo and Moonta copper mines. Appointed to the Legislative Council in 1855 he helped frame the Constitution and was a member of the new council in 1856-65. He died on 2 February 1873 in London. Two South Australian towns bear his name.

Edward Charles was born on 8 September 1848 at Strathalbyn, South Australia. Educated at the Collegiate School of St Peter and at Trinity College, Cambridge (B.A., 1870; M.A., 1873; M.B., 1874; M.D., 1880; Sc.D., 1910), he became a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1874 and was lecturer in physiology and assistant surgeon at St George's Hospital, London, and later surgeon at Belgrave Hospital for Children. Returning to South Australia in 1875 he married Jane, daughter of Joseph Gilbert, on 27 June 1877, and took her to England for specialized medical treatment. In 1881 he settled permanently in South Australia where he became consulting surgeon to Adelaide Hospital, lecturer and later first professor of physiology at the University of Adelaide and a member of the University Council.

In 1884-87 Stirling was member for North Adelaide in the House of Assembly and in 1886 he introduced a bill to enfranchise women; but the South Australian Museum became his major life's work. He was its director in 1884-1912 and was largely responsible for its excellent collection of Aboriginal cultural specimens. In 1888 he received from central Australia a specimen of the previously unknown marsupial mole which he named, described and illustrated in the 1890-91 Transactions and Proceedings of the Royal Society of South Australia.

Stirling crossed the continent from Darwin to Adelaide with the Earl of Kintore in 1891, collecting ethnological and zoological specimens. In 1893 he travelled to Lake Callabonna where a field party, organized by him, was excavating numerous remains of the giant marsupial Diprotodon. In the same year he was made a fellow of the Royal Society, London, and created C.M.G. He was medical officer and anthropologist with the William Horn expedition which, in 1894, made a comprehensive survey of the country between Oodnadatta and the MacDonnell Ranges. He wrote the extensive anthropological section published as part of the four volumes that recorded the expedition's discoveries. His work on the Diprotodon culminated in a full description of its skeletal anatomy in the Memoirs of the local Royal Society in 1899, and the complete reconstruction of its skeleton in 1906. Casts of the latter are still the only articulated examples to be found in museums in Australia and abroad.

Actively associated with the Public Library, the Art Gallery, the Zoological Society, the Adelaide Hospital and the State Children's Council, Stirling was dean of the Faculty of Medicine in 1908-19 and president of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in South Australia. He participated in the long struggle to secure Flinders Chase on Kangaroo Island as a sanctuary. In 1917 Stirling was knighted. He died on 20 March 1919 at his home St Vigeans, Mount Lofty, where he had established a famous garden, survived by his wife and five daughters; two sons predeceased him. His estate was sworn for probate at £65,700.

John Lancelot was born on 5 November 1849 at Strathalbyn and followed his brother to St Peter's. After two years on the Continent he went up to Trinity College, Cambridge (B.A., LL.B., 1871), where he won a blue for athletics. In 1870 and 1872 he won the amateur hurdles championship of England. At 23 he was called to the Bar at the Inner Temple. He returned to South Australia in 1876, and with his brother bred merino sheep; he also bred Ayrshire cattle and horses on the family properties. On 12 December 1882 he married Florence Marion, daughter of Sir William Milne. He was a member of the House of Assembly for Mount Barker in 1881-87 and Gumeracha in 1888-90, and in 1891-1932 was a member for the Southern Districts in the Legislative Council and was president in 1901-32. Though an unexceptional speaker he was respected for his ability. He was appointed K.C.M.G. in 1909.

Stirling was director of the Beltana and Mutooroo Pastoral companies, the Australian Mutual Provident Society, the Wallaroo and Moonta Mining and Smelting Co. and the Alliance Insurance Co. He introduced polo to South Australia and captained a team that twice defeated Victoria. He was the steward of several racing clubs, and was once master of the Adelaide hounds. A member of the University of Adelaide Council, he was also president of the Royal Agricultural and Horticultural Society of South Australia, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Pastoralists' Association of South Australia, and the Zoological and Acclimatization Society. He died on 24 May 1932 at Strathalbyn, survived by his wife, three sons and two daughters.

Select Bibliography

  • H. T. Burgess (ed), Cyclopedia of South Australia, vol 1 (Adel, 1908)
  • H. M. Hale, The First Hundred Years of the South Australian Museum (Adel, 1956)
  • Pastoral Pioneers of South Australia, vol 1 (Adel, 1925)
  • Royal Society of South Australia, Transactions, 43 (1919)
  • D. Scott, ‘Woman suffrage: The movement in Australia’, JRAHS, 53 (1967)
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 21 Mar 1919, 25 May 1932.

Additional Resources

  • profile, Border Watch (Mount Gambier, SA), 15 July 1891, p 2
  • profile, Register (Adelaide), 25 July 1924, p 10
  • profile, Mail (Adelaide), 29 October 1927, p 2
  • is to have a state funeral, Advertiser (Adelaide), 26 May 1932, p 9
  • funeral, Advertiser (Adelaide), 27 May 1932, p 18
  • will, Western Argus (Kalgoorlie, WA), 23 August 1932, p 27

Citation details

Hans Mincham, 'Stirling, Sir John Lancelot (1849–1932)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 26 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

View the front pages for Volume 6

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