Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Sutherland, Alexander (1852–1902)

by P. H. Northcott

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

Alexander Sutherland (1852-1902), journalist and schoolmaster, was born on 26 March 1852 at Glasgow, Scotland, son of George Sutherland and his wife Jane, née Smith. His father, a carver of ships' figure-heads, draftsman, talented commercial artist and teacher of drawing, brought his family to settle at Sydney in 1864 for the sake of his health. At 14 Alexander was a pupil teacher with the Council of Education. The family moved to Melbourne in 1870 and he taught at Hawthorn Grammar School. In 1871 he gained an exhibition at the matriculation examination and attended the University of Melbourne (B.A., 1874; M.A., 1875). In 1874 he shared the Shakespeare scholarship with H. B. Higgins. Next year he became mathematical master at Scotch College and in 1877 headmaster of Carlton College, making the school an immediate success. In 1879 at All Saints Church, St Kilda, he married Elizabeth Jane, daughter of Robert Ballantyne, penal superintendent in Tasmania; they had a son and three daughters.

In 1892 Sutherland retired with an apparently assured, if modest, income from the school. He aimed to devote his time to literature and scientific investigation at his retreat near Dromana, but his plans were shattered by the depression of 1892-93. He turned to journalism and in 1895-97 he wrote leaders for the Argus and Australasian, mainly on politico-economic questions. In 1897 he failed to win Williamstown in the Legislative Assembly. Next year he returned from Dromana to Melbourne in order to be more active in journalism and for the higher education of his children; he became London correspondent for the South Australian Register, but his stay was brief and dismal and he returned to Melbourne in 1899. In 1900-01 he continued his journalism, gave occasional courses of lectures and failed to win the Federal seat of South Melbourne. In February 1902 he became registrar of the University of Melbourne at a time when it was the subject of a royal commission, and was forced to adopt stringent financial measures. After Professor E. E. Morris died in Europe on 1 January 1902, Sutherland combined the duties of registrar with lecturer in English language and literature.

Sutherland's devotion to scholarship and education had led him in 1883 to head the campaign for a science degree at the university. With his wife's help he gave popular lecturettes on Shakespeare and other literary subjects at Mechanics' institutes. He was honorary secretary of the Royal Society of Victoria in 1878-85 and 1892, and read diverse learned papers to it. With his brother George he wrote a History of Australia … (1877) for schools; it sold more than 100,000 copies and remained a standard work for decades. He wrote the first volume of Victoria and its Metropolis (1888), and his The Origin and Growth of the Moral Instinct (1898), an attempt to establish that moral development conformed to evolutionary theory, won wide international acclaim and in recent times has been regarded by Morris Ginsberg as a pioneer work in the field. He contributed many articles to the Melbourne Review, of which he was a founder and for a time coeditor with H. G. Turner. He wrote biographies of Henry Kendall and Adam Lindsay Gordon for The Development of Australian Literature (1898), which he also edited with Turner, and memoirs of Sir Redmond Barry and his old teacher, Edward Hearn. He provided the details about Victoria which Sir Charles Dilke used freely in his Problems of Greater Britain (1890). He published Thirty Short Poems (1890), wrote many short stories and left manuscripts of two unpublished novels. He also had a talent for sketching, a profound knowledge of music and a good baritone voice. At Dromana he even provided valuable service as a doctor. Of medium height and dark complexion, his manner was genial and unobtrusive, his speech deliberate and judicious. He enjoyed bush-walking. Australia has been endowed with few all-round men capable of generating such cultural force.

Sutherland died suddenly of heart disease on 9 August 1902 at Adelaide and was buried in Kew cemetery with the service conducted by Rev. Charles Strong. His estate was valued for probate at £5959. His sister Jane (1853-1928) was a well-known artist, and his brother William (1859-1911) a prominent physicist.

Select Bibliography

  • H. G. Turner, Alexander Sutherland (Melb, 1908)
  • G. Blainey, A Centenary History of the University of Melbourne (Melb, 1957)
  • Table Talk, 23 Dec 1892, 21 Mar, 21 Nov 1901, 14 Aug 1902
  • Argus (Melbourne), 13 Aug 1902
  • Australasian, 16 Aug 1902.

Citation details

P. H. Northcott, 'Sutherland, Alexander (1852–1902)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/sutherland-alexander-4671/text7685, published in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 16 April 2014.

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

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