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Charles Anderson (1876–1944)

by R. O. Chalmers

This article was published:

Charles Anderson (1876-1944), museum director, was born on 5 December 1876 at Moa, Stenness, Orkney Islands, Scotland, third son of John Anderson, crofter, and his wife Margaret, née Smith. From Stenness Public School, a succession of bursaries enabled him to attend Kirkwall Burgh School and the University of Edinburgh (M.A., 1898; B.Sc., 1900; D.Sc., 1908). After every vacation he returned from the Orkneys with a barrel of herrings and sacks of oatmeal and potatoes on which he subsisted. He won six medals in science subjects and excelled in English literature and Latin; on graduating, he took charge of Ben Nevis Observatory.

On 22 July 1901 Anderson was appointed mineralogist at the Australian Museum, Sydney, and on 18 January 1902 at the Roman Catholic Church, Manly, he married Elsie Helen, daughter of Throsby Robertson, engineer. His doctorate in 1908 was awarded for research into morphological crystallography and the chemistry of minerals in Australia. He determined the elements for a number of local minerals, carried out a comprehensive study of 'Cerussite crystals from Broken Hill, N.S.W., and Muldiva, Queensland', and proved that the axial ratios of azurite from Mineral Hill, New South Wales, differed from those of that mineral from Chessy, France (usually given as standard). He published his findings mainly in the Records of the Australian Museum and the Proceedings of the Royal Society of New South Wales. In 1916 he produced a valuable Bibliography of Australian Mineralogy.

Anderson was appointed director of the Australian Museum on 14 February 1921. In 1911 he had visited and reported on important European museums: he now instituted the display of animals in large habitat groups. He immediately started the Australian Museum Magazine (later Australian Natural History) and was a frequent contributor. He changed his field of research to vertebrate palaeontology on which he published seven papers; his most notable achievement was the reclassification of Meiolania (the extinct horned turtle) based on examination of material from Lord Howe Island. In 1938 he wrote a Guide to the Australian Museum and its Contents.

With an international reputation in two fields, Anderson gave 'abundantly of his rare gifts of scholarship and versatile scientific knowledge' to help others. He was president in 1924 of the local Royal Society, its editorial secretary in 1935-43 and chairman of its geological section in 1935-36. President of the Anthropological (1930-31), Linnean (1932) and Geographical (1941-42) societies of New South Wales, he was also a fellow of the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science, and a corresponding member of the American Museum of Natural History, New York, and of the Zoological Society of London. He lectured in crystallography at the University of Sydney in 1923-24. In December 1940 he retired, but in June 1942 joined the staff of Communications Censorship as his contribution to the war effort.

Anderson subscribed to no religious beliefs. Widely read and a good linguist, he had a whimsical sense of humour, great personal charm and simple tastes: he enjoyed golf, trout-fishing, and singing Scottish songs such as 'Fhairshon swore a feud/Against ta clan MacTavish'. With an abiding love for his native Orkneys, he firmly maintained that Orcadians were of Scandinavian rather than of Scottish ancestry. He used dog German as a lingua franca with his assistant Marcel Aurousseau, who recalled that when measuring crystals on the goniometer, an intricate piece of apparatus, his favourite song was 'There was a wee cooper who lived in Fife,/Nicketty, nacketty, noo, noo, noo'.

Anderson died from coronary occlusion at St Vincent's Hospital on 25 October 1944 and was buried in South Head cemetery. He was survived by his only son, a veterinary surgeon, and by two daughters. His estate was valued for probate at £2750.

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Museum Magazine, 28 Dec 1940
  • Australian Museum, Records, 21 (1941-47)
  • Australian Journal of Science, Dec 1944
  • Royal Society of New South Wales, Proceedings, 79 (1945)
  • W. R. Browne, ‘Some builders of geology in New South Wales’, Australian Academy of Science, Records, 2 (1971), no 1
  • C. Anderson letters (privately held)
  • printed catalogue (State Library of New South Wales)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

R. O. Chalmers, 'Anderson, Charles (1876–1944)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 24 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (Melbourne University Press), 1979

View the front pages for Volume 7

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


5 December, 1876
Stenness, Orkney, Scotland


25 October, 1944 (aged 67)
Darlinghurst, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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