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Sir Thomas Peter Anderson Stuart (1856–1920)

by J. Atherton Young

This article was published:

Sir Thomas Peter Anderson Stuart (1856-1920), professor of physiology and medical administrator, was born on 20 June 1856 at Dumfries, Scotland, son of Alexander Stuart, master clothier and tailor, and his wife Jane, née Anderson. The only child of Alexander's second marriage, Thomas had one surviving half-sister, Annie, whose mother and three brothers had died of tuberculosis. His father was a member of the town council and a local magistrate.

Educated at Dumfries Academy until aged 14, Anderson Stuart was apprenticed to a pharmacist. He passed his preliminary examinations at 16, but was prevented by regulations from sitting for his finals until he reached the age of 21. In 1874 he passed the preliminary examinations for entry into medicine at the University of Edinburgh (M.B., C.M., 1880; M.D., 1882). He spent a year at a gymnasium at Wolfenbuttel, Germany, improving his French and German, and late in 1875 returned to Edinburgh. He did brilliantly, winning ten medals in various subjects, and topped his final year in 1880 with first-class honours and a gold medal. Thereafter he spent a year at Strassburg, studying biochemistry and pharmacology under the celebrated Felix Hoppe-Seyler and Oswald Schmiedeberg. In Schmiedeberg's laboratory he studied the physiological properties of the salts of nickel and cobalt, work that he later wrote up as his doctoral thesis which won him another gold medal. Becoming chief demonstrator in 1881 to William Rutherford, professor of physiology at Edinburgh, in mid-1882 he accepted the chair of anatomy and physiology at the University of Sydney.

In Edinburgh on 21 November Anderson Stuart married Elizabeth (Lizza) Ainslie with Church of Scotland forms; they embarked in the Parramatta, arriving in Sydney in March 1883. He began work in a four-room, stuccoed-brick cottage (on the site of what is now called the Old Geology Building) which he shared with W. J. Stephens, professor of natural history. Within a year he had displaced Stephens and had had constructed an annexe containing a lecture room, mortuary and dissecting theatre. Beginning with a standard of excellence that he wished to see maintained, he failed the six students in the first intake (one eventually graduated), but six of the ten students who enrolled in 1884 managed to graduate. In his teaching he was assisted by Stephens, Archibald Liversidge, professor of chemistry, W. A. Haswell and (Sir) Alexander MacCormick, a former classmate whom he engaged as demonstrator in 1883.

As early as March that year Anderson Stuart had asked the university senate to approach the government for funds for a better building; in June 1884 the university agreed to build a permanent medical school. Plans drawn up by James Barnet, the government architect, were approved in November and the government granted £15,000 towards construction in 1885. Anderson Stuart claimed to have used the original allocation to lay the foundations of a much larger and grander building than the senate and government had envisaged. By April 1889, at a cost of £65,000, it was substantially complete, although interior fitting out continued until 1892 and cost a further £15,000. Barnet's structure, forming the south range of the old medical school as it now stands, is a masterpiece of Victorian Gothic Revival.

The years 1883-1912 were ones of extraordinary activity for Anderson Stuart, dean of medicine and fellow of the senate (1883-1920): the undergraduate enrolment in medicine rose from 6 to 604 and staff also increased substantially. Drawing heavily on Edinburgh, his appointments—among whom were the foundation professors of anatomy (J. T. Wilson in 1890) and pathology (D. A. Welsh in 1902)—included several highly talented scientists: Wilson, (Sir) Almroth Wright and (Sir) Charles Martin, all of whom became fellows of the Royal Society (London). Anderson Stuart, known to the undergraduates as 'Andy', was an illuminating lecturer, 'plain, direct, concise', who took infinite pains preparing his blackboard diagrams and founded the Sydney University Medical Society to assist students. He even managed some modest research activity of his own (on the structure of the eye and on the function of the epiglottis and larynx), although his colleagues disparaged his efforts and considered him to be antipathetic to research.

In 1901, in succession to Sir Alfred Roberts and Wilson, he was appointed honorary secretary, soon chairman, of (Royal) Prince Alfred Hospital, with William Epps (who was destined to become his biographer) as paid secretary. Henceforward, Anderson Stuart's attention was focused on the development of the hospital and he increasingly came to rely on H. G. Chapman for the administration of the medical school. In the 1900s Anderson Stuart devoted himself to a massive building programme: in 1904 the Victoria and Albert pavilions were built to flank G. A. Mansfield's central block. Anderson Stuart had given the country another important institution, as well as an architectural monument of elegance and grandeur.

In addition to his university posts, from 1893 to 1896 he was medical advisor to the government, emigration officer for Port Jackson and president of the Board of Health; after 1896, when he was displaced as president, he remained a member of the board until his death. An 'obsessive, even compulsive, organizer', at various times he was president of such community organizations as the Highland Society, the Royal and (Royal) Zoological societies of New South Wales, the Civil Ambulance and Transport Brigade, the British Seaman's Guild and the local branch of the British Immigration League of Australia; he was, as well, a founding executive-member of the State division of the British Red Cross Society (1914). A Freemason, he was deputy grand master of United Grand Lodge of New South Wales. He belonged to the Union and Australian clubs, and was even patron of the Double Bay Pastime Cricket Club! Within the university he was largely responsible for the establishment of the school of dentistry (1901) and in 1905 became the first president of the United Dental Hospital of Sydney, having overcome the opposition of American-trained dentists led by Henry Peach. Anderson Stuart was also to the fore in establishing the department of veterinary science (1909).

His private life was less successful. Anderson Stuart's marriage, which remained childless, was a failure from the start. On 28 February 1886 his wife died from an overdose of morphia in their home at 10 Toxteth Road, Glebe. At the time Anderson Stuart had left her and was staying at the house of Robert Scot Skirving to whom he had spoken of his plans for divorce. Although Anderson Stuart was not directly involved in his wife's death, it was evident that many people, including the coroner's jury who returned an open verdict, felt that he was morally responsible. On 18 September 1894 at St James's Anglican Church, Toowoomba, Queensland, he married 19-year-old Dorothy Primrose, a granddaughter of Bouviere Primrose who was an uncle of Lord Rosebery. The newlyweds lived in Lincludin, a fine house in Fairfax Road, Double Bay.

With the 'profile of an imperious Roman and an enormous fund of self-confidence', Anderson Stuart was a man of drive, energy and vision who made many enemies. He was involved in dissension with Frances Holden, lady superintendent of the Hospital for Sick Children, and in 1887 was cleared of her allegation that he had neglected a patient. His support for the acceptance of women into medicine on a basis of equality with men, and for the award of bursaries to deserving but impoverished students, brought him only obloquy. His vision and sense of social justice must be weighed against his arrogance, ruthlessness and determination always to prevail over opposition. Anderson Stuart's 'longstanding dislike of and antagonism to' Thomas Storie Dixson led him into complicated manoeuvres that resulted in the unceremonious abolition of Dixson's materia medica lectureship in December 1917 and in the appointment of his own protégé Chapman to the chair of pharmacology.

Not all with whom Anderson Stuart worked were his enemies: his career at the university was also aided by allies of whom the greatest was his fellow Edinburgh graduate, Sir Normand MacLaurin, chancellor of the university in 1896-1914. With his unswerving support, Anderson Stuart became the virtual dictator of things medical in Sydney. He received honorary doctorates from the universities of Edinburgh (LL.D., 1900) and Durham (D.Sc., 1912), and was knighted in 1914.

Although Sir Thomas destroyed his personal papers, on his death-bed he dictated lengthy biographical memoirs to Epps. Anderson Stuart died at his Double Bay home on 29 February 1920, eleven months after the diagnosis of an inoperable abdominal cancer, attended by MacCormick and Scot Skirving. He was buried in the Presbyterian section of South Head cemetery. His wife and their four sons, two of whom became medical practitioners, survived him.

While he did little to further the discipline of physiology, Anderson Stuart did much for medicine in Sydney. He created one of the most important medical schools in the Empire outside Britain. The Victoria and Albert pavilions at R.P.A.H. and the old medical school building at the university are appropriate monuments to his greatness. Marble busts of Anderson Stuart by James White are held by R.P.A.H. and by the University of Sydney which also holds a fine portrait by John Longstaff. Anderson Stuart is also remembered by various details on the medical school building which was formally named after him in January 1960: his arms surmount the eastern portal; his crest is on a gable on the north-west range and rendered in stained glass beside the south portal. Most curious of all, he is represented as a stone crow, sculptured by Tomaso Sani, high above the eastern portal, commemorating his student nickname ('Coracoid', from the Latin corax, a crow), earned because of his prominent nose and somewhat priggish personality.

Select Bibliography

  • W. Epps, Anderson Stuart M.D. (Syd, 1922)
  • H. M. Moran, Viewless Winds (Lond, 1939)
  • A. R. Chisholm, Men Were My Milestones (Melb, 1958)
  • J. A. Young et al (eds), Centenary Book of the University of Sydney Faculty of Medicine (Syd, 1984)
  • A. Macintosh, Memories of Dr Robert Scot Skirving 1859-1956 (Syd, 1988)
  • Sydney University Medical Journal, Mar 1920, p 186
  • Sydney University Students' Representative Council, Hermes, May 1920, p 31
  • Sydney University Postgraduate Comittee of Medicine, Bulletin, 1948, no 4, p 105
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 6 Mar 1886
  • T. P. Anderson Stuart, Common place book (Australian Academy of Science Library
  • T. P. Anderson Stuart Undergraduate lecture notes (Royal Australasian College of Physicians, Sydney)
  • J. Shewan, note book of Anderson Stuart's lectures (University of Sydney Library).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

J. Atherton Young, 'Anderson Stuart, Sir Thomas Peter (1856–1920)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 18 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (Melbourne University Press), 1990

View the front pages for Volume 12

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Stuart, Sir Thomas Peter Anderson

20 June, 1856
Dumfries, Dumfriesshire, Scotland


29 February, 1920 (aged 63)
Double Bay, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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