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James Macdonald Holmes (1896–1966)

by G. P. Walsh

This article was published:

James Macdonald Holmes (1896-1966), geographer, was born on 26 February 1896 at Greenock, Renfrewshire, Scotland, son of James Holmes, journeyman slater, and his wife Isabella, née McLeary. In 1919, after three-and-a-half-years service with the Royal Navy, James was exempted from preliminary examinations to enter the University of Glasgow (B.Sc., 1925; Ph.D., 1934) where he was student demonstrator in geology to Professor J. W. Gregory. Having gained a certificate of distinction in geography, Holmes was admitted as a research student in 1925 and elected a fellow (1927) of the Royal Geographical Society of London. Fond of the outdoors and a good organizer, he was an enthusiastic field-worker and one of the first King's scouts in the west of Scotland. Holmes was lecturer-in-charge of geography (1927-29) at Armstrong College, Newcastle upon Tyne, England. On 26 September 1929 he married Marion ('Muriel') Macdonald (d.1982), with the forms of the United Free Church, at Scourie, Sutherland, Scotland, before taking up an appointment as associate-professor of geography at the University of Sydney, succeeding T. G. Taylor. From 1930 he also lectured in economic geography.

Despite financial stringency, poor facilities and a degree of official indifference, Macdonald Holmes (as he now styled himself) began—with characteristic energy—important research on soil erosion and regional planning. He was president (1930-33) of the Geographical Society of New South Wales, and edited and extended its journal, the Australian Geographer. With John Andrews, he published Descriptive Geography for Secondary Schools (1932). In 1933 he gave evidence to the royal commission (chaired by H. S. Nicholas) into the possible boundaries of new States and became a respected adviser to governments on conservation and planning. Other publications followed: Regional Atlas of Australia and the World (1936), Practical Map Reading (1941) and The Geographical Basis of Government (1944). In January 1945 he was appointed to the McCaughey chair of geography.

Holmes saw geography as 'the study of land in relation to people'. He built up a strong honours school based on field-projects, often financed by private funds, and worked effectively to create new employment opportunities for trained geographers in the public and private sectors. He gave many talks and contributed to the press on subjects ranging from aviation to international affairs. Such a high profile attracted criticism, the chief of which was the uneven quality of his publications. In addition to numerous articles in local and overseas journals, his later works included Soil Erosion in Australia and New Zealand (1946), The Murray Valley (1948) and his most successful book, Australia's Open North (1963).

From 1935 Holmes had helped to set up the New South Wales section of what became the Royal Flying Doctor Service of Australia, and was vice-president (1947-48) and president (1949-51) of its federal council; his wife founded (1938) and presided (1946-82) over an auxiliary in Sydney to raise funds for the service. Holmes was also president (1940) of the local Linnean Society. Involved with Scottish organizations and the lay administration of the Presbyterian Church, he was an active council-member (1940-66) of Scots College. He and his wife were tireless workers for the Sydney University Settlement. Short and rotund, with a large, oval face and large, expressive eyes, he was a man of great personal charm and persuasiveness. Students found him a friendly teacher, and enjoyed his field-excursions with their evening socials enlivened by Scottish dancing. He retired in December 1961. Survived by his wife and two sons, he died of cancer on 28 August 1966 in St Luke's Hospital, Darlinghurst, and was cremated. The Macdonald Holmes Library in the geography department at the University of Sydney commemorates him.

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Geographer, 10, no 3, 1966-68, p 220
  • University of Sydney, Gazette, Oct 1966, p 187
  • Scotsman, 1966, p 24
  • Australian Journal of Science, 29, no 4, Oct 1966, p 104
  • Australian Geographical Studies, 5, no 1, Apr 1967, p 85
  • Geographers Biobibliographical Studies, 7, 1983, p 51
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 8 May, 26, 27 Nov 1929, 15, 19 Aug 1932, 15, 17, 20-22 June 1933, 17, 31 July 1936, 29 Aug 1966.

Citation details

G. P. Walsh, 'Holmes, James Macdonald (1896–1966)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 20 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (Melbourne University Press), 1996

View the front pages for Volume 14

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


26 February, 1896
Greenock, Renfrewshire, Scotland


28 August, 1966 (aged 70)
Darlinghurst, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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