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John Macadam (1827–1865)

by K. F. Russell

This article was published:

John Macadam (1827-1865), by Frederick Grosse

John Macadam (1827-1865), by Frederick Grosse

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, IAN25/10/65/4

John Macadam (1827-1865), analytical chemist, medical practitioner and politician, was born in May 1827 at Northbank, near Glasgow, Scotland, son of William Macadam and his wife Helen, née Stevenson. Privately educated in Glasgow, he began in 1842 to study chemistry at the Andersonian University. In 1844 he was appointed senior assistant, showing a flair for analytical chemistry. He then went to the University of Edinburgh for advanced study under Professor William Gregory and in 1846-47 assisted Dr George Wilson in his laboratory in Brown Square. Late in 1847 he returned to Glasgow and began teaching chemistry in class-rooms in High John Street. In that year he was elected a fellow of the Royal Scottish Society of Arts and in 1848 a member of the Glasgow Philosophical Society. He then turned to medicine at Glasgow (L.F.P.S., M.D., 1854; F.F.P.S.G., 1855).

Appointed lecturer in chemistry and natural science at Scotch College, Melbourne, Macadam arrived early in 1855 in the Admiral; he held this post until 1865. He was elected a member of the Philosophical Institute of Victoria in 1855 and served on its council; in 1857-59 he was honorary secretary and edited the Transactions in 1855-60. He was active in the move to obtain a royal charter for the society and in January 1860 when the Philosophical Institute became the Royal Society of Victoria he was appointed honorary secretary and in 1863 elected vice-president. As secretary of the Exploration Committee of the Burke and Wills expedition he insisted on adequate provisions for their safety. He was admitted to the University of Melbourne (M.D. ad eund., 1857). In 1858 he was appointed government analytical chemist and in 1860 became health officer to the City of Melbourne but apart from this work did not practise medicine. He was also a member of the Board of Agriculture.

Macadam was elected to the Legislative Assembly in 1859 for Castlemaine as a radical in sympathy with the Land Convention. He was postmaster-general in the Heales government from 26 April to 14 November 1861, lost his seat at the ministerial election in May but was re-elected in August and remained in parliament until he resigned in 1864. He had sponsored bills on medical practitioners and adulteration of food which became law in 1862 and 1863.

In 1861 he had acted as secretary to the Victorian Industrial Exhibition and begun a series of lectures on chemistry for medical students at the Analytical Laboratory, with Richard Eades lecturing on materia medica. Certainly these extramural classes hastened the formation of the Medical School at the university and when it opened in 1862 Macadam was appointed lecturer in chemistry.

Although in ill health in March 1865 he went to New Zealand to give evidence at the trial of Captain W. A. Jarvey, charged with the murder of his wife by poison. The jury failed to agree and on the voyage home Macadam fractured his ribs in rough weather. He developed pleurisy with effusion and on medical advice was prevented from attending the adjourned trial. Still sick and accompanied by John Drummond Kirkland, a medical student, he sailed in the Alhambra to attend the postponed trial but died at sea on 2 September 1865. Kirkland gave evidence at the trial and Jarvey was convicted. Macadam's body was brought back for burial in the Presbyterian section of the Melbourne general cemetery on 28 September. He was survived by his wife Elizabeth, née Clark, whom he had married in Melbourne on 18 September 1856, and by a son. Kirkland, who was appointed lecturer in chemistry, later became the first professor of chemistry at the university.

Tall, with long red hair, a flowing beard and powerful voice, Macadam always commanded attention. He was a skilled, popular and eloquent lecturer with an outstanding knowledge of analytical chemistry and always ready to hand on his knowledge. In Glasgow he had published several papers on analytical chemistry and in Melbourne wrote reports on public health, adulteration of food and soil analysis.

Select Bibliography

  • Trial of Captain Jarvey, on a Charge of Poisoning his Wife (Dunedin, 1865)
  • University of Melbourne Medical School Jubilee (Melb, 1914)
  • ‘The late Dr. Macadam’, Australian Medical Journal, Oct 1865
  • Illustrated Melbourne Post, 25 Oct 1865
  • K. F. Russell, History of the Melbourne Medical School (held by author)
  • Medical School letters (University of Melbourne Archives).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

K. F. Russell, 'Macadam, John (1827–1865)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 22 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (Melbourne University Press), 1974

View the front pages for Volume 5

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

John Macadam (1827-1865), by Frederick Grosse

John Macadam (1827-1865), by Frederick Grosse

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, IAN25/10/65/4

Life Summary [details]


May, 1827
Glasgow, Lanarkshire, Scotland


2 September, 1865 (aged 38)
at sea

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