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Sir Mungo William MacCallum (1854–1942)

by K. J. Cable

This article was published:

Mungo William MacCallum (1854-1942), by unknown photographer, (original artwork by John Longstaff, 1911)

Mungo William MacCallum (1854-1942), by unknown photographer, (original artwork by John Longstaff, 1911)

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 12538

Sir Mungo William MacCallum (1854-1942), educationist, scholar and administrator, was born on 26 February 1854 at Glasgow, Scotland, son of Mungo MacCallum, merchant, and his wife Isabella, née Renton. Educated at High School, Glasgow, and the University of Glasgow, he graduated M.A. in 1877, well versed in classics, philosophy and literature. The influence of Edward Caird, professor of moral philosophy, was lasting: MacCallum asserted in 1933 that 'I don't think the critical Idealism of my young days superseded'. Elected to the Luke fellowship in humanities, he studied in Glasgow and at the universities of Berlin and Leipzig: in Germany he concentrated on medieval literature and published several articles in the Cornhill Magazine in 1879-80. The full range of his research appeared in 1884 as Studies in Low German and High German literature.

In 1879 MacCallum had become professor of English literature and history at the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth. Despite few resources he worked hard to build up an effective department. By 1886 he was seeking a change. A committee, which included Matthew Arnold and Leslie Stephen, selected him out of forty-five candidates to be the foundation professor of modern language and literature in the University of Sydney. With his wife Dorette Margarethe, née Peters, of Hanover, whom he had married on 28 June 1882, and two children, MacCallum sailed for Australia, arriving in February 1887.

At a time when the university was branching into professional and scientific training and expanding the faculty of arts with the prospect of the munificent Challis bequest, MacCallum was faced with a major task. French and German had been taught for their language utility; despite the championship of Professors Badham and Woolley, English literature was a visitor to the curriculum. All three had to be presented as scholarly subjects. Teaching much of the three literatures himself, though English was his direct responsibility, MacCallum gradually built up a reputable department, and delegated the organization of the French department to G. G. Nicholson and, notwithstanding his own fluency, most of the teaching of German eventually to Christopher Brennan. By 1892 honours schools existed. MacCallum sought to encourage young Sydney scholars to enter academic work and to undertake postgraduate studies overseas. By early in the century, this policy had taken effect: E. R. Holme was an early recruit and became his loyal coadjutor in English language teaching.

MacCallum and his fellow professors believed it their duty to take the university to the general community and impress its traditions on the student body. Extension lectures were their stock in trade: MacCallum's English literature courses were justly celebrated. In 1897 he became president of the Sydney University Union and characteristically gave his inaugural address on the university spirit. In 1898 he became dean of the faculty of arts, an office that he held (with one interval) until 1919, and ex officio a fellow of the senate. He had become a major academic figure and was involved in passionate debate with members of other faculties over the distribution of scarce resources.

In his earlier years at Sydney, MacCallum had scant leisure for research. He published a major book in 1894, Tennyson's Idylls of the King and Arthurian Story from the XVIth century, which acknowledged only one local helper, his friend and fellow Scot J. T. Wilson, professor of anatomy at Sydney. Though not a Celtic scholar, MacCallum now traced the Arthurian story from its 'Brythonic' origins through Malory and beyond and up to its final phase in Tennyson. Hoping to redress recent neglect of the Idylls, he stressed their 'true allegorical character'. Focusing on Tennyson, MacCallum was turning from his original medieval interests to the nineteenth century. He had already published a lecture on Meredith, whom he championed; later he wrote a lively account of an interview. He continued this line of work, producing pamphlets on Swinburne, Browning, Walter Scott, and, in his 1924 Warton lecture to the British Academy, on The Dramatic Monologue in the Victorian Period (1925).

The centre-piece of undergraduate studies in English literature was Shakespeare. A. R. Chisholm, one of MacCallum's students, later wrote:

'Mac' was a little man with a big personality. He had a rather scrubby beard and moustache, spoke with a broad Scotch accent … and wrote a dreadful hand, which on the blackboard began in one corner and finished somewhere diagonally opposite. But his lectures were extraordinarily good, and when he talked about Shakespeare he kept his audience spellbound.

In this field MacCallum was not only an expositor but an original scholar. His first interest was in Hamlet. His published extension lectures were followed by a piece (he later disavowed its conclusion) on the authorship of the early Hamlet in a 1901 miscellany presented to J. S. Furnival. The appearance of A. C. Bradley's magisterial work on Shakespearian tragedy three years later seemed to inhibit further study, but MacCallum was already using David Scott Mitchell's Elizabethan books to research those tragedies with a classical setting. The result was Shakespeare's Roman Plays and Their Background (1910, reprinted 1925, 1935, 1967) in which he made an exhaustive analysis of the sources of the three principal Roman plays and a searching analysis of their leading characters.

MacCallum was an ardent supporter of the Empire and its ideals of service. During the South African War his belief that the university should uphold this position involved him in public argument with George Arnold Wood, professor of history, over the latter's criticisms of the British treatment of the Boers. Yet the senate's censure of Wood was not to MacCallum's liking and the two men carried on a bitter controversy, though without the ugly rancour that marred many of Wood's critics. In World War I he whole-heartedly supported Australia's involvement: as president of the Universal Service League in 1915-17 he vigorously campaigned for conscription and in 1918 was a founder executive-member of the 'King's Men', formed to promote loyalty. Yet he deplored the prevalent anti-German hysteria and tried to help some of its victims.

The war obliged MacCallum to remain in his chair; indeed his colleagues' absence on government duties added to his burden. Permitted to retire in 1920 MacCallum, now emeritus professor, became honorary professor of English literature and continued to lecture within the combined English department.

MacCallum was called upon to act as warden of the university in 1923 and again in 1924. Late that year he was appointed warden and, in December, to the now salaried position of vice-chancellor, while on a visit to England. Aged 70, he took on fresh and larger administrative responsibilites for the major expansion of the university made possible by the McCaughey bequest. Although MacCallum regarded his vice-chancellorship as an annual appointment, he took his office very seriously. The university's finances had been over-strained by the growth of teaching facilities, student numbers and buildings. While benefactions, especially in medicine and science, permitted further developments, due economy had to be observed. With the help of some decline in student enrolment, he kept on a steady course. His discipline was firm, his concern for the morale of the institution paternalistic.

In 1925 he regretfully but decisively upheld the majority decision of the senate requiring the resignation of Brennan, to whom his attitude had always been ambivalent for he admired his literary work and scholarship but not his mode of life. MacCallum was no less emphatic when the proposal for a war-memorial carillon, a project which he warmly supported, became complicated by the activities of a powerful rival committee. Believing his authority to be at risk, he publicly denounced the alternative scheme and even threatened resignation. He did resign at the end of 1927. Awarded an LL.D. by the University of Glasgow in 1906 and an honorary D.Litt. by Oxford for his Shakespearian studies in 1925, he was appointed K.C.M.G. next year.

In April 1928 MacCallum was elected deputy chancellor. After annual reappointments to that office, he was chancellor in 1934-36. In the 1930s he helped the university to ride out the Depression and to weather the criticisms made in parliament and the press on the alleged unpatriotic utterances of Professor John Anderson. He had little patience with his fellow-Glaswegian's empiricist philosophy and style of teaching, although they shared an almost old-fashioned reverence for a classical education, but outside and intemperate attacks on the university had always aroused his ire.

In the 1890s MacCallum had enjoyed conversation at the Athenaeum Club and later belonged to the Australian Club. In the wider community he had been first president of the Shakespeare Society of New South Wales which had grown out of his extension lectures. He was a trustee from 1890 of the Public Library of New South Wales (chairman, 1906-12), a member of the advisory committee of the Commonwealth Literary Fund in 1917-29, president of Sydney Repertory Theatre Society and the Turret Theatre Dramatic Club, and chairman of trustees of Sydney Grammar School in 1929-32. Foundation president of the Sydney branch of the English Association in 1923, he published six of his lectures to it; the association became an important promoter of English studies and Australian literature. In 1927 he chaired a Commonwealth committee appointed to report on the provision of university facilities for residents of Canberra. In 1930 MacCallum published his last work of considerable size, Queen Jezebel, 'fragments of an imaginary biography in dramatised dialogue'. It was received with respect but little enthusiasm.

MacCallum died on 3 September 1942 at his home at Edgecliff, and was cremated with Anglican rites after a crowded memorial service in St Andrew's Cathedral where a memorial tablet was placed.

His elder son Mungo Lorenz (1884-1933), Rhodes scholar of 1906, lawyer, scholar and journalist, and his daughter Isabella Lightoller predeceased him. MacCallum was survived by his wife and younger son Walter Paton, physician, who served with the Australian Imperial Force, ending the war as a major with the Distinguished Service Order and Military Cross. Lady MacCallum was a founder of the National Council of Women of New South Wales and president in 1919-28. She also worked for the Infants' Home, Ashfield, the Sydney Day Nursery and Nursery Schools' Association, the Australian Board of Missions, the New Settlers' League of Australia, the Royal Society for the Welfare of Mothers and Babies and the Sydney University Women's Society (Settlement). An expert cook, she entertained frequently and loved gardening.

Mungo MacCallum served the University of Sydney for so long that he appeared, in his later years, to be an institution in himself. The small, spare figure was a familiar sight to generations of undergraduates. Although he was not a forceful orator, his unfailing choice of the right word and the telling phrase made him a most effective speaker, and his lectures were illumined by his 'cheerfulness of spirit and quick sense of humour'. Immensely energetic, he could debate with passion and criticize with vigour but his natural sense of fairness and moderation usually triumphed.

A portrait by John Longstaff is held by the University of Sydney, whose MacCallum Building was named after him.

Select Bibliography

  • H. E. Barff, Short Historical Account of the University of Sydney (Syd, 1902)
  • A. R. Chisholm, Men Were My Milestones (Melb, 1958)
  • R. M. Crawford, ‘A Bit of a Rebel’ (Syd, 1975)
  • A. Clark, Christopher Brennan (Melb, 1980)
  • Sydney Tatler, 25 Jan 1923
  • Southerly, 3, 3 Dec 1942, 5, 2 Sept 1944
  • University of Sydney Union, Union Recorder, 10 Sept 1942
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 4 Sept 1942
  • University of Sydney, Senate minutes, 1886-1942 (University of Sydney Archives)
  • MacCallum papers (University of Sydney Archives).

Citation details

K. J. Cable, 'MacCallum, Sir Mungo William (1854–1942)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 14 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (Melbourne University Press), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Mungo William MacCallum (1854-1942), by unknown photographer, (original artwork by John Longstaff, 1911)

Mungo William MacCallum (1854-1942), by unknown photographer, (original artwork by John Longstaff, 1911)

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 12538

Life Summary [details]


26 February, 1854
Glasgow, Lanarkshire, Scotland


3 September, 1942 (aged 88)
Edgecliff, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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