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Sir William MacGregor (1846–1919)

by R. B. Joyce

This article was published:

Sir William MacGregor (1846-1919), medical practitioner and colonial administrator, was born on 20 October 1846 at Hillockhead, parish of Towie, Aberdeenshire, Scotland, eldest son of John MacGregor, crofter, and his wife Agnes, daughter of William Smith of Pitprone. The family was large and poor so William worked as a farm labourer. However, his intellectual promise was fostered by his schoolmaster, the minister and the local doctor. With their help and his own perseverance he entered Aberdeen Grammar School in April 1866 and enrolled at the University of Aberdeen in October next year. Intending to enter the church he began arts but turned to medicine when his future wife Mary Thomson became pregnant. They were married on 4 October 1868 and their son was born next January. MacGregor studied at Anderson's Medical College (L.F.P.S.) and the Universities of Aberdeen (M.B.) and of Edinburgh (L.R.C.P.) and was registered on 9 May 1872. He became a medical assistant at the Royal Lunatic Asylum, Aberdeen, but left to join the colonial service as assistant medical officer in the Seychelles, probably attracted by the salary of £250.

MacGregor arrived at the Seychelles with his wife in February 1873. There and in Mauritius he was encouraged by the governor, Sir Arthur Gordon (1829-1912), to take on administrative tasks as well as medical work, and as inspector of schools and liberated Africans he became interested in the problems of labour and underprivileged people. His first daughter was born on Curieuse Island in 1874. That year Gordon was appointed governor of Fiji and on his advice MacGregor became chief medical and health officer at Levuka in June 1875. As his administrative duties grew he practised less as a doctor and despite overwork and discouragement refused tempting offers to practise in New South Wales. As receiver-general (treasurer) from 1877 he carried out detailed financial work for the colony: he was colonial secretary from 1884 and acting-governor from January to August 1885 and December 1887 to February 1888. In early 1885 he had supported the proposal of a trade treaty with Victoria but the Colonial Office received it coldly. In 1886 he represented Fiji at the Federal Council in Tasmania where he began a lifelong friendship with Sir Samuel Griffith. His wife had died of dysentery on 9 February 1877 and in November 1883 he married Mary Jane, daughter of Captain Cocks, harbourmaster at Suva; their two daughters were born in Fiji.

Recommended highly by Gordon and Griffith, MacGregor was appointed administrator of British New Guinea in 1887 to succeed John Douglas. He reached Port Moresby on 4 September 1888 and was sworn in after formally proclaiming British sovereignty. After leave in 1894-95 he returned for a second term, this time as lieutenant-governor in 1895-98. He had to report to the governor of Queensland and consult him on all important matters, while New South Wales and Victoria had the right to intervene. With this restricted power and a budget of some £15,000 he tried to protect the Papuans and develop the country. He resisted all attempts, even those supported by the Australian colonies, to exploit Papuan land or labour, clashing in particular with Sir Thomas McIlwraith. To supplement the power of his Executive and Legislative Councils and officials MacGregor appointed Papuan village constables, and recruited Papuans into the armed constabulary. He also encouraged such European enterprises as coconut plantations and gold-mining, and encouraged Papuans to share in similar ventures. To establish government contact with the Papuans he often made visits of inspection and in the process explored some six hundred miles (966 km) up the Fly River and climbed Mount Victoria. In spare time he continued his interest in classics and literature, kept up his French and German and learnt Italian, reading current works of biography and history and subscribing to French and German periodicals, but rarely saw his family in New Guinea.

In 1898 MacGregor was appointed governor of Lagos. He found difficulties in applying his humanitarian paternalism but maintained his concern for sanitation and health, assisting Sir Ronald Ross (1857-1932) in confirming his theories about the transmission of malaria by mosquitoes. In his memoirs Ross described MacGregor as 'wise, grave, but humorous, bearded, thickset … his low voice and kindly manner filled all with trust in him … a mathematician, a practiced surveyor, a lapidary, and a master of many arts, but always proud of his medical upbringing and of his nationality'.

MacGregor left Lagos almost in disgrace in 1902 for his public criticism of the Crown agents and for his policies towards the inland protectorates. In 1904 he was appointed governor of Newfoundland. His handling of the clash between the local government and the British government over American fishing rights off the Newfoundland coast won him praise as 'the model of what a colonial governor should be'.

In 1909 MacGregor was appointed governor of Queensland. He accepted the limits of responsible government and although critical of some of his ministers' policies did not openly censure his advisers. However, in confidential dispatches to the Colonial Office he criticized the treatment of the Aboriginals and the limited support given to scientific research, particularly in primary industry. He travelled widely through Queensland, often accompanied by his wife. In March 1910 he became first chancellor of the University of Queensland. Active in its administration, he supported the provision of a suitable site but more importantly fought to retain language qualifications, preferably Greek or Latin, for matriculation in arts, engineering and science to conform with standards in other British universities. He was president of the Royal Geographical Society of Queensland and encouraged progress in the Queensland Museum to which he had sent many valuable artefacts while in New Guinea.

Appointed K.C.M.G. in 1889, G.C.M.G. in 1907 and privy councillor in 1914, MacGregor retired and left Queensland in July. He bought Chapel-on-Leader in Roxburghshire, Scotland, and in World War I advised the Colonial Office on Pacific problems. His observation of Sir Hubert Murray's rule in Papua had convinced him that Australia could be trusted with primitive people and he had become a strong advocate of Australia expanding her interests in the Pacific.

MacGregor had become estranged from both the children of his first marriage. His favourite elder daughter of the second marriage, who had married Sir Alfred Paget, died in 1918. After an operation for intestinal adhesions and gall-stones MacGregor died on 3 July 1919 and was buried at Towie, Aberdeenshire. His wife survived him by less than three months. His estate was valued at some £35,000.

The embitterments and frustrations of MacGregor's personal and official life left him unsatisfied. Yet his achievements were considerable and his humanitarian concern for the people he ruled and his scientific approach to problems remain of relevance.

Select Bibliography

  • R. B. Joyce, Sir William MacGregor (Melb, 1971) and for bibliography.

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Citation details

R. B. Joyce, 'MacGregor, Sir William (1846–1919)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 24 June 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

Life Summary [details]


20 October, 1846
Towie, Aberdeenshire, Scotland


3 July, 1919 (aged 72)

Cultural Heritage

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