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Neil William Macintosh (1906–1977)

by Jonathan Stone

This article was published:

Neil William George Macintosh (1906-1977), professor of anatomy and anthropologist, was born on 27 December 1906 at Marrickville, Sydney, only child of native-born parents Gregory Grant John Macintosh, art teacher, and his wife Darcy Emma, née Pratt. Neil attended (1920-25) Fort Street Boys' High School; he gained honours in history and English, and won an exhibition. At the University of Sydney (M.B., B.S., 1933), he studied medicine and received Blues for swimming in 1928, 1929 and 1930. He interrupted his course to spend two years jackerooing in western New South Wales.

After graduating, Macintosh served at Lewisham Hospital as registrar (1934-35) in the neurosurgical unit and as medical superintendent (1936-37). During 1937-39 he undertook postgraduate courses in Edinburgh, London and Budapest. The last months of peace were spent in general practice at Bathurst and Newcastle. Macintosh was mobilized in the Royal Australian Naval Reserve on 2 September 1939 and saw active service as surgeon lieutenant-commander in the Indian and Pacific oceans in H.M.A. ships Swan (1940-41) and Manoora (1941-42). In June 1942 he ceased full-time duty owing to illness. He remained in the R.A.N.R. until 1950. On 6 June 1942 at Christ Church, South Yarra, Melbourne, he had married 22-year-old Barbara Jean Cooley with Anglican rites; they were to be divorced in 1945.

Macintosh joined the department of anatomy at the University of Sydney as a demonstrator (1943), and was subsequently lecturer (1945-47) and senior lecturer (1948-49). He gained a diploma in anthropology from the university in 1950 for a thesis entitled 'Critical studies on the antiquity of Man in Australia; in addition, some facts relating to the possible origin, migration and affinities of Australians and Tasmanians'. Promoted to reader that year, he was appointed Challis professor of anatomy in 1955 and held the chair until 1973.

A lover of boats and ships and their ways, Macintosh wrote in his private correspondence of the 'so-called primitive' craft of low-technology societies and asked whether such craft might have enabled long migrations. During his war service he had criss-crossed the waters between Australia and Indonesia, which Australia's Aborigines had traversed to reach the southern continent. Those wartime memories helped to shape his scholarly work on the antiquity, migrations and place in human history of the indigenous people of Australia. Extensive and tenacious field-trips were the milestones of his research. He brought to them not only his energy and vision as a scholar, but also an extraordinary personality. An upright figure, open-faced, charismatic, sometimes abrupt, but one whose anger never lasted, he gave a sense of moment to all his ventures. A generation later the men he trained on these trips still recall 'When I was with Mac'.

Macintosh produced over fifty scholarly publications and made important contributions to the knowledge of three features of Aboriginal history—its antiquity, its rich variation over time and place, and its origins in migratory arrivals. He studied every significant ancient bone and artefact available, and discovered or documented several of major significance. On 19 February 1965 at the registrar general's office, Sydney, he married Ann Margaret Scot Skirving, a granddaughter of Robert Scot Skirving and Sir Edmund Barton. She became his assistant and 'companion in his later work'. In a series of expeditions to Queensland in the 1960s Macintosh established the geological context of the fossilized Talgai skull which had been found near Warwick in 1886, and studied and publicized by (Sir) Edgeworth David and J. T. Wilson. Macintosh drew on the most modern techniques available to estimate the age of the skull at c.14,000 years, greatly enhancing its significance. In 1970 at Lake Nitchie, New South Wales, he and his technical officer Ken Smith excavated the 7000-year-old skeleton of a 6 ft 2 ins (188 cm) male. Macintosh and his team reassembled a necklace in which the profusion of Sarcophilus (Tasmanian Devil) canine teeth (162 from perhaps 100 animals) showed the importance of the deceased, suggested the practice of elite burials, and indicated that the region was more fertile than in recent times. Rarely seen without a pungent cheroot, Macintosh brought presence to two television films, both centred on human skeletal remains. The Talgai Skull (1968), a documentary film made by the Australian Broadcasting Commission, received the Australian Film Institute's Golden Reel award. For the British Broadcasting Corporation's The Long, Long Walkabout (1975) he acted as linkman for sites around Australia and South East Asia.

His work and publications on the dingo extended over several decades, and revealed the same ability to strike a new scholarly path. He showed the morphology of a 3000-year-old dingo skeleton to be indistinguishable from a modern skeleton. Having set up a breeding colony of dingoes, he confirmed their resistance to domestication and training, helping to characterize their place in Aboriginal culture.

As an educator, 'Black Mac' was a dynamic teacher. He loved his subject and was illuminating in the dissecting-room and lecture theatre. His innovations in teaching anatomy, particularly his system of surgeon-demonstrators, earned him honorary fellowships of the Royal Australian College of Dental Surgeons (1971) and of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons (1972). An honorary consultant, he assisted the Criminal Investigation Branch of the New South Wales Police in attempting to unravel a number of bizarre murders. Macintosh was a foundation member of the council (1967-73) and editorial committee of the Australian Academy of Forensic Sciences. He was also associate-editor (from 1966) of the journal, Archaeology and Physical Anthropology in Oceania. As an administrator, he left a lasting heritage in the J. L. Shellshear Museum of Comparative Anatomy and Physical Anthropology, established at the University of Sydney on his recommendation in 1958, and named in honour of his mentor.

A foundation member (1961) and chairman (1966-74) of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, Macintosh was president (1951) of the Anthropological Society of New South Wales, and a foundation member (1963) and president of the Anatomical Society of Australia and New Zealand (life member 1971). He supported the visits to Australia of Czech biological anthropologists at a time when cultural exchanges with communist countries were difficult. In recognition of his outstanding contributions to the study of the origins of man, he was awarded the Hrdlicka medal—which was presented to him in 1970 in the Czech city of Humpolec (Hrdlicka's birthplace)—and the Anthropos medal (1970) by the Moravian Museum in Brno, Czechoslovakia.

Macintosh belonged to the Imperial Service and Tattersall's clubs. Survived by his wife, he died of cancer on 27 November 1977 at his Bellevue Hill home and was cremated. He had no children. A review of his work on the dingo was published by B. C. W. Barker and Ann Macintosh in 1978. An American colleague wrote of the contrast between Macintosh's lively personality and his laborious scholarship: 'He was the right man at the right time: it is not easy to imagine . . . one person, in the future, through his own vigour, application, broad view, and natural wisdom, keeping so many of the reins of the subject in his hands and driving it ahead so far'.

Select Bibliography

  • A. P. Elkin (ed), Collected Papers, In Memoriam—N. W. G. Macintosh, Oceania monographs (Syd, 1979), and for list of publications
  • Pacific Islands Monthly, no 9, Jan 1972
  • Mankind, 11, no 4, 1978, p 484
  • Archaeology and Physical Anthropology in Oceania, vol 13, nos 2 and 3, July and Oct 1978, p 85, vol 14, no 1, Apr 1979, p 78
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 11 Aug 1979, p 138
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 18, 25 Jan 1961.

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Citation details

Jonathan Stone, 'Macintosh, Neil William (1906–1977)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 20 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (Melbourne University Press), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

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