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Sir Charles Kinnaird Mackellar (1844–1926)

by Ann M. Mitchell

This article was published:

Charles Kinnaird Mackellar (1844-1926), by John Hubert Newman, 1900s

Charles Kinnaird Mackellar (1844-1926), by John Hubert Newman, 1900s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23474288

Sir Charles Kinnaird Mackellar (1844-1926), physician, politician and businessman, was born on 5 December 1844 in Sydney, only son of Frederick MacKellar (d.1863), physician, from Dundee, Scotland, and his wife Isabella, née Robertson, widow of William McGarvie. Educated at Sydney Grammar School, Charles moved with his family to the Port Macquarie district about 1860. He spent several years on the land before proceeding to Scotland to attend the University of Glasgow (M.B., Ch.M., 1871). Returning to Sydney he registered with the Medical Board of New South Wales on 25 March 1872. In 1873-77 he was honorary surgeon at the Sydney Infirmary and Dispensary (Sydney Hospital from 1881) where his father had been first salaried medical officer; (Sir) Henry Normand MacLaurin also joined the staff in 1873 and cemented one of the most important friendships of Mackellar's life. He was a physician at the hospital in 1882 and a director in 1884-1903. He was also a director of Royal Prince Alfred Hospital 1886-1917. He worked 'stupendously' at general practice in early years.

In September 1881 Mackellar joined the board, led by Dr Alfred Roberts, which was appointed to control the first serious smallpox epidemic in New South Wales, and was gazetted as the Board of Health on 6 January 1882. In July Mackellar became government medical adviser, health officer for Port Jackson, chairman of the Immigration Board, and an official visitor to the hospitals for the insane at Gladesville and Parramatta. He was also ex officio emigration officer for Port Jackson, and a member of the Board of Pharmacy and the Medical Board. In July next year he campaigned for a federal quarantine system and was appointed president of the Board of Health in August. Contemporaries believed that Mackellar was solely responsible for the organization of the department but he deferred to Roberts: 'it is rather … that I doggedly and persistently followed his lines than that I formulated any original scheme of my own'—the Mackellar motto was Perseverando.

Persuaded by the attorney-general W. B. Dalley, a private patient, Mackellar resigned his official appointments in August 1885 and was nominated to the Legislative Council to promote public health legislation he had helped to draft, but which lapsed with the resignation of the Stuart government in October. He was an ordinary member of the Board of Health until 1925. In 1886-87 as vice-president of the Executive Council and briefly secretary for mines Mackellar represented the Jennings government in the Legislative Council. He introduced the Dairies Supervision Act of 1886 which helped to reduce infant mortality. Except for October-November 1903, when he was appointed to the Commonwealth Senate, he remained in the council until 1925. In 1903-04 he chaired the royal commission on the decline of the birth-rate, dominating its proceedings in a manner uncharacteristic of his usually careful approach to scientific enquiry.

In 1882-85 Mackellar had been a member of the State Children Relief Board. In 1902-14 he was president, and was identified with the Neglected Children and Juvenile Offenders Act (1905), which created children's courts and the probationary system. He was soon at loggerheads with his under-secretary Peter Board, largely over the extension of the board's activities into areas not envisaged by its Act. Criticism, muted while Mackellar remained in office, became public not long after his departure.

Until at least 1912, Mackellar had been convinced that environmental factors determined the development of the young. Enquiries abroad leading to his report as royal commissioner on the Treatment of Neglected and Delinquent Children in Great Britain, Europe, and America (1913) caused him to modify his views. With Professor D. A. Welsh, he published an essay, Mental Deficiency (1917), advocating better training and care of the feeble-minded, and suggesting their sterilization on eugenic grounds. Mackellar consistently lectured and published pamphlets to propagate social reform. He was admired for his reluctance to align himself with any political faction, and for his unselfish devotion to the public interest. Knighted in 1912, he was appointed K.C.M.G. in 1916.

On 9 August 1877 Mackellar had married Marion (d.1933), daughter of Thomas Buckland. He acquired considerable pastoral interests and in 1896 succeeded his father-in-law as a director of the Bank of New South Wales, of which he was president in 1901-23 apart from absences abroad in 1904-05 and 1912-13. Mackellar was chairman of the Gloucester Estate Co. in its later years and succeeded MacLaurin as chairman of the Mutual Life & Citizens' Assurance Co. Ltd; he had been a trustee in 1911-14. He was also a director of Pitt, Son & Badgery Ltd, the Union Trustee Co. of Australia Ltd, United Insurance Co. Ltd, Royal Insurance Co. Ltd, Colonial Sugar Refining Co., Australian Widows' Fund, and Equitable Life Assurance Co. Ltd of which he was medical director. He was surgeon in the Volunteer Rifles from 1872; chairman of the medical section of the Royal Society of New South Wales in 1881; founding councillor and in 1883-84 president of the New South Wales branch of the British Medical Association; examiner in medicine at the University of Sydney in 1889-1901; vice-president and in 1907-14 president of the Sydney Amateur Orchestral Society; inaugural vice-president of the Royal Society for the Welfare of Mothers and Babies in 1918; and a member of the Australian and Athenaeum clubs, Sydney.

By 1923 Mackellar had resigned most of his business appointments as health and memory deserted him. He died at his residence, Rosemont, Woollahra, on 14 July 1926 and was buried in the Anglican section of Waverley cemetery. His estate, valued for probate at £39,205, was left in trust to his wife and upon her death in 1933 to their surviving children Eric, Malcolm and Dorothea. His eldest son Keith Kinnaird had been killed in action in South Africa in 1900.

Select Bibliography

  • Testimonials in Favour of Charles K. Mackellar (Syd, 1973, copy at Royal Australian College of Physicians)
  • J. H. L. Cumpston, The Health of the People (Canb, 1978)
  • N. Hicks, This Sin and Scandal (Canb, 1978)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wale), 1883, 2, p 953
  • Parliamentary Papers (Legislative Council and Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1920-21, 4, p 451
  • New South Wales Medical Gazette, Mar 1873
  • Scottish Australasian, May 1918
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 7 Aug 1926
  • Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, 63, no 3, Dec 1977
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 10 Sept 1881, 12 Oct 1912, 15 July 1926
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 21 Apr 1888
  • Mackellar papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Ann M. Mitchell, 'Mackellar, Sir Charles Kinnaird (1844–1926)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 29 May 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

Charles Kinnaird Mackellar (1844-1926), by John Hubert Newman, 1900s

Charles Kinnaird Mackellar (1844-1926), by John Hubert Newman, 1900s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23474288

Life Summary [details]


5 December, 1844
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


14 July, 1926 (aged 81)
Woollahra, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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