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Sir Henry Normand MacLaurin (1835–1914)

by Ann M. Mitchell

This article was published:

Henry Normand MacLaurin (1835-1914), by unknown photographer

Henry Normand MacLaurin (1835-1914), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 2 - 08226

Sir Henry Normand MacLaurin (1835-1914), physician, company director and university administrator, was born on 10 December 1835 at Kilconquhar, Fife, Scotland, son of James MacLaurin, schoolmaster, and his wife Catherine, née Brearcliffe. Always known as Normand, he was educated at home and at the University of St Andrews (M.A., 1854), where he achieved distinguished results despite assisting his father to run the parish school. Both parents died before he was 19. With help from his only brother Rev. James MacLaurin and some tutoring fees, he enrolled in medicine at the University of Edinburgh (M.D., 1857).

James contracted tuberculosis in 1857 and with Normand went to Malaga, Spain, but died on 3 January 1858. Normand wound up his brother's affairs and was commissioned as assistant surgeon in the Royal Navy on 3 August. Of the eight ships in which he served, the Marlborough based at Malta in 1861-64 was his favourite; he also spent two years at Greenwich Hospital.

MacLaurin had thought of migrating to Australia in 1853; on 4 February 1868 he reached Port Phillip with the training ship, Nelson. He transferred to the Challenger just prior to its association with the Sydney visit of Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh. Disenchanted with his prospects in the navy, MacLaurin registered with the Medical Board of New South Wales on 1 October 1868 and met Dr Charles Nathan and his family. He was obliged to return to England with his ship late in 1870, and meantime was promoted surgeon in December. In London, he gained one months midwifery experience at Queen Charlotte's Lying-in Hospital and in May 1871 obtained twelve months leave on half-pay. He returned to Sydney where he married Nathan's daughter Eliza Ann at St James' Church on 6 October 1871. He was dropped from the navy list in January 1873.

MacLaurin went to Parramatta and soon succeeded to the practice and official appointments of his partner Dr George Hogarth Pringle (d.1872). MacLaurin moved to Macquarie Street after Nathan's death in September 1872. He was appointed examining medical officer to the Police Department in 1873, and also to the new post of ophthalmic surgeon to out-patients at St Vincent's Hospital. He resigned the latter when appointed honorary physician (1874-76). At the Sydney Infirmary and Dispensary he was honorary physician from February 1873, surgeon from 1874 and again a physician in 1882; he retired from the active staff in January 1884.

By now MacLaurin was well established in his profession. He remained in practice until about 1905 and was reputed to have been among the last doctors in Sydney to take a medical apprentice. He was a member of the Royal and Linnean societies of New South Wales and of the British Medical Association; a medical witness at numerous public enquiries; and a somewhat unlikely president of the royal commission (1888) into schemes for the extermination of rabbits in Australasia. From 1882 MacLaurin was a member of the Board of Health and succeeded (Sir) Charles Mackellar as chairman in 1885-89; for the same period he was government medical adviser and chairman of the Immigration Board. He was a justice of the peace from August 1886. In January 1889 he was a section president at the Intercolonial Medical Congress of Australasia, Melbourne. He spent much of that year and 1892 in Europe with his family.

Nominated to the Legislative Council on the advice of (Sir) George Dibbs in February 1889, MacLaurin resigned all other official appointments. Between April 1893 and August 1894 he was vice-president of the Executive Council under Dibbs, and was credited with a decisive role in the passing of the Bank Issue Act (1893) although there is little evidence to support the beliefs of his admirers. In the 1890s he became known for sound financial judgement. His association with E. W. Knox began at the Board of Health and later extended to the University of Sydney and Sydney Grammar School; he was a director of the Colonial Sugar Refining Co. Ltd in 1896-1914. Knox supported MacLaurin's vigorous anti-Federation campaign of 1899-1900, when one observer judged MacLaurin to be 'far and away the ablest, as he is the most trusted' of Protectionists opposed to the Constitution bill. A unificationist, MacLaurin foresaw the inevitable conflict when financial relationships were ill defined and the States retained sovereign powers. When Knox and the C.S.R. board refused to co-operate with the royal commission into the sugar industry in 1912, MacLaurin's was the test case for the court proceedings that followed, leading to a fine for contempt, later overruled by the High Court of Australia and the Privy Council (1914).

MacLaurin was chairman of the Mutual Life Association of Australasia, and after its amalgamation with the Citizens' Life Assurance Co. became chairman of the Mutual Life & Citizens' Assurance Co. Ltd, 1908-14. He was also a director of the Commercial Union Assurance Co. Ltd, Gloucester Estate Ltd (founded 1903), and the Bank of New South Wales (1900-14) of which he was president in 1904-05 and 1912-13. He undertook research into his family history, was active in the Highland Society of New South Wales (president, 1895-1901) and was a member of the Australian Club.

Best known for his association with the University of Sydney, MacLaurin was an examiner in medicine from 1876 and in January 1882 was offered the first chair of anatomy and physiology. The circumstances are obscure. MacLaurin was an experienced morbid anatomist, but the senate offer was made without advertisement and provoked such a storm of protest that MacLaurin pleaded ill health and withdrew his claim. After advertisement (Sir) Thomas Anderson Stuart was appointed in October. MacLaurin was elected a fellow of the senate in 1883; was vice-chancellor in 1887-89 and 1895-96; and from October 1896 became one of the longest-serving chancellors at a time when the honorary post carried a heavy burden of executive responsibility. Anderson Stuart's ambitions for the medical school would not have been realized without MacLaurin's support.

Despite significant changes wrought in the buildings and curricula, particularly in professional studies, MacLaurin's most important contribution was to preserve private funds by shrewd investment policies. The university acquired numerous neighbouring properties and in the heart of the city, including the land in Martin Place on which Challis House was built in 1907 and Wigram (later University) Chambers in Phillip Street in 1912. The chancellor also persuaded the government to pay for the Fisher Library building, completed in 1910. When the University (Amendment) Act (1912) effected sweeping changes in the constitution of the senate and reduced the life tenure of its fellows to five-year terms, exceptions were made for MacLaurin and his vice-chancellor Alfred Backhouse. The chancellor was ex officio a director of the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, and a trustee of the Sydney Grammar School and of the Public Library of New South Wales. He was also a trustee of St Andrew's College. Knighted in 1902, he received honorary LL.D.s from the universities of St Andrews (1888) and Edinburgh (1903).

MacLaurin's quick perceptions made him a formidable fixer, in and out of the committee room. He was an earnest speaker, lacking a light touch but with a flair for communicating financial detail in a compelling way. University students complained of prolixity in later years and often gave him a hard time during Commemoration Day celebrations. Described in his maturity as 'spare rather than robust, with a slight stoop of the shoulders, and … a well-shaped head', he had learned to conceal the impetuosity of his youth and his manner was formal, courteous and, to most people, severe. He was generally tolerant and fair minded (as in the George Arnold Wood South African War affair); however, personal loyalties did occasionally lead him astray. If any of his sons were a disappointment to him, it was not something he would admit.

Lady MacLaurin died on 7 January 1908 and Sir Normand's health failed in 1913. He rallied after surgery in July 1914 but died on 24 August and was buried in Waverley cemetery with Presbyterian forms. His five sons survived him and inherited his estate, valued for probate at £68,890.

The university holds portraits of MacLaurin by Ronald Gray (1902) and Ethel A. Stephens (1911); a fine bronze-relief medallion by Dora Ohlfsen (1919); and a stained-glass panel by A. K. Nicholson (1920-21). Another portrait of him by Gray is in the Mitchell Library.

Of his sons, Charles (1872-1925), M.B., B.S., F.R.C.S. (Edinburgh) was notable for his pioneering essays on the clinical histories of the famous, Post Mortem (1923) and Mere Mortals (1925); and Henry Normand (1878-1915), barrister and colonel-in-command of the 1st Infantry Brigade, Australian Imperial Force, was killed on MacLaurin's Hill at Gallipoli by a sniper on 27 April 1915.

Select Bibliography

  • K. M. Brown, Medical Practice in Old Parramatta (Syd, 1937)
  • J. A. Young et al (eds), Centenary Book of the University of Sydney Faculty of Medicine (Syd, 1984)
  • Australasian Medical Gazette, Feb, Mar, Dec 1882
  • Scottish Australasian, Dec 1909, p 7, Sept 1914, p 3060, June, Sept 1915, p 3739, 4012
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 9 May 1925, p 497, 7 Dec 1963, p 966
  • Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, 21 (1935), pt 4, p 209, 54 (1968), pt 3, p 265
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 2 Aug 1883, 24 Apr 1893, May-June, 5 Oct 1912, 15 Jan, 25-27, 29 Aug 1914
  • Australasian (Melbourne), 24 June 1899
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 25, 27 Aug 1914
  • Mackerras papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • MacLaurin papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Senate minutes and MacLaurin papers (University of Sydney Archives)
  • student record, 1854-57 (Edinburgh University Archives).

Citation details

Ann M. Mitchell, 'MacLaurin, Sir Henry Normand (1835–1914)', 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

Henry Normand MacLaurin (1835-1914), by unknown photographer

Henry Normand MacLaurin (1835-1914), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 2 - 08226

Life Summary [details]


10 December, 1835
Kilconquhar, Fife, Scotland


24 August, 1914 (aged 78)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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