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Philip John MacMahon (1857–1911)

by Jennifer Harrison

This article was published:

Philip MacMahon, by Poulsen Studios, c.1900

Philip MacMahon, by Poulsen Studios, c.1900

State Library of Queensland, 94328

Philip John MacMahon (1857-1911), horticulturist, author and public servant, was born on 13 December 1857 at Sandyford, Dublin, eldest son of Peter MacMahon, estate agent and gardener at Jamestown House, and his wife Maria, née Riley. After attending school locally at Black Rock, Philip acquired some technical education and travelled in Europe before being employed in the large nursery firm Dickson & Sons, in Cheshire, England. The Earl of Denbigh recommended him to Sir Joseph Hooker who offered Philip a studentship at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in 1881.

In March 1882 MacMahon was appointed curator at the Hull Botanic Gardens, where in five years he achieved success with the gardens and with a public education programme he instigated on botany and horticulture. Inspired by an interest in tropical agriculture, he accepted a position in India, which proved of short duration when he became ill. Making his way to Victoria in July 1888, MacMahon became a journalist with the Daily Telegraph, Melbourne, writing on botany, horticulture, economics and science. A chance meeting with a Queensland parliamentary delegation led to an offer of the directorship of the Botanic Gardens, Brisbane.

Arriving in April 1889, MacMahon devoted long hours and his full capacities to revitalizing the gardens, only to face severe inundation during the 1893 flood. Over a century later some of his remodelling and rebuilding remained evident. With enthusiastic encouragement, but scant resources, the government adopted his suggestions to use the labour of the unemployed and for incorporating landfill from railway excavations. Although mainly relying on native plants, the curator called upon associates throughout the world to introduce exotic species, while he shared Queensland seed material with his correspondents.

Endeavouring to popularize botany, MacMahon lectured extensively to large audiences and instructed school children in gardening. The supplying of trees to schools for Arbor Day, which he instituted in 1890, continued his involvement in educating all generations. In addition to providing a place of relaxation for city dwellers and visitors, he established a pharmaceutical garden to provide research facilities for chemists and doctors. In 1904 MacMahon was appointed director of forests and continued his lifelong interest in propagating trees and timber conservation. He published a comprehensively illustrated text, The Merchantable Timbers of Queensland (Brisbane, 1905).

MacMahon's professional reports and writings exhibited a lyrical quality amid precise practical information, while his love of language and literature found an outlet in his chairmanship of the Queensland Irish Association literary group. The charm and courtesy of this small, dapper, bewhiskered man were renowned and appreciated.

On 20 January 1909 at St Joseph's Catholic Church, Woollahra, Sydney, MacMahon married 29-year-old Ethel Alicia Hendy-Pooley, a teacher born at Madras, India. She was expecting their child when her husband died of dengue fever and heart failure on 12 April 1911 at Maryborough. He was buried there, survived by his wife and by a son born four months later. At the time of his death, MacMahon was working on an inventory of the quality and quantity of some 5800 square miles (1.5 million ha) of state forests and timber reserves. His personal books, acquired by the government for £31, and scant pension provided little for his family.

Select Bibliography

  • Queensland, 1900: A Narrative of Her Past, Together with Biographies of Her Leading Men (Brisb, 1900)
  • J. Harrison, 'An Irish Horticulturist in Queensland: the Philip MacMahon Story', Journal of the Royal Historical Society of Queensland, 16, no 1, Feb 1996, p 31
  • Maryborough Chronicle, 13 Apr 1911
  • staff card, SRS 1189/2, item 134 (Queensland State Archives)
  • private information.

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Jennifer Harrison, 'MacMahon, Philip John (1857–1911)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 20 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (Melbourne University Press), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Philip MacMahon, by Poulsen Studios, c.1900

Philip MacMahon, by Poulsen Studios, c.1900

State Library of Queensland, 94328

Life Summary [details]


13 December, 1857
Sandyford, Dublin, Ireland


12 April, 1911 (aged 53)
Maryborough, Queensland, Australia

Cause of Death

dengue fever

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.