Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Samuel Bruce McLaren (1876–1916)

by J. J. Cross

This article was published:

Samuel Bruce McLaren (1876-1916), mathematician and mathematical physicist, was born on 16 August 1876 at Yedo, near Tokyo, elder son of Rev. Samuel Gilfillan McLaren and his wife Marjory Millar, née Bruce. Arriving in Melbourne with his parents in 1886, he was educated at Coburg State School, Brighton Grammar School and Scotch College where he was dux. He attended the University of Melbourne on an Ormond College scholarship and graduated B.A. in 1897 with first-class honours in mathematics and the Wyselaskie and Dixson scholarships. He then went to Trinity College, Cambridge; graduating B.A. with first-class honours in 1900, he received the Isaac Newton studentship in astronomy and physical optics in 1901.

In 1904 McLaren was appointed lecturer in mathematics at University College, Bristol. He transferred to Birmingham University in 1906 and in 1913 accepted the chair in mathematics at University College, Reading, a position for which he was a last-minute candidate, impressing the interviewers as a man 'who breathed freshness and fullness of life and vigour'.

McLaren's career took a path common in Australian mathematics before World War II; while J. H. Michell returned to Melbourne in 1890 and lectured to McLaren, the latter was kept in Britain by the revolution in mathematical physics of which, along with Jeans, Einstein, Planck, Laue and Abraham, he was part. Attracted by fundamental ideas, McLaren published only on them—120 pages, concentrated in the period 1911-13, and summarized posthumously, with memoirs, as Scientific Papers (Cambridge, 1925). His written work was characterized by 'originality and a fine boldness of conception', its paucity no measure of his diligence and interest. In 1913 he shared the Cambridge Adams prize with J. W. Nicholson who commented that McLaren 'undoubtedly anticipated Einstein and Abraham in their suggestion of a variable velocity of light, with the consequent expressions for the energy and momentum of the gravitational field'.

To his friends McLaren appeared a man of inner reserve, powerfully built, active in sport, genial and singularly modest about his work. His intellectual pursuits brought him to the fringes of the Bloomsbury group. At the peak of his powers at Reading, he was popular with his colleagues and worked hard to establish the new institution and its reputation. In June 1914 he visited Australia for the meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. War was declared as proceedings began in Perth and the September return journey was traumatic: while his stern sense of duty wrestled with his loathing of bloodshed, McLaren received news of his father's death. Finally resolving to serve in an active capacity, he learned signalling during the trip.

Commissioned as lieutenant in the Royal Engineers he was attached to an infantry brigade near Abbeville, France. 'Absolutely fearless and intrepid to an extent which made him both an anxiety to his brother officers and an inspiration to his men', he was wounded in July 1916 when clearing bombs out of a burning ammunition dump and died in hospital on 13 August. Unmarried, he was buried at Abbeville.

Select Bibliography

  • History of Scotch College, Melbourne, 1851-1925 (Melb, 1926)
  • Beiblater zu den Annalen der Physik, 35 (1911), 37 (1913), 38 (1914)
  • London Mathematical Society, Proceedings, 16 (1916-17)
  • Nature (London), 97, 31 Aug 1916
  • Reading University College Review, no 25, Dec 1916
  • Scotch Collegian, Dec 1916
  • Times (London), 18, 24 Aug 1916
  • private information.

Citation details

J. J. Cross, 'McLaren, Samuel Bruce (1876–1916)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 26 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

Life Summary [details]


16 August, 1876
Yedo, Japan


13 August, 1916 (aged 39)
Abbeville, France