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John Smyth (1864–1927)

by Andrew Spaull

This article was published:

John Smyth (1864-1927), educationist, was born on 3 November 1864 at Tollcross, Scotland, son of John Smyth, farmer, and his wife Mary, née Smyth. At an early age he moved with his family to Londonderry, Ireland, where he became a licensed teacher; in 1881 he migrated to Dunedin, New Zealand. He worked as a head teacher in rural schools, then as assistant at an Invercargill school and later at Canterbury High School. He also enrolled at the University of Otago (B.A., 1891; M.A., 1892) and specialized in mathematics and mental science. On Christmas Day 1891 at Christchurch he married Emma Strack; they were to have two sons.

In 1895 Smyth attended the University of Heidelberg; on his return he lectured in mental science at the University of Otago as a replacement for (Sir) John Salmond. In 1898 Smyth went to the University of Edinburgh (D.Phil., 1900) where he came under the formidable influence of the 'idealist' Simon Laurie; Smyth also studied in Germany with the Herbartian, Wilhelm Rein, at Jena and with the experimental psychologist, Wilhelm Wundt, at Leipzig. In 1900 Smyth took an appointment as chief inspector of the Wanganui school district in New Zealand. His doctoral thesis was published in 1901 as Truth and Reality with Special Reference to Religion.

In 1902 he was appointed principal of Victoria's Training College (later Melbourne Teachers' College), replacing Frank Tate who had become director of education. Like Tate, Smyth believed that the college should expand as an English-type residential institution, offer a broader range of educational and curricular activities, and become central in the training of all new primary schoolteachers. He quickly enhanced college life by introducing a student magazine, college hymn, motto and crest. As a residential principal until 1919, he governed the college with charm and a paternalistic authority that was tempered only by his wife's intervention.

Smyth attempted to be a progressive innovator of course and staff programmes, but faced constant problems of inflexible staff supply and lack of funds. He was unable to introduce a staff journal or a staff travelling scholarship, as Alexander Mackie had done at Teachers' College, Sydney, but he did expand the infant and kindergarten training course until 1917 when the Free Kindergarten Union (which he had helped to found) commenced its own training college. As foundation lecturer in the diploma of education in the arts faculty of the University of Melbourne, he influenced the training of teachers in secondary schools. In 1913, bitter at the lack of recognition of his efforts, Smyth declared that he would not continue to teach at the university without salary. A prolonged dispute between the education department and the university was ultimately resolved in 1919 when Smyth was appointed professor of education while remaining college principal. In 1923 he pioneered the introduction of an Australian master of education degree, hoping that it would attract teachers to experimental education.

In his objective of securing pre-service training for all primary teachers at the college, Smyth encountered opposition from the government and the department. This mode of training could not guarantee a steady supply of teachers: apprentice teachers, who had comprised nearly 30 per cent of the primary service in 1903, still made up 27 per cent in 1925. Never a street fighter, Smyth was reluctant to attack this system of training openly, and when he did he was rebuked by Tate.

Smyth realized the obstacles to reform at an early stage in his career in Victoria. He became frustrated and ill. In 1909 he applied unsuccessfully for the position of inspector-general of education for Queensland. Increasingly he delegated the running of his college to the vice-principal. Smyth became more active in university teaching and in the Presbyterian Church where he contributed to the general assembly and to the development of religious instruction programmes.

Smyth's sudden death in Tokyo, on 20 August 1927, came as a shock to Melbourne's Presbyterians and to his former students who eulogized his lifelong dedication to the child. His estate, valued for probate at £4064, endowed the John and Eric Smyth Travelling Scholarship(s) for teachers, named partly in memory of a son who had died accidentally in 1925. Smyth's contribution to Victorian education was later honoured by the Victorian Institute for Educational Research which named a medal after him. His portrait painted by W. B. McInnes still graces the college walls: its sad, dark eyes suggest Smyth's sense of disappointment as a teacher-educator.

Select Bibliography

  • D. H. Rankin, The Spirit That Lives (Melb, 1945)
  • A. D. Spaull and L. A. Mandelson, ‘The College Principals, J. Smyth and A. Mackie’, in C. Turney (ed), Pioneers of Australian Education, vol 3 (Syd, 1983)
  • D. S. Garden, The Melbourne Teacher Training Colleges (Melb, 1982)
  • Melbourne Teachers' College, Trainee, Nov 1927
  • Teachers' Journal, 2 Apr 1928
  • D. E. Edgar, The Educational Ideas and Influence on Victorian Education of Dr John Smyth (M.Ed. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1968).

Citation details

Andrew Spaull, 'Smyth, John (1864–1927)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 23 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (Melbourne University Press), 1990

View the front pages for Volume 12

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


3 November, 1864
Tollcross, Lanarkshire, Scotland


20 August, 1927 (aged 62)
Tokyo, Japan

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.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.