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John McKellar Stewart (1878–1953)

by J. J. C. Smart

This article was published:

John McKellar Stewart (1878-1953), philosopher, was born on 4 May 1878 at Ballangeich, near Warrnambool, Victoria, son of Alexander Stewart, a farmer from Scotland, and his native-born wife Lillias, née McKellar. John became a pupil teacher at Warrnambool State School and then taught at Charlton and Benalla. He entered Ormond College at the University of Melbourne in 1903 where he studied under (Sir) John Latham and Henry Laurie. In 1906 Stewart topped his final year in philosophy with first-class honours; he won a Hastie scholarship and lectured to Ormond College students in 1907-09, while studying theology and ministering in the Presbyterian Church. On 3 November 1909 at Scots Church, Melbourne, the serious and friendly young man married Margaret Grace Stuart Bothroyd (M.A.) who later wrote for the Argus and was active in the League of Women Voters; they were to have a daughter and three sons. Stewart proceeded to the University of Edinburgh, where he wrote a thesis on Bergson's philosophy (D.Phil., 1911), and the Philipps University of Marburg, Germany, noted for its Kantian scholarship. His A Critical Exposition of Bergson's Philosophy (London, 1913) portrayed his subject through somewhat Kantian eyes and resisted Bergson's anti-intellectualism.

Having returned to the University of Melbourne in 1912 as lecturer in philosophy, in 1920 Stewart attained the newly established rank of associate professor. He had previously come a close second to W. R. B. Gibson for the chair. They had a harmonious partnership; both were influenced by Husserl. As vice-president of the university's controversial Public Questions Society, Stewart showed diplomacy in defending contentious students against an outraged professoriate. He was honorary secretary of the university extension board. He was also a champion golfer at club level. His manner, which was warm and dignified, reflected his liberal attitudes and Scottish background.

In 1923-50 he held the (Sir Walter) Hughes chair of philosophy at the University of Adelaide. He published occasional lectures and journal articles, especially in the Australasian Journal of Psychology and Philosophy; although his manuscript for a book on Husserl was destroyed by a fire in 1939, some of Stewart's translations from Husserl have survived. As a teacher, he prepared lectures meticulously. He was active outside academic philosophy as vice-chancellor of the university in 1945-48 and as a member of its council; he was also president of the Kindergarten Union of South Australia and a member of the Australian Round Table. In 1949 he was appointed C.M.G.

At his home at Blackwood in the Adelaide hills Stewart was a keen gardener, with a fondness for raising native plants from seed often brought back from fishing trips on Kangaroo Island. Predeceased by his wife and survived by his four children, the professor died in Calvary Hospital, North Adelaide, on 25 April 1953 and was cremated. A grandson John Finnis became a leading jurist and philosopher of law at the University of Oxford, England.

Select Bibliography

  • W. K. Hancock, Country and Calling (Lond, 1954)
  • S. A. Grave, History of Philosophy in Australia (Brisb, 1984)
  • Adelaide University Magazine, 5, no 2 (1923)
  • Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 31 (1953), p 137, 32 (1954), p 169
  • University of Adelaide Archives
  • private information.

Additional Resources

Citation details

J. J. C. Smart, 'Stewart, John McKellar (1878–1953)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 15 April 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]


4 May, 1878
Warrnambool, Victoria, Australia


25 April, 1953 (aged 74)
North Adelaide, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

Cause of Death

pulmonary embolism

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