Alexander Macalister

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Professor Alexander Macalister. By W. L. H. Duckwrowth, M.A., M.D., Sc.D.

News of the death of Professor Alexander Macalister must have fallen as a sudden blow on many of his world-wide acquaintances. Until a year or two ago time had scarcely touched his characteristic energy, nor had it sapped his powers. The magnitude and variety of those powers were almost proverbial among his more intimate friends, whose tribute was richly justified by the long list of achievements to which, they could point.

While the recital of such a list is reserved for the sequel, some salient features claim notice here. Macalister commenced his professional medical studies at the age of 14. At the age of 16 years he was appointed a demonstrator at the Royal College of Surgeons of Ireland, and a year later he obtained his qualification to practise.

His first practical demonstration must have been given in 1860. Thenceforward he pursued his ideal of practical instruction for 59 years, and as lately as March, 1919, he was actively engaged in the dissecting room.

In the earlier years of that long period Macalister combined the practice of medicine with the profession of teaching not only human anatomy but also vertebrate and invertebrate zoology. In fact, his first published paper was connected with the subject last mentioned, while, as other writings testify, archaeology, geology and field-botany made claims on his spare moments.

The friendship of Macalister and the late Dr. Samuel Haughton, of Trinity College, Dublin, began early in the “sixties.” It constituted an event of significance in the career of the young practitioner and anatomist. Comparable in versatility to the subject of this notice, Haughton was (at the time in question) keenly interested in the subject of “animal mechanics.” In Macalister Haughton found an enthusiastic colleague, of whom indeed his appreciation is expressed in the preface to his book on Principles of Animal Mechanics.

Stress has been laid on this work, for it involved the dissection of many remarkable mammals. Moreover, the muscular anatomy of those animals required special and minute investigation, and in the acquisition of the specimens, Haughton’s influence with the authorities of the Zoological Gardens at Dublin must have been of no small account. Additionally, therefore, to his special studies in reference to mechanism, we find that a long series of memoirs on mammalian anatomy strikes the keynote of Macalister’s work for some twenty years after his first appointment as demonstrator. Thus also was gained the experience and the knowledge with which Macalister in later years rarely failed to point a comment on some muscular anomaly in the dissecting room.

In the same earlier years Macalister published two important text books on animal morphology, and these (like the Textbook of Human Anatomy published in 1889) still provide many useful illustrations and records which are lacking in more elementary treatises. Of the latter, Macalister could also set two to his credit.

Academic distinctions came in rapid succession during this period. The demonstratorship (at the R.C.S.I.) was followed by election to the Chair of Zoology in the University of Dublin. Macalister had entered Trinity College in 1867, and at the time of his election to the professorship (1869) he was still an undergraduate of the University. Indeed he had experienced the peculiar embarrassment of finding himself debarred from entering for a particular examination in which he would have been simultaneously examiner and candidate. In 1872 a Chair of Comparative Anatomy was founded in the University, and after the election of Macalister to this Chair, its scope and title were enlarged. It was about this time that Macalister became President of the Geological Society of Ireland, his presidential address being delivered in 1873.

Macalister held the professorship of Comparative Anatomy and Zoology from 1872 until 1883. In 1877 he added to his honours the professorship of Anatomy and Chirurgery in the University of Dublin, being at the same time Surgeon to Sir Patrick Dun’s Hospital. In 1883 his participation in the teaching work of the University was brought to an end by his migration to Cambridge, on his election to the vacant Chair of Anatomy at that University.

In the thirty-six years that have elapsed since that election, Macalister’s activities in the service of his second University and College have been matters of common knowledge to the wide circle of his colleagues, pupils and other friends. During this period also, Macalister’s interest in anthropology became more pronounced. His early publications are not numerous and are widely scattered. But it seems fair to claim his critical review of Darwin’s Descent of Man (on its appearance in 1871) as a mark of the increasing claims of anthropology. And again it was during Macalister’s residence at Dublin that he made the gratifying discovery (in Egyptology) of a fragment in Dublin completing an imperfect inscription previously known to exist in a collection at Vienna.

As Humphry’s successor at Cambridge, Macalister must have been perforce impressed by the rich collection of human skeletons in the Anatomy School. He lost no time in mere admiration, but he commenced work on the material, and his publications from 1883 onwards reflect his activities in this field. The very extent of the collection offered full scope for Macalister’s well-known predilection for the study of variations. Evidence of this tendency has rarely been absent from his anatomical and anthropological writings, and he summarised his conclusions in the Boyle Lecture at Oxford in 1894. Large as the number of specimens might be, he laboured assiduously to increase the size of his collection, with the result that he saw the original total increased fourfold during his tenure of office. What Macalister has published gives but a partial indication of his indefatigable industry, to which a long line of MS. books now bear silent witness in the form of innumerable measurements and notes supplemented by numbers of elaborate drawings.

Macalister was elected a member of the Institute in 1884. He was soon appointed a member of the Council, and in 1893 he succeeded Tylor in the Presidential chair. His address (1894) and that delivered by him as President of Section H (at the Edinburgh meeting of the British Association) in 1892 reveal a characteristic breadth of view. This quality may well have proved a factor in determining his dislike of dogmatism, a dislike which seemed to increase with the lapse of time, so that of late he had published neither opinions on recent momentous discoveries nor criticisms of subjects which are still matters of controversy.

In reference to Egyptology, the long series of Egyptian bones collected mainly by Macalister and representative of several distinct epochs in Egyptian history, calls for special mention, though, as remarked above, many results of his studies have never been published. His published work of an Egyptological and of an archaeological nature will be found in the Proceedings of the Society of Biblical Archaeology. Cognate subjects he dealt with in articles contributed to Dr. Hastings’ Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics and the Dictionary of the Bible. These titles themselves serve to recall Macalister’s unremitting labours in the cause of religion. It would be inappropriate to enlarge on this theme here. But even in the briefest sketch a passing reference is claimed by activities and service of which very few realised the full measure.

Lack of space makes it impossible to do more than mention the connexion of Macalister with the Journal of Anatomy and Physiology (now the Journal of Anatomy). Himself a contributor to the first number of that journal (1867), he was for a time the chief acting editor, and the period in question is marked by the increased size of the journal and the abundance of its illustrations.

Macalister possessed a natural dignity of pose and speech, commanding at once respect and confidence. In any attempt to recall his influence as a teacher, reminders must be added of his admirable accessibility, his marvellous memory for faces and names, his ready sympathy and his unfailing alacrity in probing a technical difficulty to the core. In the minds of students these qualities quickly developed those sentiments of enthusiasm and devotion which constitute not the least significant of memorials. From his side, sympathy extended equally to his colleagues on the teaching staff, who will readily acknowledge an indulgence apt to be carried to quite extraordinary lengths.

Robust in constitution and energetic in temperament, Macalister enjoyed great powers of physical endurance. His celebrated walk from London to Cambridge was accomplished in little more than twelve hours, and (for time and distance at least) was even surpassed on some other occasions. He was a world-wide traveller, sea voyages had no terrors for him, and he had the priceless gift of feeling as comfortable in a small tramp steamer as on the largest liner. Naturally imperturbable, he could rise superior even to the restraints of quarantine in an open Turkish seaport (“I took the opportunity of acquiring the art of sail-making,” he said).

Of late years, however, he had undertaken no extended tours, though long pedestrian rambles whether in Dorset or the Isle of Skye still retained their charms. But in the winter of 1917-18 severe attacks of influenza took their toll. They were repeated in February, 1919, convalescence was much prolonged, and a patient of less resolute nature might well have been tempted to abandon work. Macalister struggled on, and resumed his duties for the last fortnight of the Lent Term.

He left Cambridge for Dublin as soon as the vacation arrived. It was hoped that change and a rest would lead to complete recovery, and in fact some improvement seems to have taken place. Two days before the crisis which marked the beginning of the end he wrote from Dublin in terms which indicated good progress. But this was not maintained, and although hope was still justified for some weeks, it became evident that the limit of his strength had at last been reached. The end came on 2nd September 1919.


LL.D., Edinburgh, Glasgow and Montreal.
M.A. Cambridge ; M.D., 1884.
M.D. Dublin, 1876 ; D.S.C. (honoris causae), 1892 ; M.B., 1871 ; B.A., 1871.
L.R.C.P. Ireland, 1862 ; L.R.C.S. Ireland, 1861.
L.M. Rotunda Hospital, Dublin, 1862.
F.R.S., 1881 (Council 1894-5) ; Hon. F.R.S. Edinburgh, 1917.
Fellow of St.John’s College, Cambridge.
F.S.A. Member of Senate R.U. Ireland, and University of Dublin.
Member and for some time Secretary of the Royal Irish Academy.
Corresponding Member Soc. Rom. d’Anthropologia.
Do.    do.    Berliner Anthropologische Gesellschaft.
Do.    do.    Soc. d’Hist. Nat. de Cherbourg.


These include an Introduction to Animal Morphology, Morphology of Vertebrate Animals, Evolution in Church History, a Text-Book of Human Anatomy, Memoir of James Macartney, and contributions to many scientific journals.


This obituary first appeared as: Duckworth, W. L. H.. 1919. ‘Professor Alexander Macalister’. Man Vol. 19, pp. 164-168. Reproduced with permission.


To cite this article:

DUCKWORTH, W. L. H.. 1919. ‘Professor Alexander Macalister’. Man Vol. 19, pp. 164-168. (available on-line: