MACGREGOR, Sir William (1846-1919)

MACGREGOR, Sir William (1846-1919)
administrator, governor of Queensland
was born in the parish of Towie, Aberdeenshire, Scotland, on 20 October 1846 (Dict.Nat.Biog.). He was the eldest son of John Macgregor, a farm labourer. Educated at the school at Tillyduke, and encouraged by his master and the local minister who recognized the boy's ability, he studied for and obtained a bursary which took him to Aberdeen and Glasgow universities. He graduated M.B. and C.M. of Aberdeen university in 1872, and obtained his M.D. in 1874. He helped to pay for his university course by obtaining farm work during his vacations. In 1873 he became assistant medical officer at the Seychelles, and in 1874 he was appointed resident at the hospital and superintendent of the lunatic asylum at Mauritius. This brought him under the notice of Sir Arthur Gordon who was then governor of the island, and on Gordon being transferred to Fiji in 1875, he obtained Macgregor's services as chief medical officer of Fiji. There he had to grapple with a terrible epidemic of measles, which resulted in the death of 50,000 natives. In 1877 he was made receiver-general and subsequently a variety of other offices was added, including the colonial secretaryship. On more than one occasion he acted as governor, and was also acting high commissioner and consul-general for the western Pacific. In 1884 the ship Syria, with coolies for Fiji, ran ashore about 15 miles from Suva. Macgregor organized a relief expedition and personally saved several lives. His report made no mention of his own doings, but they could not remain hidden, and he was given the Albert medal, and the Clarke gold medal of the Royal Humane Society of Australasia for saving life at sea. In January 1886 he represented Fiji at the meeting of the federal council of Australasia held at Hobart. His experience with native races led to his being appointed administrator of British New Guinea in 1888. Here he had to deal with a warlike people cut up into many tribes, and his great problem was to get them to live together in reasonable amity. It was necessary at times to make punitive expeditions, but bloodshed was avoided as much as possible, and by tact and perseverance Macgregor eventually brought about a state of law and order. He did a large amount of exploration not only along the coast but into the interior. In 1892 the position was sufficiently settled to enable him to publish a Handbook of Information for intending Settlers in British New Guinea. He was appointed lieutenant-governor in 1895, and retired from this position in 1898. From 1899 to 1904 he was governer of Lagos where he instituted a campaign against the prevalent malaria, draining the swamps and destroying as far as possible the mosquitoes which were responsible for the spread of the disease. Much other important work in developing the country was done by making roads and building a railway. His efforts to improve the health of his community led to his being given the Mary Kingsley medal in 1910 by the Society of Tropical Medicine. He had been transferred in 1904 to Newfoundland of which he was governor for five years. Here again his medical knowledge was most useful in the combating of tuberculosis which was then very prevalent in Newfoundland. He also did valuable work in dealing with the fisheries question, persuading the contending parties to refer the dispute to the Hague international tribunal which brought about an amicable settlement. Towards the end of 1909 he became governor of Queensland. The claim that he was largely responsible for the founding of the university of Queensland cannot be justified, as the university act had been passed by the Kidston (q.v.) government before he arrived. He, however, did all that was possible to help in the actual inauguration of the university. He acquiesced in the handing over of government house to be its first home, and one of his first acts was to attend the dedication ceremony on 10 December 1909. He also became the first chancellor and took great pride in the early development of the university. In 1914 he retired and went to live on an estate in Berwickshire, Scotland. During the 1914-18 war he was able to do a certain amount of war work, and also lectured on his experience of German rule in the Pacific. He died on 3 July 1919 and was buried beside his parents in the churchyard of Towie, the village where he was born. He married in 1883 Mary, daughter of R. Cocks, who survived him with one son and three daughters. He was created C.M.G. in 1881, K.C.M.G. in 1889, C.B. in 1897, G.C.M.G. in 1907, and was made a privy councillor in 1914. He had the honorary degrees of D.Sc. Cambridge and LL.D. Aberdeen, Edinburgh, and Queensland.
Macgregor was a man of immense physical strength, it has been said of him in his early days that he was like a "great block of rough unhewn granite". He began life with no advantages except his innate ability, and rose to be one of the really great men of his time. He was a fine linguist; apart from his home universities he had studied at Paris, Berlin and Florence, and he was an excellent scientist, as his medical work done at Fiji, Lagos and Newfoundland showed. He was a great administrator—always working for the good of the subject races and helping them to develop, and yet able on more than one occasion to save his own life by his excellence as a rifle shot. Contact with a world of men gradually softened a certain roughness of manner, until he became the courteous man of his later years. But he was always a great personality, a great fighter, striving continually for the cause of right and justice, and using his scientific knowledge for the good of humanity.
R. W. Reid, Aberdeen University Review, November 1919; Who's Who, 1919; G. B. Fletcher, The New Pacific; C. A. Bernays, Queensland Politics During Sixty Years; The Brisbane Courier, 5 July 1919.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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