Lives of the fellows

Donald (Sir) MacAlister

b.17 May 1854 d.15 January 1934
Bart KCB(1908) MA Cantab MB(1881) MD BSc Lond Hon DCL Durh Hon LLD Montreal Toronto Aberd Glasg St And Liverp Belf Dubl Wales Birm Hon Dphil Athens Hon DSc Bristol FRCP(1886) Hon FRFPS Glasg Hon FRCPI Hon FRCP Edin

Donald MacAlister was born at Perth, the second son of Donald MacAlister, whose family had been long settled at Tarbert, Argyllshire, and his wife Euphemia, daughter of Angus Kennedy of Islay. His early education took place at Aberdeen and Liverpool, where his father represented a Glasgow publishing firm. Winning scholarships to Worcester and Balliol Colleges, Oxford, and St. John’s, Cambridge, he chose the latter University as the starting point of his academic career. He won the Herschel prize in 1876 and was Senior Wrangler and Smith’s prizeman in 1877. Elected a fellow of his College, he spent a year as mathematics master at Harrow before entering St. Bartholomew’s Hospital to study medicine. As a student there, he lectured on natural philosophy, giving remarkably lucid instruction in physics. He took his M.B. degree in 1881, made a postgraduate visit to Leipzig, and published, in 1883, a translation of Ziegler’s work on pathological anatomy, which reached a third edition.

Returning to Cambridge, MacAlister became tutor and Linacre lecturer at his old College, joined the staff of Addenbrooke’s Hospital and practised to a limited extent. In 1887 he delivered the Goulstonian Lectures at the Royal College of Physicians and in 1888 the Croonian Lectures. Medical education and organisation, however, were the main objects of his attention, and he soon became the right-hand man of Paget, the Regius professor of physic. In 1889 he stood successfully for the General Medical Council, of which he remained a member for the next forty-four years, being president from 1904 to 1931. After 1907 he represented Glasgow on the Council, for in that year he left Cambridge to become principal and vice-chancellor of the northern University. His tenure of office at Glasgow witnessed the foundation of many new chairs and lectureships as well as a new faculty, and the expansion of the University’s buildings. He accepted the office of chancellor when he resigned in 1929.

MacAlister acted as chairman of many bodies of public importance during his career, including the Commission on Belfast University, the Medical Consultative Council of the Scottish Board of Health, the British Pharmacopoeia Committee—he was largely responsible for the Pharmacopoeias of 1898 and 1914—the Universities’ Bureau of the British Empire, and the Standing Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals. He was in fact at his best as an administrator and as a chairman. The G.M.C. and Glasgow University alike benefited from his aptitude for business, his facility in interpreting regulations, his remarkable memory, his even-tempered firmness, his fine presence and his courage in facing painful illness. His faults were a lack of flexibility and sympathy in judging men and affairs. He was Liberal in politics and a strong Presbyterian. He was a linguist of rare brilliance, familiar with more than a dozen European and Eastern languages — as his volume of Echoes (1907) bore witness. His command of Romany, for example, was recognised by his election as president of the Gipsy Lore Society in 1915.

MacAlister was created K.C.B. in 1908, and a baronet in 1924, and among foreign decorations that he received were the French Legion of Honour and the order of Cavalier of the Crown of Italy. He retired to Cambridge, but retained his love for the Highlands to the end of his life. MacAlister married in 1895 Edith Florence Boyle, daughter of Alexander Macalister, professor of anatomy at Cambridge, a distant relation; there were no children of the marriage.

G H Brown

[Lancet, 1934; B.M.J., 1934; Times, 16 Jan. 1934; D.N.B., 1931-40, 557; Lady E. F. B. MacAlister, Sir Donald MacAlister of Tarbert, 1935]

(Volume IV, page 315)

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