Dictionary of National Biography, 1927 supplement/MacGregor, William
MacGREGOR, Sir WILLIAM (1846–1919), colonial governor, was born 20 October 1846 at Hillockhead in the parish of Towie, Aberdeenshire. He was the eldest son of John MacGregor, a crofter, by his wife, Agnes, daughter of William Smith, a farmer, of Pitprone in the neighbouring parish of Leochel-Cushnie. He received his early education at the village school of Tillyduke, where his ability soon attracted attention. During his boyhood he was engaged in agricultural labour, but partly by his own efforts at self-education and partly by the help of friends he was able to go in 1865 to Aberdeen grammar school. Proceeding to Aberdeen University in 1867 he studied medicine there and at Glasgow, graduating M.B. of Aberdeen in 1872 and M.D. in 1874.
After practising medicine for a short time in Scotland, MacGregor was appointed in 1873 assistant medical officer in the Seychelles, in 1874 resident surgeon in the civil hospital at Port Louis, Mauritius, and in 1875 chief medical officer for the colony of Fiji. During the next thirteen years he gained much administrative experience and gave evidence of great capabilities. His resourcefulness was shown in his struggle against the epidemic of measles which decimated the population of Fiji in 1878, and his physical strength in his remarkable rescue of three people at once in a shipwreck near Suva in 1884, for which he received the Albert medal (1884) and the Clarke gold medal of Australia (1885). He gradually came to occupy important administrative posts and at times acted as temporary administrator of the colony.
In 1888 MacGregor was appointed the first administrator (receiving the title of lieutenant-governor in 1895) of British New Guinea (now the territory of Papua), the country with which his name will chiefly be associated. The territory was then in its infancy, having been proclaimed a British protectorate in 1884. There was much pioneer work to be done, and MacGregor, with but small resources, showed great energy and activity in laying the foundations of a sound administration. He organized an efficient native police out of poor material, insisted on a strict enforcement of the laws, tackled the difficult problems of land tenure and native labour, and generally promoted a policy of peaceful penetration, which resulted in the gradual conciliation of the unruly tribes of the country and in the development of its great natural resources. For his important work in exploring the territory he received in 1896 the founder's medal of the Royal Geographical Society. He published in 1897 British New Guinea: Country and People, based on a paper read to that society.
MacGregor left New Guinea in 1898 and was appointed governor of Lagos in the following year. Here, too, he performed important pioneer work in a young colony, making the tribal chiefs share in the work of government and opening up the country by means of roads and railways. He carried on an active campaign against malaria, helping (Sir) Ronald Ross in the application of his important discoveries. After five years in Lagos, during which his health suffered from the climate, he was appointed in 1904 governor of Newfoundland. Here he used his medical knowledge in efforts for the prevention of tuberculosis; and by wise handling contributed largely to the settlement of the difficult question of American fishing rights which was then at an acute stage. He also organized and himself conducted a scientific expedition to Labrador, with the object of surveying its coast and investigating its resources. The results were of great importance alike from the geographical, meteorological, and anthropological points of view. From 1909 to 1914 MacGregor was governor of Queensland, where he was already well known owing to his success in New Guinea. He interested himself in educational affairs, in promoting the agricultural development of the country, and in the progress of medical knowledge. During his term of office, and largely owing to his personal efforts, the university of Queensland was founded (1910) and he became its first chancellor.
MacGregor retired in 1914 after nearly forty years' work in colonial administration, and went to live on his estate of Chapel-on-Leader, Berwickshire. On the outbreak of the European War he offered himself for service and did useful work in serving on committees and in lecturing. In 1918 his health began to fail, and he died 3 July 1919, after an operation in a nursing home at Aberdeen. He was buried in the churchyard of Towie, his native village. He was twice married: first, in 1868 to Mary (died 1877), daughter of Peter Thomson, by whom he had a son and a daughter; secondly, in 1883 to Mary Jane, daughter of Captain Robert Cocks, of the merchant service, by whom he had two daughters. He was created K.C.M.G. in 1889, G.C.M.G. in 1907, and became a privy councillor in 1914. He was an honorary LL.D. of the universities of Aberdeen, Edinburgh, and Queensland, and an honorary D.Sc. of Cambridge. He presented to the anthropological museum of Aberdeen University a valuable collection of ethnological specimens from Fiji, New Guinea, Lagos, and Labrador.
A man of outstanding personality, MacGregor deserves a high place in the roll of Great Britain's colonial administrators. With no early advantages of position or fortune his success in life was due to his own efforts and to the courage and determination with which he faced and overcame obstacles in his youth. He was much helped in his administrative work by his wide range of knowledge; not only was he an excellent linguist, botanist, and ethnologist, but he used his medical experience with great effect in the solution of problems of health. In his work as a scientific explorer he was aided by his remarkable physical strength. His success in dealing with native races was due to the tact, patience, and firmness with which he treated them, and to his determination to prevent their exploitation by Europeans. They rewarded him with their trust and his name became a power throughout the South Pacific. Reticent by nature, and with a certain ruggedness in his character, MacGregor was essentially a strong man and an inspiring leader; yet he was entirely without boastfulness or egotism, and his qualities of strength and restraint united to make him, in the words of Lord Bryce, ‘a model of what a colonial governor should be’.
[Memoir by Professor R. W. Reid in Aberdeen University Review, vol. vii, part 1, November 1919; notice in Aberdeen Grammar School Magazine, vol. xxlii, No. 1, October 1919; Charles Brunsdon Fletcher, The New Pacific, 1917; private information. Portrait, Royal Academy Pictures, 1916.]