Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Mitchell, Sir William (1861–1962)

by V. A. Edgeloe

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

William Mitchell (1861-1962), by Hammer & Co, c1939

William Mitchell (1861-1962), by Hammer & Co, c1939

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 4607

Sir William Mitchell (1861-1962), scholar, educationist and administrator, was born on 22 or 27 March 1861 at Inveravon, Banffshire, Scotland, son of Peter Mitchell, a hill-farmer who died when William was 5, and his wife Margaret, née Ledingham. He attended school at Elgin, where Ramsay MacDonald was a fellow pupil-teacher, for twelve years before entering the University of Edinburgh in 1880; following a very distinguished undergraduate record he graduated M.A. with first-class honours in philosophy (1886) and D.Sc. by thesis (1891) in the department of mental science.

Mitchell became a lecturer in moral philosophy (1887-90) and examiner in philosophy and English (1891-94) at the university. He lectured in education at University College, London, from 1891 to 1894 and was twice guest lecturer, and in 1894 examiner in education, for the University of Cambridge. He was also a lecturer and examiner in English for the Royal University of Breslau, Germany. In 1892 he declined an invitation to the chair of philosophy and economics at the University of New Brunswick, Canada.

Threatened tuberculosis led Mitchell to seek in 1894 the Hughes professorship of English language and literature and mental and moral philosophy in the University of Adelaide, and on taking up duty in March 1895 he rapidly established himself as an intellectual and educational leader among his colleagues and the wider community. In his first public address in 1895 he emphasized the importance of analysis and criticism; the contribution to appreciation and mastery of English that study of foreign languages could make; and the development, through philosophy, of understanding and interest in one's daily work. Next year he was elected to the university council on which he sat for fifty-two years. By 1900 he had achieved a fundamental restructuring of the curriculum for the arts degree which remained operative for over twenty years; and, in collaboration with (Sir) William Bragg, had laid the foundation for significant development in the education of teachers, in accordance with principles that he had first expounded in 1895.

He had pleaded then for schools to provide 'general education in opposition to the widely-accepted view that education was simply a means for “getting on”'. He defined general education as 'the formation of an intellectual, an aesthetic, and a moral character, together with various kinds of skill'; and he saw the 'thorough professional education of teachers' as the governing factor in providing it. Professional education should embrace instruction in the principles, practice and history of education, practical demonstrations by accomplished teachers in a wide range of school classes, and seminar discussions on both.

The Mitchell-Bragg plan involved the university in forgoing fees for two years undergraduate study by all trainee teachers, even infant-teacher trainees, and the Department of Education in granting the university a part in the education and training of teachers; the trainees were housed within the university. Twenty years later the training programme for prospective secondary teachers had become a bachelor's degree in the subjects to be taught, followed by a year studying the theory of education and the craft of teaching. Mitchell also advocated the organization of schools on a regional basis. In the 1940s he proposed that the Adelaide Teachers College should become independent, with its own governing body, a transformation that took some thirty years.

Mitchell was vice-chancellor (unpaid) of the university from 1916 until 1942 when he became chancellor. For nearly half a century he had been so immersed in university life that he continued to discharge many of the functions of a vice-chancellor. He retired as chancellor in 1948 to remove any impediment that he might constitute, or be thought to constitute, to the ideas and policies to be expected of the new full-time vice-chancellor Albert Rowe.

As vice-chancellor Mitchell had believed that the quality of the university lay in its human rather than its material resources. In the appointment of professors he supported young men of proven intellectual capacity whose greatest achievements lay ahead of them: historian (Sir) Keith Hancock, economist (Sir) Leslie Melville, and English scholar Innes Stewart.

In a submission to a 1917 government committee of inquiry he defined the two functions of a university as, at undergraduate level, the giving of knowledge (and thereby power); and at postgraduate level, the creating of knowledge (and power) and the acquisition of expertise. He argued, without immediate success, for the development of the postgraduate function, believing that postgraduate students would contribute to the creation of knowledge and, by teaching, exert a beneficial influence on undergraduates. Another future development that he foresaw was the importance of interrelations between academic disciplines. In seeking a substantially increased government grant he desired growth and expansion, not explosion. The government responded by increasing the limit of subsidy on endowments to a figure well beyond what the university could qualify for at once; and later (1927) by providing, under the Agricultural Education Act, support for the Waite Agricultural Research Institute, to increase steadily from £5000 to £15,000 a year over a decade. In the introductory address to the conference of Australasian universities in 1937 Mitchell expanded his views on the functions of a university to include the giving of a view of the universe, the fostering of a sense of values through the pursuit of knowledge, and the promotion of the exercise of reason.

During his administration Mitchell saw the establishment of a dental school (1920), the Waite Institute (1924) and the school of economics; there was great development in the engineering and medical schools, and a trebling of the university's physical resources. His administration has been criticized for apparent failure to nurture corresponding growth in the humanities and the social sciences. But nearly half the state grant came as subsidies on endowments; some benefactors expected the government subsidy to be applied to the same or a cognate purpose. Twentieth-century endowments had been predominantly for buildings, the medical school and science; the university council hesitated to use the government subsidy for other purposes. In establishing the chair of economics in 1928 it anticipated an endowment promised for the indefinite future (received thirty years later), and kept vacant a chair in science.

An interesting instance of Mitchell's independence from the current emotional atmosphere was his public address, 'The national spirit', in December 1918. In it he rejected the jingoistic doctrine of 'my country, right or wrong' and propounded the conception of true patriotism as identifying oneself with 'the country's task, welfare, honour, and shame'.

Throughout his term as professor (1895-1922) he taught psychology, logic, ethics and general philosophy. He taught also a little English language and literature (until 1900), education (until 1909) and economics (until 1917) and so, as he said, his chair was more like a sofa; but he considered himself primarily a philosopher. His listeners valued some of his occasional lectures sufficiently to publish them; and his forward thinking in the realm of education exerted a profound long-term influence in South Australia. But it was his scholarship and original thinking in psychology and philosophy that brought him overseas acclaim.

Mitchell's first major contribution to international thought was Structure and Growth of the Mind (London, 1907), regarded by Norman Kemp Smith of Princeton University as 'undoubtedly one of the most important philosophical publications of recent years'; for more than a quarter of a century it was a text-book over which university students, in Adelaide at least, sweated. In 1924 and 1926 he gave two ten-lecture series of Gifford lectures in the University of Aberdeen. The first was published in 1933 as The Place of Minds in the World, but the second, 'The Power of the Mind', did not reach the printer. The main theme of The Place was the nature of knowledge and the impact on knowledge of recent advances in physics. J. W. Harvey regarded it as 'a book of the first importance', despite its being 'as difficult … as profound'; H. B. Acton complained of its 'great obscurity' and of the absence of treatment of the latest relevant philosophical thought—defects which he expected to be remedied in the second volume. Mitchell also published reviews in the Philosophical Review, Mind and Philosophy. In 1929 he gave the John Murtagh Macrossan lectures in the University of Queensland, and in 1934 the Henrietta Herz lecture of the British Academy.

On 18 January 1898 he had married Marjorie Erlistoun (d.1913), daughter of Robert Barr Smith; they had a son and daughter. The son was (Sir) Mark, professor of biochemistry and physiology (1938-62) and deputy vice-chancellor (1951-65) at Adelaide, and chancellor of the Flinders University of South Australia (1966-71). In 1934 Mitchell provided a set of iron gates for the main entrance to the university grounds; in 1937 he paid for the hosting of a conference of Australian and New Zealand universities; that year he also gave £20,000 to endow the chair of biochemistry to which Mark had already been appointed. To the sum of £55,000 provided by his wife's family for the university's Barr Smith Library, Mitchell added £5000 in 1940. The university in 1961 named its original building, now devoted to administration but during his time used also for teaching, the Mitchell Building. It had previously commissioned a portrait by William McInnes which hangs in its great hall.

Mitchell, who had been appointed K.C.M.G. in 1927, had the capacity to deal with people as man to man, irrespective of any disparity in age or status. 'There was absolutely no pretentiousness or pomposity about him'.

Physically incapacitated during the closing years of his life, Mitchell died, aged 101, on 24 June 1962 and was privately cremated; his ashes were placed near his wife's grave in Mitcham cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • Mind, 43, no 170, Apr 1934, p 243
  • Philosophy, 9, no 33, Jan 1934, p 103
  • Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 40, no 3, Dec 1962
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 19 Dec 1895, 12 Dec 1918
  • records (Universities of Adelaide, Aberdeen and Edinburgh).

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Citation details

V. A. Edgeloe, 'Mitchell, Sir William (1861–1962)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 20 September 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

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