Charles Anderson

Charles Anderson
  • Born:

    Moa, Stenness, 5 December 1876

  • Died:

    25 October 1944

  • Father:

    John Anderson

  • Mother:

    Margaret Anderson nee Smith

  • Married:

    Elsie Helen Robertson

  • Children:

    Son, two daughters

Charles Anderson started school in Stenness when he was five and a half, in June 1882. It was a long walk, over often muddy roads, from the farm of Moa on the Stoneyhill Road to the Stenness Public School half a mile up the Ireland Road, but he would have had plenty of company, including three of his eight older brothers and sisters. The school they were heading for was a simple two-room school, tightly packed with up to seventy children but it was in the charge of one of the many talented men who would guide Charles to his scientific career.


Magnus Spence, who later taught in Deerness for many years and gained local fame as a meteorologist and botanist, was only thirty when Charles started school but was already an impressive teacher. A typical inspector's report noted, "This school is taught with marked power and skill and has made an excellent appearance. Standard work has been done with all but complete accuracy and is very decidedly above average in respect both of quality and neatness of execution."


Magnus Spence wrote a reference for Charles in 1899, in which he said, "I have known Mr Charles Anderson from childhood, and the high expectations which his exceptional abilities, his unflagging energy and his fixedness of purpose compelled me to form, have been fully realized in the brilliant University career he has just concluded."


Charles won a bursary to attend Kirkwall Grammar School in 1991, as his brother John had done four years earlier. According to his biography in the Australian Museum records, he walked the nine miles home twice a week for supplies.


The headmaster of KGS at that time was another gifted teacher, John MacEwen, who famously helped to produce so many scientists it was said that Orkney's two main exports were eggs and professors. Four professors-in-the-making who would have attended the school at around this time were John Tait, Professor of Physiology at McGill University; George Scarth, Professor of Botany at McGill; Robert Wallace, Professor of Geology and Minerology at Manitoba and James Gunn, first Professor of Pharmacology at Oxford.


John McEwen also wrote a reference for Charles, describing him as having first-rate intellectual gifts and great industry and power of work. These qualities enabled him to come second in all of Scotland in the examination for a Highlands and Islands Bursary when he left school in 1894 and, in the following year, he won an Orkney and Zetland Bursary to Edinburgh University, of £40 annually for three years.


His entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography claims he returned from holidays in Orkney with a barrel of herring and sacks of oatmeal and potatoes, "on which he subsisted". Whatever his diet, he clearly thrived on it: his university career could hardly have been more successful. He won class medals in every science subject he studied: Chemistry, Physics, Geology, Zoology, Crystallography and Mineralogy and gained distinctions in English Literature, Latin and Mathematics.


The professors he studied under at Edinburgh were famous names in their fields, such as physicist Peter Guthrie Tait and geologist James Geikie but the professor who probably influenced him most was the chemist Alexander Crum Brown.


Brown was a member of the Royal Society and inventor of the system, still used today, of representing molecules by drawing circles around atoms and joining them up with lines. In 1900, he wrote, "I have much pleasure in stating that I have known Mr Charles Anderson since October 1897… I have thus had every means of knowing Mr Anderson's position as a Student of Chemistry, and can conscientiously say that he has a sound knowledge of the Science."


Charles gained an MA in 1898 and then went on to graduate with a BSc in 1900, crowning his career by winning one of the five Hope Prize Scholarships, awarded annually to the most deserving students in Chemistry.


His first appointment was superintendent of the Ben Nevis Observatory, run by the Scottish Meteorological Society and the Royal Societies of London and Edinburgh. The observatory had opened in 1883 and, coincidentally, its first superintendent also had strong Orkney connections. Robert Traill Omond was the son of surgeon Robert Omond and Mary Traill, daughter of Professor Thomas Stewart Traill; both men came from Kirkwall.


Conditions at the top of Britain's highest mountain were considered good preparation for Antarctic expeditions, as it has snow cover for, on average, 215 days of the year. Conditions were too extreme for automatic recording equipment so the superintendent and his two fellow observers had to take manual hourly readings. Entries in the log book include, "Rain gauge not found. Presumed blown over the North Cliff" and "08:00 - one of the cups of the anemometer was gone and could not be found. 09:00 - another cup gone". For much of the year, the anemometer was too iced up to be used so wind speed was estimated by how far the observers could lean into it.


Especially for an Orcadian, largely unused to a lot of snow and ice, these conditions must have been trying and it's perhaps understandable that he sought another position after less than a year and that it should be somewhere much warmer - Sydney, Australia, where he became Mineralogist for the Australian Museum in July, 1901


He worked hard as curator, reorganizing his department and its collections and exhibits but also found time to do research work on morphological crystallography and the chemistry of minerals in Australia, for which Edinburgh University awarded him a doctorate in 1908. An on-line biography from the Australian Museum says that his book, The Bibliography of Australian Minerology, which was written mainly in his spare time and published in 1916, is a book "no student of Australian mineralogy can afford to be without". It lists the titles of about one thousand papers on the subject, many only published in foreign journals.


Anderson travelled to Europe in 1911 to visit his family in Orkney and to study the developments in European museums. Ten years later, on 14 February 1921, he was appointed Director of the Australian Museum and this led him into a completely new field of research.


Growing up in Orkney, he had been interested in the fossils that can be found in the Old Red Sandstone and had his own small collection. Perhaps some of them came from Cruaday Quarry in Quoyloo, which went through such a rich fossil bed that the Orkney Builders' lorries were said to carry loads of fish and chips. He now had the chance to work on a much larger scale and took personal charge of the vertebrate palaeontology section of the museum. He embraced this opportunity with enthusiasm. His work as Director kept him busy during the day but his evenings, often late into the night, were spent sorting and cataloguing the collection. He went on to do his own original research on the Pleistocene Mammals of Australia and came to be recognised as a world authority on palaeontology.


Fascinating as he found this work, the museum still received its full share of his attention. According to the records of the Museum, "Popular lectures, begun in 1905 were expanded… Gallery displays were improved considerably, and many fine groups were installed. So good were these that they earned the approbation of many overseas authorities." He inaugurated, and frequently contributed to, the Australian Museum Magazine, which later became Australian Natural History.


The On-line Australian Dictionary of Biography says that he gave ''abundantly of his rare gifts of scholarship and versatile scientific knowledge' and gives a list of the New South Wales societies he presided over: the Royal Society, the Geographical Society, the Anthropological Society and the Linnean Society. He was also a member of the Australian National Research Council and a corresponding member of the London Zoological Society and the American Museum of Natural History in New York.


Charles Anderson retired from the Museum in 1940 and spent his last years assisting the war effort, on the staff of Communications Censorship. He died in October 1944, leaving his wife Elsie, a son and two daughters


Even apart from his many scientific achievements, his entries in the Records of the Australian Museum and the Australian Dictionary of National Biography give a picture of a life well lived. He is described as widely read, a good linguist and classical scholar.


The Museum Records say, "An ardent Orcadian, he was steeped in the lore and legends of his native isles, and nothing pleased him more than to tell some folkloristic anecdote of the Orkneys. He was an excellent companion, kindly and friendly, ever ready to help in any capacity. He gave freely of his services and none can say that they approached him in vain. He was a tireless worker."


The Dictionary gives this attractive description, "He had a whimsical sense of humour, great personal charm and simple tastes: he enjoyed golf, trout-fishing, and singing Scottish songs such as 'Fhairshon swore a feud/Against ta clan MacTavish'. With an abiding love for his native Orkneys, he firmly maintained that Orcadians were of Scandinavian rather than of Scottish ancestry. He used dog German as a lingua franca with his assistant Marcel Aurousseau, who recalled that when measuring crystals on the goniometer, an intricate piece of apparatus, his favourite song was 'There was a wee cooper who lived in Fife,/Nicketty, nacketty, noo, noo, noo'."