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Macdonald, Donald (1910–2003)

by John Farquharson

Brigadier Macdonald, a former commandant of the Army Survey Corps, who has died in Sydney, aged 92, made a significant contribution to the mapping of Australia. In the course of a distinguished career spanning almost 50 years, he reached the highest level in two areas of his profession – civil and military surveying – as well as gaining international recognition.

As director of Military Survey (1960-67), he ushered in what Survey Corps historian Chris Coulthard-Clark described as seven years of ‘real cooperation between Army Survey and National Mapping’. This period saw the Corps undertake varied and extensive mapping operations covering the more remote areas of Australia and sectors of Papua New Guinea. It also resulted in the continent being mapped at 1:250,000 scale – the first time that Australia, as a whole, had been topographically mapped with an accurate series.

In 1965 Brigadier Macdonald was responsible for the introduction of the Topographic Survey Troop as an integral part of an infantry division. The worth of forming this unit was soon confirmed with its outstanding performance during the Vietnam War.

Born in the Victorian Gippsland town of Traralgon on 22 March 1910, Macdonald received his secondary education at St Patrick’s College, Sale, where he matriculated in 1926. His long career in surveying began when he became an articled student with Messrs Little and Brosnan, of Melbourne.

He qualified for his surveyor’s licence in 1931, but found the going tough in general surveying as the Depression began to bite. A slot surveying state forests for the Victorian Forestry Department helped him through. However, when an opportunity came to join the Survey Corps and be involved in the mapping of Australia, he applied and was accepted. He went into the Corps in 1936 as a warrant officer, thus beginning his close association with geodetic and topographical surveying.

Commissioned in 1939, Macdonald was posted in 1940 to the 2/1st Field Survey Company, Royal Australian Engineers, AIF. After gaining experience in the application of photogrammetry to mapping, he was appointed to raise and command, with the rank of Major, 4th Field Survey Company in Western Australia. Later, he was posted as commanding officer of 3rd Field Survey Company, Victoria, before taking up his first staff appointment as assistant director of survey at 1st Australian Army Headquarters at Toowoomba, Queensland.

From January 1944 to the end of World War II he was assistant mapping officer to the chief engineer, General Hugh Casey, at General MacArthur’s South-West Pacific Area Headquarters. He moved with the headquarters from Brisbane to Hollandia (in then Dutch New Guinea) and thence to Manila, where he finished the war. For his service with the US forces, he was Mentioned in Dispatches and awarded the US Medal of Freedom with Bronze Palm. In September 1945, he was recalled to Australian Army Headquarters to tackle the many problems thrown up with the end of hostilities – demobilisation and the re-establishment of the Survey Corps on a peacetime footing.

Back with the Corps, he was again engaged in mapping where he was active in establishing standards and specifications. But changes were looming, that would see the major responsibility for mapping Australia pass from the Army into civilian hands. A central authority - the National Mapping Council - was created to coordinate state and federal activities. This led in 1947 to the National Mapping Section being formed in the Department of the Interior with the surveyor-general as director of National Mapping. To ease the burden of the surveyor-general’s multiplicity of duties, it was decided to appoint an executive officer with the title deputy director National Mapping. In 1951, the section became the Division of National Mapping within the Department of National Development.

The way all this was handled was to sour relations for years between the Survey Corps and the Commonwealth’s civilian mapping organisations. Faced with the inevitability of what was to happen the then director of Military Survey, Colonel (later Brigadier) Lawrence FitzGerald believed that the deputy’s job in the new mapping section should go to a serviceman. He wanted the appointment to go to his deputy Lieutenant-Colonel Macdonald, but it went unexpectedly to ex-corps member, Major Bruce Lambert, later to become director of National Mapping in his own right.

Compensation came for Macdonald, when on FitzGerald’s retirement, he was promoted to command the Corps.  During his term as director the corps began to strike out in new directions and make greater use of new technology. After retiring from military service in 1967, he remained active in the profession and was involved in the large-scale mapping of Canberra as a surveyor with the Department of the Interior until finally retiring in 1975. Side-by-side with his military career, Brigadier Macdonald took an active part in the affairs of the Institution of Surveyors at state and federal level as president of two divisions (Victoria and Canberra) and of the federal body. For his varied services to the profession, he was awarded the medal of the Institution of Surveyors, Australia, in 1972. He was made a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) in 1978.  

In the international sphere of mapping, he was widely known and well respected as head of the Australian delegation to SEATO (South-East Asia Treaty Organisation) cartographic meetings and as Australian delegate at conference for British Commonwealth survey officers in Britain. He continued his association with the Survey Corps as Colonel Commandant from 1967 to 1972, and his membership of Survey Corps unit associations.

A genial, warm-hearted man, he enjoyed easy working relations with those under his command. Nevertheless, he set high standards for himself in carrying out his duties and expected them in others. Outside his work, he was active in lay organisations of the Catholic Church.

Two daughters, Margaret and Anne, a son, Jim, and their families survive him. His wife, Lucy, predeceased him.

Brigadier Donald Macdonald, born 22 March 1910; died 8 February 2003.

Original publication

  • Age (Melbourne), 18 February 2003
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 24 February 2003
  • Canberra Times, 7 March 2003

Citation details

John Farquharson, 'Macdonald, Donald (1910–2003)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/macdonald-donald-627/text628, accessed 12 August 2020.

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