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Morton, Alexander (1854–1907)

Mr. Alex. Morton

The news of the death of Mr. Alexander Morton, Curator of the Tasmanian Museum, will be received with regret by the public of Tasmania, to whom his name has long been a household word, as also by scientific workers throughout Australia, by whom he was held in high esteem. Mr. Morton died shortly before noon on Monday at Whitminster Lodge private hospital, Sandy Bay, of which he had been an inmate for some weeks. The immediate cause of death was heart disease.

Born at Hardtimes Landing, Louisiana, about fifty-two years ago, the son of a planter, Mr. Morton, while yet a boy, migrated with his father to Queensland. Morton senior invested what capital he possessed in a sugar plantation, but died before he had time to bring his enterprise to a successful issue. In consequence of his father's death Alex. Morton, who was still young, was thrown entirely upon his own resources; he had to begin life at the foot of the ladder. For a time, in colloquial phrase, he roughed it; he gained a livelihood by the means he found most ready to hand, and at one period served as a seaman before the mast. Subsequently the experience gained in his younger days became invaluable to him; for it fitted him, as no other training could, for the missions which he was selected to undertake by the Council of the Sydney Museum and other scientific bodies. Having joined the staff of the Sydney Museum he rose rapidly in the estimation of the Council, and of the curator (Mr. Ramsay); and when it was decided to send an exploring party to New Guinea, to the remote parts of Queensland, and to the Andaman Islands he was chosen for the work, and discharged his commission in a manner which gave general satisfaction. He visited places which had not previously been explored by a scientific collector, a fact which gives some of his records a unique value. In the course of time Mr. Morton came to hold a high position in the Sydney Museum, and when the directorship of the Tasmanian Museum became vacant, about 23 years ago, he offered himself for the post. The Royal Society, in view of his favourable recommendation by the authorities of the sister institution in New South Wales, unhesitatingly appointed him. That the Royal Society was exceptionally happy in its choice has long been universally admitted. The Tasmanian Museum in its present magnitude and completeness is of Mr. Morton's erection. He revised the classification of the collection of specimens which he found on taking charge of the institution; and not only did he revise it, but he added to and increased it very materially. His arrangement of the contents of the Museum on modern lines has won encomiums from scientists of foremost rank. But classifying and rearranging specimens were but a small part of Mr Morton's work, its scope was larger, and its effect more far-reaching. To the energy and enthusiasm which he threw into his work was due the extension of the Museum building. The addition of the new wings gave him the space requisite to the ideal classification which he aimed at. His object was not merely to make the Museum a place where the curious might gratify a taste for novelty, but a school for the instruction of both local people and visiting scientists. His scheme of classification enabled the inquirer to view the natural history of the whole island, as it were, in miniature. And though many men might have excelled the late curator in one particular department, yet it would have taxed the powers of three or four men of ordinary skill to do the work which he accomplished single-handed. But besides being a curator of all-round capacity, there were some departments of his work to which he devoted particular attention, and in which he achieved notable success. In ornithology and ichthyology he made original researches, and materially improved the collections of specimens illustrative of these branches of natural history. Mr. Morton did not profess to be a connois- seur of art, but with the means at his disposal he did his best to get together a collection of pictures worthy the city. His success in securing works of art on loan was remarkable, indeed, he succeeded when no one else would think of making an attempt. As secretary of the Royal Society, he discharged his duties with the same abounding energy, and to him must be assigned in a large measure the credit of having maintained public inter- est in its discussions. And while he was ever ready to put his own shoulder to the wheel, he possessed in a rare degree, the faculty of enlisting the services of all whom he thought capable of assisting. If an eminent scientist visited the city, the public never waited long to learn that Mr Morton had induced him to give the Royal Society the benefit of his special knowledge. There was another institution, the Science Conference, in which Mr. Morton interested himself, and on behalf of which he worked with characteristic vigour. It benefited largely by his powers of organisation, and at critical times in its history he was largely instrumental in preserving its existence.

Reference has already been made to some of Mr Morton's scientific expeditions. It remains to speak of one or two more. Some years ago he was commissioned by the Western Australian Government to make a collection of the minerals of that State. This he did in a manner at once successful and satisfactory to those concerned; and, thanks to the generosity of the Western Australian Government the Tasmanian Museum was enriched by large additions to its geological departments. Another commission which he undertook and successfully performed was the importation of fish from Canada. During the Canadian winter he worked night and day, and it is not improbable that the over-exertion then undergone contributed to his breakdown in health. His activity was by no means confined to the Museum. He was Director of the Botanical Gardens, Secretary of the Domain Committee, and a member of the Fisheries Commission. In these several capacities he laboured with his wonted energy and ability. He was one of the oldest and most useful members of the Southern Tasmanian Agricultural Society, and assisted very materially in bringing that organisation up to its present prosperous condition. Other societies benefited by his industry and enthusiasm; in fact wherever there was good work to be done for the public or for any scientific or benevolent object, there Mr. Morton was to be found, and in his own way always undertaking a large portion of the work. Of Mr Morton, one who knew him intimately says: — He was a warm and loyal friend. If a man was ill he would be willing to watch by his bed all night, even though he scarcely knew him. No man was more tender than he was, and of all the men I ever know none was more affectionate and loyal.

The deceased gentleman leaves a widow and family of three daughters and one son. To-morrow afternoon the interment of his mortal remains will take place at the Cornelian Bay cemetery.

ZEEHAN, May 27.

Much regret is expressed locally at the death of Alexander Morton, which, it is felt has removed one who has been a most energetic and capable officer of the State, and whose place it will be difficult to fill.

Original publication

Citation details

'Morton, Alexander (1854–1907)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 4 March 2021.

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