The Madras College Archive


Former Pupil Biographies

Professor William McIntosh (1838 - 1931)

The creation of a permanent marine laboratory was the dream of local teenager, William McIntosh, who went on to become one of the leading zoologists of his generation. His father, John McIntosh, was a prominent businessman who had 5 daughters and a son by his wife Eliza. William McIntosh started his academic career at Madras College in 1845, later entering the University of St Andrews at the age of 15 to follow a well-rounded education in classics, mathematics, French, political economy and the sciences. His life-long interest in natural history and in collecting marine creatures was already established by the time he entered Edinburgh University to study Medicine in 1857. Indeed, whilst at Edinburgh, he carried out experiments and wrote a prize winning thesis on the nervous system and behaviour of the shore crab.

After graduating in 1860 McIntosh took up a position as an assistant physician at Murray's Hospital, a Mental Institution in Perth. The Physician Superintendent, Dr Lauder Lindsay, was a keen botanist, and he had equipped the hospital with a Natural History Museum where McIntosh gave lectures in Zoology for the benefit of the patients. McIntosh published several papers and started experiments on the development of salmon eggs using tanks set up in his bedroom. His museum displays and publications greatly benefited from the artistic talents of his sister Roberta who was to later assist him in many of his most important projects. McIntosh was appointed Superintendent of the new Murthly Mental Hospital, outside Perth, in 1863 thus acquiring the stability and financial resources needed to continue his interests in Zoology. He was never to marry, and something of his single minded pursuit of knowledge can be judged from his assertion that "No man who joined Bonhomie to wine and women could qualify as a true votary of Science". McIntosh was a Founding member of the St Andrews Temperance Society.

Whilst running the mental hospital McIntosh's studies of marine life continued using material collected at St Andrews. In 1873, British Annelids Vol. 1 Nemertea was published by the Ray Society; this was the first of a classic series of monographs, the preparation of which was to occupy most of the rest of his life McIntosh also was involved in the analysis of material from the Porcupine and Challenger Expeditions which led to a revolution in our understanding of life in the deep sea. Honours followed his many scientific achievements, including election to Fellowships of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1869 and the Royal Society of London in 1877.

After several failed attempts to gain an academic position, McIntosh was finally appointed Professor of Civil and Natural History in his home town at the age of 44 in 1882. The following year he was recruited to the Trawling Commission which was chaired by Lord Dalhousie and included Thomas Henry Huxley as a member. At that time, traditional sail-powered yawls and small boats which fished using baited hooks were being joined by steam boats which could drag heavy trawls. The Trawling Commission was charged with assessing the impact of these technological advances. At St Andrews, McIntosh set about analysing trawl contents from the east coast of Scotland and rearing fish to describe their developmental stages. He discovered that the eggs of most commercially important fish floated and that therefore the spawning grounds were not destroyed by trawling. The Commission proposed the setting up of a 3 mile limit reserved for line fisherman and scientific trawling. At the time there still was a significant fishing fleet operating from the harbour at St Andrews.

The fishermen were so incensed by the outcome of the Trawling Commission that on the 6th March 1885 they marched to McIntosh's home in Hope Street and burned an effigy in a noisy demonstration. In 1884 McIntosh's dream of a permanent marine laboratory was realised with the opening of the St Andrews Fisheries Laboratory with support from the Fisheries Board of Scotland. St Andrews University had then only about 200 students. Research in marine biology, however, flourished with the opening of the Gatty Marine Laboratory in 1896. This was a purpose built stone building with much improved facilities. McIntosh enjoyed a long and productive career producing more than 350 scientific publications before finally retiring from his Chair at the age of 76 in 1917. His successor, Sir D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson, moved from Queen's College Dundee to take over the Chair of Natural History. D'Arcy had little use for the Gatty which was closed by the Court in 1918. McIntosh, however, could not accept that his scientific career was over and he continued to occupy a room at the Gatty, supporting his own work and organising Open Days and Conversaziones for the public with his sister Agnes. The last of 7 volumes of British Annelids was published by the Ray Society in 1923. McIntosh caught a chill and died on 1st April 1931. His lasting legacies are his published works and the Gatty Marine Laboratory.


This portrait painted in 1910 is by James Lessels who was was the Art and Drawing teacher at Madras College at that time.

The Madras College Magazine for New Year 1911 reported:

"Professor Mclntosh is a native of St. Andrews; son of a well-known citizen who was for many years a Councillor and Bailie of the City. The Professor had a distinguished career at School and University, he holds many academical degrees, and is a member of numerous Scientific Societies, both in this country and abroad. For many years he was Physician to the Perth District Asylum at Murthly, and in 1882 was appointed Professor of Natural History in the University of St, Andrews, where he also holds the posts of Director of the Museum and of the Gatty Marine Laboratory. He is an authority on Fishery questions, and has acted on several Royal Commissions of enquiry into that subject. He has published several works of importance and many Memoirs on Zoological subjects, which he has illustrated with drawings by his own hand. Professor Mclntosh attended Madras College from 1845 to 1853, and was a distinguished pupil of Dr. Auld and Dr. Lonie.

In 'The Madras College' Dr Thompson wrote:

"Professor William Mclntosh, the founder of the Gatty Marine Laboratory, is remembered by Mclntosh Hall. "