Dr William Evan MacFarlane (FRGS, FRAS)

1866 - 1919: Missionary . Surgeon . Astronomer

MacFarlane posing with his telescope in Irvinebank circa 1918
Dr William MacFarlane, using his 17.8 cm Cooke Refractor (telescope) in his Irvinebank observatory.

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The Life of William Evan MacFarlane

William MacFarlane was born on a tropical island in 1866; the son of British missionary parents serving the London Missionary Society, in a territory in possession of the French. It was a territory not only contested between two nations, but contested between two faiths: Protestant vs. Catholic.

His missionary father Samual MacFarlane, described as "a busy and pernickety Scotsman with a neat little wife."1 arrived on the Island of Lifou in New Caledonia October 28, 18592, shortly after the Catholic Marists. Samuel MacFarlane and his family endured 12 years of confrontations with the French colonial rulers.

the small island turned into a cauldron of Franco-British and Catholic-Protestant recriminations.1

Samuel MacFarlane's mission at Chepenehe flourished, while the Catholic missionaries struggled to survive. While the French administrators resented the presence of the London Missionary Society, they gave little support to the Catholics. The Governor of the French Republican colony followed a creed that was strictly secular and anti-clerical. The situation came to a head, however, when the governor sent a detachment of soldiers to Chepenehe, to enforce a ban on the use of English and the local languages in schools, and to stop MacFarlane's proselytising.

Samuel MacFarlane fought the military action by pen. He engaged in a war of words backed by his belief in religious liberty. He secured the support of his Catholic rivals against a common enemy - the secular state; and he won.

In the year before William MacFarlane's birth, friendly relations with the Catholics ended when his mother, Elizabeth MacFarlane, made a faux pax when visiting a impressive, newly built Catholic church at Nathalo. An apparent misinterpretation led her to lift the lid of the tabernacle on the altar, believed by Catholics to contain the host, or the body of Christ.

Cries of sacrilege were raised in Noumea, Paris, then finally London.1

The resulting diplomatic spat saw the removal of both the French Governor, and Samual MacFarlane. When the MacFarlane family left New Caledonia, they had four sons and a daughter. Samuel MacFarlane went on to be the first European missionary in the Torres Strait Islands and New Guinea, where he established 12 missions. His arrival on Darnley Island is still celebrated on July 1st every year on the Torres Strait Islands as 'The Festival of Light'. Samuel MacFarlane published two books in his lifetime, The Story of the Lifu Mission, (London, 1873) and Among the Cannibals of New Guinea, (London, 1888).

After being educated and ordained in England, William Evan MacFarlane followed in the footsteps of his father as a missionary and was posted to Tsientsin, China, by the London Missionary Society. His arrival around April 1892 coincided with a rebellion, and an upheaval in traditional Chinese society marked by ethnic conflict in the area to which he was appointed. In the months preceding his arrival, his colleague, Mr. Parker had reported:

"I need not write at length upon the trouble which forced me from the field. As you will remember, a rebellion broke out in November, and Ch'ao-Yang, where I was staying, was the first to be attacked. I had to leave rather hurriedly, leaving all behind me. After hiding for the fortnight, the rebels having been driven thirty miles away from the city, I returned. But finding it still very insecure, and large forces of rebels collecting near at hand, I concluded that it was more than a local affair. Also the Chinese money shop, where all my silver is kept, was closed up, and my resources were fast giving out. I then buried all valuable things, as medicines and books, and left the place, and by a roundabout way, through the goodness of God, got safely to Tien-tsin.3

The London Missionary society reported:

Peace was, however, speedily restored by the vigorous action of the Chinese authorities, and in the spring of 1892 it became safe for Mr. Parker to return to his sphere of labour. He left Tientsin on April 19 with his new colleague, Mr. Macfarlane, and reached Ch'ao Yang on May 3.3

Two years later:

"Then came a twofold trouble : Mr. Macfarlane, after repeated attacks of dysentery, felt compelled to return to England for his health, and the outbreak of the war with Japan made the whole of the country bordering on the route of the Chinese soldiers to Manchuria so unsafe for foreigners that Mr. and Mrs. Parker found it necessary to retire from their station."3

DEATH OF DOCTOR MCFARLANE: Irvinebank's Great Loss; A man of Sterling Worth.

Dr McFarlane is dead.

Irvinebank and Stannary Hills, with the assistance of Dr. McFarlane, had for several weeks been battling with a severe attack of influenza, which was aided by the worst of weathers. For the past week or thereabouts, the weather has been of the brightest, and the epidemic appeared to have been bested. Everyone was congratulating themselves upon having had a man of Dr. McFarlane's worth amongst them during the battle. The doctor himself was speaking of a well-earned holiday, a trip to India, as a reward and rest after this struggle.

On Thursday, however, he spoke of not feeling too well; on Friday, it was whispered that he was laid up with influenza; on Saturday, he was unable to make his bi-weekly visit to the Stannary Hills Hospital, and on Sunday he was dead. "Dead," everyone repeated, and the town was staggered.

Dr. McFarlane was a bachelor and occupied the hospital residence adjacent to the institution. Mr Reid, of the Irvinebank Mining Company Limited, called yesterday afternoon to see how he was faring, and was assured by the doctor that he was wanting nothing and doing well. The doctor expressed worry at not being able to attend the Stannary Hills Hospital the previous day, adding that he would, however, be well enough to make the visit within the coming week. Mr. Reid, upon leaving, was not satisfied, and went direct to the hospital, requesting that the matron immediately take the doctor's temperature, the intention being to call for the Herberton doctor's aid, if indications warranted it. Immediately upon Mr. Reid's departure, the doctor's attendant entered his bedroom with nourishment, to find him lying across the bed. He had apparently attempted to rise for some purpose when his heart failed.

It is hard to realise that he is dead, but it will be harder to replace him. His name was at the head of every subscription list, his time and assistance at the disposal of every thing for the betterment of the town or other worthy cause. He was a most reliable and attentive medical man, and a lavish host. He was a good doctor, a good citizen, and a good fellow. Dr. McFarlane took a keen interest of sport of all kinds, was a keen chess player, and was recently elected a member of the Royal Astronomical Society, of which he was very proud. His observatory here is numbered with the best in Australia. He leaves no relatives in Australia, and was comparatively a young man, his age being 53. He first came to Irvinebank direct from London and was never known to have previously had a day's illness during the long span he was with us. ~ 'DEATH OF DR. McFARLANE.', The Northern Herald, 20 August 1919

Impressive Funeral

Irvinebank, Aug 18.

The funeral was by far the largest and most impressive ever seen in Irvinebank. The cortege was of considerable distance, and the remains were followed to their last resting place by practically the entire population of the town, while residents came from Stannary Hills and other centres to pay their last tribute to the doctor's memory. Sorrow at his death was widespread and heartfelt. The coffin was hung with wreaths sent by those who had known him and revered him in life, and who mourned the death of a physician who gave his life in the service of suffering humanity. To the children he was a patron, consoler and fairy godfather. When they needed a football, sets of cricket tools, or other implements of outdoor sport, it was to the doctor they went with their requests, which were never once turned down. They marched in a sorrowing group fully 200 strong, and were given pride of place next the hearse, as he would have wished. Stepping behind them were men and women, old and young, who had memories of his patient interest in their well-being, his public and private generosity, and his nobility. Prominent citizens, who have been associated with the progress of the district, felt that they had lost a co-worker, as well as a friend, and by their presence paid their last sad tribute to the memory of Dr. McFarlane. The pall-bearers were Mr. J.H. Reid, managing director, Irvinebank Mining Company; Mr. John Farquhar, manager, Queensland National Bank; Cr. E. V. Borghero, chairman of the Walsh Shire Council; Mr. F. J. Robinson, president of the Walsh District Hospital Committee; Mr. James Tunnie, metallurgist, of the Irvinebank Company; and Mr T. Delugar, manager, Jack and Newell's. An impressive service was read at the graveside by Rev. St Clair. The remains were interred at the wish of Mr. Reid, in that portion of the cemetery where Mrs. Reid was laid to rest a few days ago. ~'Impressive Funeral.', Cairns Post 19 August 1919,

Sources and Citations