JOHNSTON, Robert Mackenzie (1844-1918)


JOHNSTON, Robert Mackenzie (1844-1918)
statistician and man of science
was born near Inverness, Scotland, on 27 November 1844, the son of a crofter. He was educated at the village school where his ability was quickly recognized. He was influenced by the life of Hugh Miller whose books were lent to him. He obtained work on the railways, read widely, and studied botany, geology, and chemistry at Glasgow. Emigrating to Australia in 1870 he was given a position in the accountant's branch of the Launceston and Western District railway. He transferred to the government service in 1872, and in 1880 became chief clerk in the auditor-general's office. Two years later he was appointed registrar-general and government statistician. He was appointed a royal commissioner to report on the fisheries of Tasmania, also did much geological work, and in 1888 the government published his Systematic Account of the Geology of Tasmania. He was president of the economic and social science and statistics section at the meeting of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science held at Melbourne in 1890, and with the coming of federation he was able to influence very much the special problems of finance that were raised. He originated the scheme of per-capita payments by the Commonwealth to the states that was eventually adopted. He was offered and declined the position of government statist for New South Wales, and declined to be a candidate for the position of Commonwealth statist. Apart from his official duties he was keenly interested in all branches of science, in music, and in education. He died at Hobart on 20 April 1918. He received the Imperial service order in 1903. A list of 103 of his papers is given in the Papers and Proceedings of the Royal Society of Tasmania for 1918, of which over 50 are on geological subjects. In 1903 The R. M. Johnston Memorial Volume, being a selection from his more important papers, was published by the Tasmanian government.
Johnston was unassuming and of a most lovable disposition; a great public servant, whose advice on financial matters was always of much value to the ministers of the crown, he also did scientific work of outstanding value. His Geology of Tasmania was a remarkable piece of work, all the more so in that it was done by a man busily engaged in other directions.
Foreword and biographical notes, The R.M. Johnston Memorial Volume; Papers and Proceedings of the Royal Society of Tasmania, 1918; The Mercury, Hobart, 22 and 23 April 1918; E. W. Skeats, David Lecture, 1933; Some Founders of Australian Geology.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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