Lumen - The University of Adelaide Magazine The University of Adelaide Australia
Lumen Summer 2007 Issue
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Many lifetimes of achievement

Different generations of one family will forever be linked with the University of Adelaide's history - including a philosopher who was Vice-Chancellor during the Second World War, and the author of a major work on the first 100 years of student experience.

It all started with John McKellar Stewart. The son of a farmer from Scotland, he would go on to become Hughes Professor of Philosophy at the University of Adelaide, as well as Vice-Chancellor.

He was father to three University of Adelaide graduates, grandfather to another two, and great-grandfather to another.

Stewart was born near Warrnambool, Victoria in 1878. Having studied at the University of Melbourne, in 1906 he topped his final year in philosophy with First Class Honours. In 1911 he completed his D.Phil at the University of Edinburgh, where he wrote a thesis on Bergson's philosophy. He returned to the University of Melbourne in 1912 as lecturer in philosophy, and in 1920 he attained the newly established rank of associate professor.

In 1923 he came to the University of Adelaide to take up the Hughes Chair of Philosophy, succeeding Sir William Mitchell in the role. Professor McKellar Stewart would not only stay at Adelaide for the next 30 years, he would eventually become Vice-Chancellor at a critical time in history.

He was Deputy Vice-Chancellor from 1943-1945 and Vice-Chancellor from 1945-1948. He was the last of the truly "academic" vice-chancellors, continuing with his teaching - in philosophy, psychology, ethics and logic - until his retirement in 1951.

Professor McKellar Stewart and his wife, Margaret Stewart (nee Bothroyd), had a daughter and three sons. Their daughter, Margaret McKellar Stewart, studied for a Bachelor of Arts at the University of Adelaide in 1937, and graduated with First Class Honours in English.

Two of the three brothers - Ian and Alastair - also graduated from the University, both with medical degrees.

In June 2007, Margaret McKellar Finnis (nee Stewart) died in Adelaide at the age of 93. Shortly before her death she granted an interview to Lumen, and her comments are reproduced in this article thanks to the permission of her family.

"My first experience of the University was visiting my father in the Mitchell Building. He had a sumptuous room down the left-hand corridor at the end," she said.

She had fond memories of her years as a student, and a tutor, at a time when there was great change occurring on the lower level of the North Terrace Campus.

"It was very 'matey'," she said. "We had great friendships. We were very relaxed down in the Union, and little by little... the (new) buildings came into place, and that was very exciting.

"We were very lucky at that period, with all of those (new buildings) - the Helen Mayo Refectory, the Lady Symon Building, the Barr Smith Library, and the George Murray Building."

Her deep understanding of the University and the many changes it had gone through over the years made her the perfect choice to write a book about the first 100 years of student experience at the University.

The book, The lower level: a discursive history of The Adelaide University Union (1975), is still the only comprehensive book of its kind about the student activities and life at the University.

Margaret McKellar Stewart married Maurice Finnis, also an Adelaide graduate of 1937 with a Bachelor of Arts - another philosopher in the family. They had four children: John, Jane, Catherine and Alexander (Nigel). Each has excelled in their own fields.

The eldest, John Finnis, graduated from the University of Adelaide with a Law degree in 1962 and was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford where he earned a D.Phil in Law. He has been a law tutor at University College, Oxford, since 1966, and in 1989 was appointed Professor of Law & Legal Philosophy at the University of Oxford, a post that he holds today. He also holds the Biolchini Chair in Law at the University of Notre Dame, and is Visiting Professor of Law, Jurisprudence and Moral Philosophy at Melbourne.

Jane Childs (nee Finnis) moved into nursing and nursing education. She and her husband, Robert Childs (also a graduate of the University of Adelaide with a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) 1970, and a philosopher), are best known for their work in establishing SCALA (the Songwriters, Composers and Lyricists' Association), an umbrella organisation formed in the late 1980s to support and encourage the writing and presentation of original music of any style. In 2004, both Jane and Robert received the Medal of the Order of Australia for services to music as mentors and promoters of emerging composers and performers through SCALA.

Catherine Finnis studied music at the University of Adelaide's Elder Conservatorium. An exceptional cello player, she won the Elder Overseas Scholarship to study at the Royal College of Music in London. She played with Menuhin's Festival Orchestra, and also with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields. In addition to this, she also graduated with a First Class Degree in Fine Art from Coventry University, while continuing a career focusing on baroque music.

The youngest of Mrs Finnis' children, Alexander Nigel Finnis (Nigel), studied for his Masters in French, Spanish and German at Flinders University before moving to Cambridge University where he obtained his PhD in Linguistics. He is currently teaching in the German Department at Nottingham Girls' High School.

One of Jane Childs' children, Sarah Prior, is also a University of Adelaide graduate, with degrees in Building Studies and Landscape Architecture, and has recently worked for the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust.

With four very successful children, 15 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren, Mrs Finnis said she was pleased with what her family had achieved over the years.

She also saw the University, stemming from her father's initial appointment back in 1923, as playing an important role in those achievements. For Mrs Finnis, the University was a predominant part of all aspects of her life. ■


John McKellar Stewart

John McKellar Stewart
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Margaret McKellar Finnis.

Margaret McKellar Finnis.
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From left: Members of the Finnis family Catherine Gray, Nigel Finnis, John Finnis and Jane Childs.

From left: Members of the Finnis family Catherine Gray, Nigel Finnis, John Finnis and Jane Childs.

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