Macalister, Alexander (1844–1919), zoologist and anatomist, was born 9 April 1844 in Dublin, the second son of Robert Macalister, a member of an Argyllshire family who had come to reside in Dublin, and Margaret Anne Macalister (née Boyle), youngest daughter of Colonel James Boyle of Dungiven, Co. Londonderry. From an early age his interest in natural history was precocious; possessing an excellent memory and keen observational skills, he was permitted to enter the RCSI at the tender age of fourteen in 1858. Within two years he was appointed demonstrator in anatomy and by the age of eighteen had obtained the licence of the RCSI and the (R)K&QCPI (1862). He later obtained the MB degree at TCD (1871), proceeding MD in 1876.
Initially Macalister held a demonstratorship at the RCSI, but his work in anatomy and zoology became widely recognised and he was appointed lecturer, then professor of zoology at TCD when Edward Perceval Wright (qv) moved to botany (1869). Shortly afterwards he was appointed to a newly created professorship of comparative anatomy (1872), partly to offset the complaints about the poor attendance of the then professor of anatomy, Benjamin George McDowel (qv). McDowel continued unreliable, and Macalister was elected to the chair of anatomy and chirurgery in 1877, eventually replacing McDowel as professor of anatomy in 1879. He moved to Cambridge in 1883 to succeed Sir George Murray Humphrey in the chair of anatomy there, and was elected to a professorial fellowship at St John's College in the same year. The following year, he took the MA and MD degrees at Cambridge.
His talents as an organiser and astute academic were recognised by many bodies: he was a member of the senate of TCD and received an honorary D.Sc. from the college in 1892. The universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow and McGill University in Montreal conferred honorary LLD degrees on him, and he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society, serving on its council in 1894 and 1895. A founder member of the Anatomical Society of Great Britain and Ireland in 1887, he later became a fellow of that society and served as its president in 1898. He was also a fellow of the Society of Anatomists of Ireland; he involved himself actively in the excursions the society organised, and attended his last meeting in 1916. Elected a member of the RIA (1873), he served on the council in 1874–6 and again in 1880–84, when he served as secretary.
A productive author, Macalister wrote several books, including Introduction to animal morphology (1876) and The morphology of vertebrates (1878), as well as a number of small textbooks for students on zoology and physiology; his works on zoology ran to several editions. His Textbook of human anatomy (1889) and a monograph published by the RIA entitled Observations on muscular anomalies in human anatomy (1871) are among his best writings; he also wrote a biography of the anatomist James Macartney, James Macartney: a memoir (1900), which was regarded as less objective. His main interests were in comparative anatomy, particularly the vertebrates, a subject on which he wrote many research papers in the popular scientific journals of the day; he published fifty-four papers between 1864 and 1883, mostly on animal morphology and human anatomy.
Macalister was a careful scientist, but he was also deeply religious and this may have contributed to his inability to make up his mind when it came to one of the most contentious issues of the day: the theory of evolution by means of natural selection as proposed by Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace. In a review of Darwin's work in the Dublin Quarterly Journal of Medical Science (1871), Macalister declared that he was prepared to accept the theory of evolution providing he could postulate the independent creation of the soul. Some of his colleagues, most notably the professor of geology at TCD, Samuel Haughton (qv), regarded Macalister's compromise on the subject as untenable, believing that a natural origin of man was incompatible with a supernatural life after death. In 1882 Macalister published Evolution in church history.
One of the mainstays of the presbyterian community at Cambridge, Macalister had many interests outside anatomy, including Egyptology. One of his favourite recreations was foreign travel, and he visited many countries such as China, India, and Japan, often making ethnographic observations. His colleagues regarded him as a delightful companion, and he regaled his company with stories based on his diverse experiences. He had a kindly nature that endeared him to many of his students, to whom he was known as ‘Mac’. At Cambridge he succeeded in extending the accommodation at the school of anatomy, a feat which many appreciated, and his great organisational ability was a strong asset to his college. He was a modest man and he liked a challenge, making a hobby of answering the questions on final-year Cambridge theology papers before breakfast. He had a strong evangelical bent and encouraged medical students to travel abroad as medical missionaries. After a long illness, he died 2 September 1919 at his residence, Torrisdale, Cambridge.
Macalister married, in 1866, Elizabeth Stewart (d. 1901), daughter of James Stewart of Perth, with whom he had two boys. His sons were famous in their own rights. Robert Alexander Stewart Macalister (qv) was a renowned archaeologist. George Hugh Kidd Macalister (1879–1930) was a pathologist, who made his name in India and Singapore; in 1927 he served as a government representative at the League of Nations conference on rabies in Paris, and he was also an adviser on medical education in Sierra Leone.