William Alexander Osborne (1873–1967) was born at Holywood, County Down, Northern Ireland, and educated at the Upper Sullivan School, Queen’s College, Belfast, and the University of Tűbingen. In 1899 he was appointed lecturer at University College, London, and in 1903 he was appointed Professor of Physiology and Histology at the University of Melbourne. He held this post until his retirement in 1938. He was Dean of the Faculty of Medicine from 1929 to 1938. Although his interest in medical research declined, he was an inspiring lecturer and worked closely with his best students. Two of them, Macfarlane Burnett and John Eccles, were later to win Nobel Prizes.

Osborne was a man of extraordinarily wide interests. He was a poet, essayist and biographer, a regular contributor to the Melbourne press, and from 1938 to 1955 was the star of a radio panel quiz program. He held office in such bodies as the Melbourne Shakespeare Society, the Classical Association of Victoria, the Australian Forest League, the Free Library Movement, the Royal Historical Society of Victoria, and the Advisory Board of the Commonwealth Literary Fund. Among his publications were:

The Laboratory and Other Poems (1907)

Elements of Animal Physiology (1909)

William Sutherland, a Biography (1920)

Elementary Practical Biochemistry (1924)

Elements of Pharmacology (1927)

The Visitor to Australia (1934)

Essays and Literary Sketches (1943).

Osborne assembled a very impressive library. He was also a great collector of documents, including items signed by Erasmus, Philip Melanchthon, Galileo, Henry Purcell, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Napoleon and Sir Joseph Banks. Most of the autographs were destroyed in a bushfire, but 15 are held in the Library.


In 1957 Osborne donated to the Library two sections of his library: his Americana and a collection of books relating to Napoleon and the French Revolution. In 1978 his grand-daughter, Judith Laver, deposited in the Library 15 letters and documents and two books from the Library of Sir Isaac Newton.


Printed Material

The books donated by Osborne were not kept together and there is unfortunately no listing. It appears that there were about 200 American books and a smaller number on the French Revolution and Napoleon. The following are examples of books in his Americana collection:

Arber, Edward, The Story of the Pilgrim Fathers, 1606–1623 AD, London, 1897

Ferguson, Emily, Janey Canuck in the West, London, [1910?]

Fiske, John, Old Virginia and her Neighbours, 2 vols, Boston, 1897

Helps, Arthur, The Spanish Conquest in America, 4 vols, London, 1900

Mather, Increase, Remarkable Providences Illustrative of the Earlier Days of Colonisation, London, 1856

Roche, James J., The Story of the Filibusters, London, 1891

Schele De Vere, Maximilian, The Romance of American History: Early Annals, London, 1872

Walker, William, The War in Nicaragua, Mobile, 1860.

The French Revolution collection includes the following books:

Chaptal, Emmanuel Antoine, Mes Souvenirs sur Napoleon, Paris, 1893

Chuquet, Arthur, La Jeunesse de Napoleon, 2 vols, Paris, 1898

Coignet, Jean Roche, The Narrative of Captain Coignet, Soldier of the Empire 1776–1850, London, 1897

Excelimanns, Karlo, The Eventful Life of Napoleon Bonaparte, Late Emperor of the French, 4 vols, London, 1828

Hazlitt, William, The Life of Napoleon Buonaparte, 4 vols, London, 1852

Kuhn, Joachim, Pauline Bonaparte: Napoleon’s Attendant Star, London, 1937

Segur, Louise-Philippe, Memoirs and Recollections of Count Louise-Philippe Segur, 3 vols, London, 1825–27

Shaw, Clement, Letizia Bonaparte (Madam Mère), London, 1928.

Among the collection deposited by Laver are two books that are believed to have belonged to Sir Isaac Newton:

Justinus, Marcus Junianus, Trogi Pompeii Historiarum Philippicarum epitoma Oberursel, 1602 (signed by Isaac Newton)

Varenius, Bernhard, Geographia Generalis, edited by Isaac Newton, Cambridge, 1681.


The Osborne Collection contains 15 letters by eighteenth and nineteenth-century scientists and physicians. The writers were John Abernethy (undated), Sir Joseph Banks (1817 and undated), Charles Darwin (undated), Sir Humphrey Davey (1812), Michael Faraday (1868), Sir William Herschel (1806), Thomas Huxley (1852, 1879 and undated), Sir Richard Owen (1853), James Nasmyth (1840), Sir Hans Sloane (1710), Herbert Spencer (1892) and James Watt (1794). In addition, there is a document drawn up by French army staff in preparation for an invasion of England in 1798 by a French army of 90 000 men. The letters set out in detail the requirements of expected casualties of 15 000 wounded.

Personal Papers

The papers of Oscar Mendelsohn (1896–1978), a student and friend of Osborne, include a voluminous correspondence between the two men (1940–67), a typescript of Osborne’s unpublished autobiography dictated by him in 1967 together with a tape of his last dictation in August 1967, copies of letters to Osborne from C.D. Leake of the University of Texas (1948–54), and a nine-page typescript entitled ‘Osborne, man of versatility’ by Mendelsohn.


The American and French books have been integrated in the general collections. The manuscripts and two Isaac Newton books are held in the Manuscripts Collection at MS 5907. They are catalogued at the collection level. The papers of Mendelsohn are also held in the Manuscripts Collection at MS 1857. The letters and other papers of Osborne are contained in folders 42–43.

Related Collections

Osborne donated over 500 volumes, mostly English and American literature, to Townsville University College, now James Cook University of North Queensland.

Personal papers of Osborne are held at the State Library of Victoria (MS 8237) and the University of Melbourne Archives.


Jones, Barry O., William Alexander Osborne, Australian Dictionary of Biography online

Mendelsohn, Oscar, Obituary of William Alexander Osborne, Proceedings of the Royal Australian Chemical Institute, vol. 34, December 1967, pp. 336–7