John Alison

Born: 28 February 1861 in Kirkcaldy, Fife, Scotland
Died: 21 March 1952 in Edinburgh, Scotland

John Alison's father was Peter Alison who was the Headmaster of Gallatown Public School in Kirkcaldy, Fife. John attended Gallatown Public School and from there he went to Edinburgh where he matriculated at the University and also studied at Moray House.

Alison was appointed as a Mathematics Master at The Edinburgh Academy in 1884. Then in 1886 he was appointed to George Watson's College, Edinburgh, a post he held until 1902 when he moved to Glasgow to become Principal of the Glasgow United Free Church Training College. The following press release announced the appointment:-


The Education Committee of the United Free Church have unanimously appointed Mr John Alison, M.A., F.R.S.E., Edinburgh, to the lectureship of the United Free Church Training College, Glasgow, in succession to Mr J Adams, now Professor of Education in London University. Mr Alison is forty-one years of age. He entered the teaching profession as a pupil-teacher under the Dysart School Board, and afterwards took the three years' course in Moray House Training College, Edinburgh, attaining first plaice in both the college and Government examinations. In 1879 he entered Edinburgh University, and during the sessions from 1879 to 1884 gained distinction in Latin, Greek, logic, and mathematics. He was also medallist in natural philosophy and next to medallist in logic and mathematics. In 1884 he graduated. M.A. For two years thereafter Mr Alison was assistant in the Practising School of Moray House Training College. After holding the post of second Mathematical master in Edinburgh Academy for the same length of time, he entered the service of the Edinburgh Merchant Company as second mathematical and science master in George Watson's College, and for the last ten years he has been head mathematical master in the same institution. Mr Alison is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, was president of the Edinburgh Mathematical Society, and was twice president of the Association of Teachers in Merchant Company Schools, Edinburgh. There were ten applicants for the appointment which Mr Alison has just received. The salary is £600 a year.

After two years in Glasgow, Alison returned to Edinburgh in 1904 when he was appointed as Headmaster of George Watson's College. This appointment was announced as follows:-

It is understood that the Governors of George Watson's Trust have appointed Mr John Alison, M.A., rector of the United Free Church Training College; to the headmastership of George Watson's College for Boys, vacant by the resignation of Mr Carrie. Mr Alison, who is forty-four years of age, is not a stranger to the school, having been mathematical master in it until two years ago, when he was elected to the position which he has since filled in the United Free Church Training College, Glasgow. The son of a schoolmaster, he was educated at Dysart, at Moray House Training College, and at the Edinburgh University, where he graduated Master of Arts. Hew was an assistant master in the Practising School of Moray House Training College from 1882 to 1884, second mathematical master in the Edinburgh Academy from 1884 to 1886, second Mathematical and Science master in George Watson's College, Edinburgh, from 1886 to 1892, when he was promoted to the position of head mathematical master. Mr Alison is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, has been president of the Edinburgh Mathematical Society, and twice president of the Association of Teachers in the Merchant Company Schools.

He held this last position for over twenty years until he retired in 1926. In retirement he lived at 126 Craiglea Drive, Edinburgh. Here is a report of a dinner held in July 1926 to honour:-
Dr John Alison, who recently retired from the headmastership of the school, and is about to set out on a tour of the overseas Watsonian Clubs. Mr D S Carmichael, president of the Watsonian Club, presided over a large gathering. The Chairman read a telegram in the following words:- "Watsonians golfing at Leven send best wishes to Dr Alison on his visit to Watsonian Clubs overseas."

Mr A W Angus, proposing the toast of "Dr Alison," said they thought that night of the human side of Dr Alison outside school - not that he meant that Dr Alison was inhuman inside school. (Laughter.) Dr Alison was the most fitting ambassador they could possibly have to go abroad. They knew that in Dr Alison they had one who would carry with him their best wishes to those abroad, and would do all he could to increase the tremendous friendship that always existed amongst Watsonians. Watsonians all the world over wished Dr Alison a most successful, healthy, and happy trip, and a long life to fully enjoy that rest and relaxation that no man had ever better deserved (Applause.)

Dr Alison, in reply, said he was about to set out on a trip which they had been good enough to put at his disposal. He considered it a very great honour to be asked to go "round the school" - for that was part of the message he was going to take to Watsonians all over the world, that they were still part of the school. (Applause.) He had no doubt that the overseas Watsonians would ask questions, and one of the most serious and urgent questions they would ask him would be -What are the Governors going to do with the old school? That was a question for the Governors, but he would say that, in any case, whatever the Governors did, a school did not consist of stone and lime. (Applause.) It was a spiritual thing, and it consisted of the spirit of the boys in it, and the boys who had gone out of it. He had no doubt whatever that that spirit would remain round the new school as strongly and firmly as before. Dr Alison concluded by proposing the health of the next headmaster Mr George Robertson. Mr Robertson, responding, said it was a very proud thing for him as a Watsonian to come back to that place, which he would rather have than any headmastership in the world - (applause) - and at the same time to have the opportunity of moulding the future in a very special way.

A few years before he retired, in 1921, he was honoured by the University of Edinburgh when he was awarded an honorary LL.D. Here is a report of that ceremony:-

Professor Mackintosh, K.C., Dean of the Faculty of Law, presented the graduands for the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws and referred to them in the following terms:-


Some fifty years ago the Merchant Company transformed its palatial hospitals into secondary schools of the modern type, a far-sighted reform which has materially contributed to the attractions of Edinburgh as ah educational centre. It is thus appropriate that today's list of Honorary Doctors of Law includes the headmaster of Watson's College, and two out of five former pupils all of whom are members of His Majesty's Government. But training the eleet is an easy function; the real strength of these schools lies in fashioning the rank and file to the best advantage, physically, mentally, and morally. It is no mean tribute to Mr Alison's skill and zeal that under his administration Watson' s has remained true to the high ideal's of his great predecessor Dr Ogilvie, and has steadily grown in numbers, efficiency, and reputation. Its pupils still rise to the top all over the world, and it can show a roll of service and sacrifice in the Great War unsurpassed by any similar institution. Mr Alison's claim to University recognition is strengthened by the valuable work he has done on behalf of the Edinburgh Mathematical Society, and the sustained interest he has shown in all movements for improving the training of teachers and fostering the corporate sense of the scholastic profession.

Alison was an early member of the Edinburgh Mathematical Society, joining in December 1884 at the beginning of the third session of the new Society. He was Treasurer of the Society from 1885 to 1888, then Secretary from 1888 to 1891. He was honoured by the Society when they elected him as President for the session 1892-3.

John Alison was elected to the Royal Society of Edinburgh on 1 April 1889, his proposers being John Sturgeon Mackay, George Chrystal, Robert M Ferguson, Alexander Yule Fraser.

An obituary, written by George Robertson, appears in the Royal Society of Edinburgh Year Book 1953, page 5.
We give a version of this obituary at THIS LINK

Article by: J J O'Connor and E F Robertson

November 2007
MacTutor History of Mathematics