Dr Alexander Duff was born at Moulin, 1½ km north of Pitlochry, on 25th April 1806. As a boy, he attended local schools in the Pitlochry and Kirkmichael area before completing this part of his education at Perth Grammar School. In 1821, he went to St Andrews University where his proficiency in Greek, Latin, Logic and Moral Philosophy and his interest in languages earned him an MA degree after only two years. It was there that he met Dr Thomas Chalmers, Professor of Moral Philosophy , who later became one of the leaders of the Free Church at the time of the Disruption in 1843.
By 1827, Duff had decided to become a missionary and he received every encouragement from Dr Chalmers and his other tutors. In July 1829 he married Anne Scott Drysdale of Edinburgh. He was ordained at St George’s Church, Edinburgh in August 1829, and in September 1829 he and his wife set sail for India in the “Lady Holland”. They were shipwrecked near Capetown and after their rescue they discovered that of the 800 books which had formed their library, only 40 survived. They transferred to the “Moira” which, after completing the voyage to India, ran aground on the mud of the Ganges delta. Fortunately the cargo and their baggage were saved and they began their visit by meeting the Governor-General, Lord Bentinck who proved to be very supportive of the plans the young missionary had for his work in India.
Duff held the view that religious teaching was of primary importance in general education because all instruction which professed to convey any kind of truth was regarded by the indigenous people as a species of religion. He therefore saw instruction in the Christian faith as an integral part of his education syllabus and not separate from it. He also believed that teaching the subjects taught in the high schools and colleges of Europe should be done in English and not, as was the official view at the time, in the local language. An advantage of using English as a teaching medium was that it avoided the hindrances of the caste system so closely linked to the use of the local languages. Nevertheless, his students were expected to be proficient in their local language (here Bengali) so that they could spread the ideas behind the new teaching to others in the community.
During his three periods of activity in India he founded a Scottish Church Collegen Educational Institute for male students, and a College of Education for Girls, building on the work of Major Jameson and his Ladies’ Society for Female Education in the East, started in 1837. He also set up the first teacher training courses. By the date of the Disruption (1843) when all the Church of Scotland missionaries joined the breakaway Free Church, there were 900 students in the Institute and its three branches. Students and teachers had to move to a new college in 1844, the year in which the Governor-General opened public service posts to educated Indians. About this time, a Medical College Hospital was built and the teaching of medicine, which up until then had relied on Arabic texts, was revised and based on the principles laid down by Alexander Duff, with instruction in English. Ultimately there were 10 hospitals and dispensaries treating around 300,000 patients a year.
Alexander Duff was Moderator of the Free Church General Assembly in 1851 and 1873. During his time in Scotland it soon became clear that there was great ignorance about the situation in India and he travelled the country campaigning vigorously for funding and assistance for his work there. On one of his visits he preached in his home kirk of Moulin, in Gaelic and in English! He was also invited to the USA where he addressed Congress and spoke to many congregations. He visited Knox College in Toronto, Canada, and spoke at meetings in Montreal and other cities. Although his purpose was to inform and educate, not raise money, he collected several thousand pounds which went to build a new college in Calcutta.
His final visit to India began in 1855 and by the end of 1857 the native Church was 150,000 members strong. He drew up the constitution for the University of Calcutta and initially was leader of the Senate. He was the first person there to insist on education in the physical sciences. He, himself, had taught chemistry at the Educational Institute. On returning home in 1864, he set up a professorship of evangelistic theology, prepared lectures and taught in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen. All monies went to the Missionary Institute. His health, which had been poor for many years, finally gave way and he died on 12th February 1878, almost exactly 13 years after the death of his wife, Anne.
Information extracted from "Alexander Duff of India" by A.A.Millar
Canongate Press 1992