John McDouall Stuart lived from 7 September 1815 to 5 June 1866. He was the most successful and most famous of the many explorers of the interior of Australia. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
John McDouall Stuart was born in Dysart in Fife, the youngest of nine children of a retired army captain serving as a customs officer. His parents died when he was a teenager, and he was brought up by relatives. He trained to be a civil engineer in Edinburgh before emigrating to Australia in 1838, at the age of 23. On 21 January 1839 he arrived in Adelaide, South Australia, at the time little more than a frontier town of wooden huts and tents. Stuart soon found work as a government surveyor, marking out blocks of land being sold to settlers. By 1842 he was sufficiently well known to set up in business as a freelance surveyor and had became known as an expert at coping with the arid lands found away from the coastal areas of South Australia.
In 1844, Stuart worked as a surveyor on an expedition into the interior mounted by Captain Charles Sturt, which hoped to reach the inland sea that was thought to lay at the heart of the continent. After a terrible journey across what were later called Sturt's Stony Desert and the Simpson Desert, the expedition returned to Adelaide. Stuart returned to his business, spending a number of years working in the area around Port Lincoln and surveying the Flinders Ranges for wealthy farmers like William Finke.
Stuart's real claim to fame came with a series of six expeditions he mounted between May 1858 and July 1862. Stuart was revolutionary in his approach to Australian exploration. While many of his contemporaries mounted major expeditions carrying all the supplies they would need (often with disastrous consequences), Stuart travelled as lightly as possible and learned to work with the grain of the country, using experience gained from aborigines to live off the land. On 22 April 1860 on the fourth of his expeditions, Stuart became the first man to reach the geographical centre of Australia, now known as Central Mount Stuart. Stuart's sixth expedition left Adelaide in October 1861 and, headed north, using all the experience of the country he had gained up to then to find sufficient water to allow further progress to be made. On 9 June he reached land that had been mapped from the north, and on 24 July 1862 he reached the north coast of Australia, east of today's Darwin.
John McDouall Stuart returned to Britain in 1864 and died in 1866 in London. Places named after him include the Stuart Highway, a main north-south road across the interior of Australia; Stuart Park, a Darwin suburb, and the town of Stuart, whose name was changed to Alice Springs in 1933. There are statues commemorating Stuart in Adelaide and in Darwin. Meanwhile, his birthplace in Dysart is home to a museum celebrating his achievements.