Alexander Duff, born at Auchnahyle in the parish of Moulin, Perthshire, was the first Church of Scotland missionary to go to India. He studied arts and theology at the University of St Andrews before being ordained in 1829. The foreign mission committee of the Church of Scotland’s general assembly invited Duff to be their first missionary to India, and he arrived in Calcutta in May 1830.
Duff inspected the Bengali schools and decided that students needed to be educated in a broader range of subjects, and also be taught in English, rather than local dialects. Duff hoped that the employment of a western system of education would slowly convert Hindus and Muslims to Christianity. The school Duff founded taught all kinds of secular subjects, from the basics to a university standard, alongside the Bible. It soon expanded into a missionary college, known as the General Assembly’s Institution.
After a brief spell in Britain, Duff returned to India in 1840 to found a new institution, the Free Church Institution. The Free Church Institution was one of the earliest affiliates of the University of Calcutta, which was established in 1857, and Duff served in the university’s first senate.
Between 1849 and 1856, Duff lived in Britain. He appeared before various Indian committees of parliament to give evidence on matters of education. When he returned to India, he spent much time at the University of Calcutta, influencing its examination system and ensuring prominence was given to physical sciences. As a memorial of his work, the Duff Hall was erected in the centre of the educational buildings of Calcutta.
Duff travelled to Lake Nyassa (Tanzania), South Africa and Syria in his later years to inspect and assist various missions, and also guided the Free Church through a schism crisis in 1873. He died on 12th February 1878.
Alexander Duff was incredibly influential in shaping the Indian educational system. His methods were widely imitated, largely characterised by the establishment of western-style educational institutions. The two institutions founded by Duff, the General Assembly’s Institution and the Free Church Institution, merged in 1908 to form the Scottish Churches College.
The plaster bust of Alexander Duff which sits in Gallery 3 at MUSA was presented by his family to the university ‘with full appreciation of all he owed (and through him India still owes) to this ancient seat of learning’.