Thomas Elder was born on 5 August 1818 in Kirkcaldy, Scotland, son of George Elder, merchant and shipowner, and his wife Joanna Haddow, née Lang. In 1839 the family decided to extend its business to the new province of South Australia.
Thomas migrated to Adelaide in 1854 and worked for a year with his brother George. He then formed a partnership with Edward Charles Stirling, Robert Barr Smith and John Taylor: Elder, Stirling & Co. In 1856 Barr Smith married Thomas's sister Joanna. She became Adelaide's most renowned hostess but Thomas always lived quietly and never married. Elder, Stirling & Co. financed in 1859 the Wallaroo and Moonta Copper Mines which, after initial risks, brought them great wealth. Stirling and Taylor retired and the two remaining partners formed Elder Smith & Co. which became one of the world's largest wool-selling firms. While still active as agents they built up a huge pastoral territory, spreading further and further from the civilized fringe and moving into the untouched wastes of South Australia, Queensland and Western Australia. They tackled the outback problems by spending many thousands of pounds in fencing and sinking bores though their properties constituted a land mass finally much larger than the whole of their native Scotland. Thomas's holdings included Paratoo (3000 square miles [7770 km²]), Umberatana, Mount Lyndhurst and Blanchewater (3000 square miles [7770 km²]) and Beltana (900 square miles [2331 km²]).
In 1878 he was appointed K.C.M.G. and in 1887 G.C.M.G. In 1885 he built a house (later Carminow) on Mount Lofty in Scottish baronial style. He died there on 6 March 1897.
His philanthropy is everywhere evident in South Australia, not least at the University of Adelaide. In 1874 he gave £20,000 to endow chairs in mathematics and general science; in 1883-97 he gave £31,000 to the Medical School, £21,000 to the School of Music and £26,000 for general university purposes.Biographical SourceAdapted from The Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972.
Executors of the Late Sir Thomas Elder - Notice of intention to pay legacies under Will of Late Sir Thomas Elder
The Late Sir Thomas Elder's Executors - Stating that if the University takes over permanent control of the Elder Scholarship they will be pleased to agree
Dr Edward Charles Stirling - The University - Sir Thomas Elders Prize for Physiology for Non Graduating Students
Dr Edward Charles Stirling - The University - Recommending Miss Bristowe for Sir Thomas Elders Prize in Physiology
Alex Martin and T E Barr Smith for Sir Thomas Elder - Currie Street Adelaide - Elder prizes for Physiology
Alex Martin and T E Barr Smith - Attorney for Sir Thomas Elder - Currie Street Adelaide - Elder prizes in Physiology to be given this year
Thomas Elder Barr Smith - Adelaide - Sir Thomas Elders donation for Biological Prize - Uncertain if it is to be a fixed annual prize