Born on 22 or 27 March 1861 at Inveravon, Banffshire, Scotland, son of Peter Mitchell, a hill-farmer who died when William was 5, and his wife Margaret, née Ledingham. He attended school at Elgin for twelve years before entering the University of Edinburgh in 1880; following a very distinguished undergraduate record he graduated M.A. with first-class honours in philosophy (1886) and D.Sc. by thesis (1891) in the department of mental science.
Threatened tuberculosis led Mitchell to seek in 1894 the Hughes professorship of English language and literature and mental and moral philosophy in the University of Adelaide, and on taking up duty in March 1895 he rapidly established himself as an intellectual and educational leader among his colleagues and the wider community. In his first public address in 1895 he emphasized the importance of analysis and criticism; the contribution to appreciation and mastery of English that study of foreign languages could make; and the development, through philosophy, of understanding and interest in one's daily work. Next year he was elected to the University Council on which he sat for fifty-two years. By 1900 he had achieved a fundamental restructuring of the curriculum for the arts degree which remained operative for over twenty years; and, in collaboration with (Sir) William Henry Bragg, had laid the foundation for significant development in the education of teachers, in accordance with principles that he had first expounded in 1895. He had pleaded then for schools to provide 'general education in opposition to the widely-accepted view that education was simply a means for “getting on”'. He defined general education as 'the formation of an intellectual, an aesthetic, and a moral character, together with various kinds of skill'; and he saw the 'thorough professional education of teachers' as the governing factor in providing it. Professional education should embrace instruction in the principles, practice and history of education, practical demonstrations by accomplished teachers in a wide range of school classes, and seminar discussions on both.
The Mitchell-Bragg plan involved the university in forgoing fees for two years undergraduate study by all trainee teachers, even infant-teacher trainees, and the Department of Education in granting the university a part in the education and training of teachers; the trainees were housed within the university. Twenty years later the training programme for prospective secondary teachers had become a bachelor's degree in the subjects to be taught, followed by a year studying the theory of education and the craft of teaching. Mitchell also advocated the organisation of schools on a regional basis.
In the 1940s he proposed that the Adelaide Teachers College should become independent, with its own governing body, a transformation that took some thirty years.
Mitchell was vice-chancellor (unpaid) of the university from 1916 until 1942 when he became chancellor. For nearly half a century he had been so immersed in university life that he continued to discharge many of the functions of a vice-chancellor. He retired as chancellor in 1948 to remove any impediment that he might constitute, or be thought to constitute, to the ideas and policies to be expected of the new full-time vice-chancellor Albert Rowe. As vice-chancellor Mitchell had believed that the quality of the university lay in its human rather than its material resources. In the appointment of professors he supported young men of proven intellectual capacity whose greatest achievements lay ahead of them: historian (Sir) Keith Hancock, economist (Sir) Leslie Melville, and English scholar Innes Stewart.
During his administration Mitchell saw the establishment of a dental school (1920), the Waite Institute (1924) and the school of economics; there was great development in the engineering and medical schools, and a trebling of the university's physical resources. His administration has been criticized for apparent failure to nurture corresponding growth in the humanities and the social sciences. But nearly half the state grant came as subsidies on endowments; some benefactors expected the government subsidy to be applied to the same or a cognate purpose. Twentieth-century endowments had been predominantly for buildings, the medical school and science; the University Council hesitated to use the government subsidy for other purposes. In establishing the chair of economics in 1928 it anticipated an endowment promised for the indefinite future (received thirty years later), and kept vacant a chair in science.
Throughout his term as professor (1895-1922) he taught psychology, logic, ethics and general philosophy. He taught also a little English language and literature (until 1900), education (until 1909) and economics (until 1917) and so, as he said, his chair was more like a sofa; but he considered himself primarily a philosopher. His listeners valued some of his occasional lectures sufficiently to publish them; and his forward thinking in the realm of education exerted a profound long-term influence in South Australia. But it was his scholarship and original thinking in psychology and philosophy that brought him overseas acclaim.
On 18 January 1898 he had married Marjorie Erlistoun (d.1913), daughter of Robert Barr Smith; they had a son and daughter. The son was (Sir) Mark, professor of biochemistry and physiology (1938-62) and deputy vice-chancellor (1951-65) at Adelaide, and chancellor of the Flinders University of South Australia (1966-71).
In 1934 Mitchell provided a set of iron gates for the main entrance to the university grounds; in 1937 he paid for the hosting of a conference of Australian and New Zealand universities; that year he also gave £20,000 to endow the chair of biochemistry to which Mark had already been appointed. To the sum of £55,000 provided by his wife's family for the University's Barr Smith Library, Mitchell added £5000 in 1940.
The University in 1961 named its original building, now devoted to administration but during his time used also for teaching, the Mitchell Building. It had previously commissioned a portrait by William McInnes which hangs in its great hall.
Physically incapacitated during the closing years of his life, Mitchell died, aged 101, on 24 June 1962 and was privately cremated; his ashes were placed near his wife's grave in Mitcham cemetery.Biographical SourceAustralian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986
Douglas Mawson, TGB Osborn, Sir William Mitchell, Duke of York (future King George VI), Sir Langdon Bonython, 1927
Lionel Henry Sholl - Under Secretary - Chief Secretary's Office - Acknowledging Professor William Mitchell appointed to Adelaide Hospital Board of Management
Professor William Mitchell and Professor Edward von Blomberg Bensley - Concerning accommodation for Arts course in Conservatorium
Professor William Mitchell - The University - Report concerning the South Australian Travellers Association Scholarship
Professor William Mitchell - The University - Recommends that the scholarship is awarded to John Howard Clark
Alexander Sutherland - Heronswood Dromana Victoria - Asking whether Professor William Mitchell Chair is likely to become vacant
Professor William Mitchell - Public Exams Board - The University - Additional Examiners for Public Exams
Professor William Mitchell - The University - With respect to heating apparatus for his private room
Professor William Mitchell - The University - Recommending award of John Howard Clark scholarship to Messrs F H Cowell and S Churchward
Professor William Mitchell - J H Clark Scholarship - Recommending new scholarship be awarded to L J Robertson and present one to Judah Moss Solomon be continued