Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Macbean, Alexander

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MACBEAN, ALEXANDER (d. 1784), one of the six amanuenses whom Johnson employed on the ‘Dictionary,’ was previously employed in a like capacity by Ephraim Chambers [q. v.] About 1758 he obtained, through the doctor's interest, the post of librarian to Archibald Campbell, third duke of Argyll [q. v.] When, on that nobleman's death in 1761, he was left ‘without a shilling,’ he became mainly dependent upon charity. Johnson, who praised his learning and faculty for languages, but described his ‘ignorance of life’ as complete, subsequently advised him to write a geographical dictionary, and wrote a preface for his ‘Dictionary of Ancient Geography’ when it appeared in 1773. The book was well conceived, but Johnson confessed to Madame d'Arblay it destroyed his hopes of Macbean doing anything properly ‘when he found he had given as much labour to Capua as to Rome’ (D'Arblay, Diary, i. 114). Two years later, when Macbean was starving, as his former colleague, Peyton, had already done, Johnson gave him four guineas and collected more (Piozzi, Letters, i. 218), and in 1780, through his influence with Lord Thurlow, obtained him admission as a poor brother to the Charterhouse. There he died on 26 June 1784, removing, Johnson lamented, ‘a screen between him and death’ (cf. Swift, Works, 1803, xi. 246). Johnson said of him: ‘He was very pious; he was very innocent; he did no ill, and of doing good a continual tenour of distress allowed him few opportunities.’

Besides the ‘Dictionary of Ancient Geography’ Macbean published, in 1743, ‘A Synopsis or short Analytical View of Chemistry, translated from the high Dutch of Dr. Godfrey Rothen,’ and in 1779 he compiled ‘A Dictionary of the Bible,’ which Horne describes as ‘a useful book in its day, though now completely superseded’ (Bibl. Bib.) He also compiled numerous indexes, among others that to Johnson's edition of the ‘English Poets’ (Nichols, Lit. Anecd., v. 30).

[Piozzi's Letters, ii. 373; Boswell's Johnson, ed. G. B. Hill, i. 187, ii. 379, iii. 440; Moore's Memoirs, 1853, i. 94; Gent. Mag. 1785, i. 413; Allibone's Dictionary, p. 1161; Darling's Cycl. Bibl.; Brit. Mus. Cat.]

T. S.

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.188
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

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422 i 16-15 f.e. Macbean, Alexander: for Biography read Geography