Dr Robert Laws

28 May 1851 – 6 August 1934

Missionary and Pioneer of African Education

Robert Laws was born in Mannofield, Aberdeen, the only son of Robert Laws (1818–1898), a cabinet-maker, and his first wife, Christian (1829–1853). Laws went to live with his maternal grandparents after his mother's death in 1853. He left school at 12 and was apprenticed to a cabinet-maker. Evening classes enabled him to enter university on medical and theological courses simultaneously in 1868. He graduated MA (1872), MB CM (1875), followed by two years at the United Presbyterian College in Edinburgh for an MD (1877). After qualifying as a doctor he worked in smallpox and fever hospitals in Glasgow.

Laws was the only ordained missionary on the first expedition of the original Livingstonia Mission to establish a mission in Africa in memory of David Livingstone. He became the first permanent head of the mission in Nyasaland, now Malawi), a post he held for 52 years. Laws laid out plans for the Overtoun Institution in Khondowe, now known as Livingstonia with a technical college, teacher training college, theological school, and a hospital and including a sawmill and brickworks, a piped water supply, a church and post office with a clock tower, buildings housing the agricultural, medical and technical departments, and separate housing for Europeans and Africans. Over time he set up many educational, medical and social projects and after World War I, encouraged the formation of Native Associations which were to become the Nyasaland African National Congress. He managed to develop a Christian community of around 60,000 including African pastors.

For a time, he was Principal of Overtoun College, Livingstonia and a deputy of the Hope Waddell Training Institution in Calabar, now in Nigeria. He was responsible for translating the New Testament into Nyanja, published an English-Nyanja dictionary, compiled a Gunda-English and English-Gunda vocabulary and published works in the Tonga language. He fought against the continuing Arab Slave Trade, helped to reconcile local tribes and played a leading role in educating and encouraging local individuals such as David Kaunda, whose son Kenneth was to become Zambia’s first president, Simon Muhango and Levi Zililo Mumba, the first President of Nyasaland African Congress.

Laws married Margaret Troup Gray in 1879, a childhood friend. They had eight chidren but only one daughter, Amelia Nyasa Laws (1886-1978), survived and had a distinguished medical career.

Moderator of the general assembly United Free Church of Scotland (1908)

When Laws left Africa in 1927, there were over seven hundred primary schools and secondary schools were teaching theology, medicine, agriculture and technical subjects.

Laws died in London and is buried in the churchyard of St Machar’s Cathedral, Old Aberdeen with a plaque within.


DD (Aberdeen 1891)
CMG 1923
LLD (Cape Town 1925)
Mount Laws above Lake Nyasa and Gephyrochromis lawsi are named after him.
Freedom of the City of Aberdeen (1928)


Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
Laws of Livingstonia : a narrative of missionary adventure and achievement
; Livingstone, W. P. (William Pringle)  1921
Livingstonia Mission Archives, 1874-1934

image: by J. Moffat; Wellcome Collection no. 13047i Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Biography prepared from the nomination made by Dr D Thomas to the University of Aberdeen 525 Alumni project.