Neil Carnot Macdonald was born March 17, 1876, at Michael's Bay, Manitoulin Island, Ontario. He was the son of Neil and Isabelle (McLeod) Macdonald, Sr. Neil Carnot Macdonald immigrated with his family to Cavalier County in northeastern Dakota Territory in 1885. Macdonald graduated from Mayville Normal School in 1896. He received a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1900 and Master of Arts degree in 1908 from the University of North Dakota. He obtained a doctoral degree in education from Harvard University in 1921, with a dissertation titled "Rural Schools and Rural Public Consolidation."
In 1892, Macdonald started teaching at a country school near his home. By 1900, he was superintendent of schools for Cavalier County. Between 1903 and 1909, he served as superintendent of schools in Lidgerwood and held a similar position in Mandan the following year. On June 14, 1904, he married Katherine Belanger, daughter of Ferdinand and Margery (Johnston) Belanger. Macdonald was appointed State Inspector of Elementary Schools during the summer of 1911, and was elected North Dakota Superintendent of Public Instruction in 1916. His wife served as the Assistant Superintendent.
As both the State Inspector and the State Superintendent, Macdonald traveled throughout the state, inspiring teachers, county superintendents, and school boards. His efforts came to a climax in 1917, when he conducted "Better Rural School Rallies" in every county of the state. The rallies took the form of a one-week workshop for teachers, and a one-day conference for school board members. North Dakota historian Elwyn Robinson called the rallies "the most effective campaign for school improvement ever conducted in the state" (History of North Dakota, p.305). From 1911 to 1917, Macdonald succeeded in increasing the average number of days students attended school, the length of the school year, and the number of farm children attending school. The number of standard rural schools which were eligible for state aid rose from 169 to 599. At the same time, the number of consolidated districts increased from 114 to over 400.
Macdonald's efforts ended when he was defeated for re-election in 1918. In a campaign of "slander and smear" (History of North Dakota, p.306), North Dakota conservatives painted Macdonald, a member of the Nonpartisan League, as a socialist who was corrupting children by introducing them to socialist books. Following his election loss, the Macdonalds left North Dakota in 1921 for the Pacific Northwest. Neil Macdonald died unexpectedly in Glasgow, Montana, on September 8, 1923, of uremic poisoning while en route to accept a deanship at Seattle Pacific College.
The Neil C. Macdonald Papers consist primarily of materials related to his educational career. Included are his writings, some of which were composed while he was the State Superintendent of Public Instruction. Other items pertain to his time at Harvard University, his illness and death, and to other members of the Macdonald family.
125 photographs were separated and placed in the Photograph File Cabinets. Most of the photographs depict Neil Macdonald and his work in the field of education. There are also several photographs of the extended Macdonald family.