Looking back at history


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Professor Angus Ross engaging another generation of potential history students at the Taieri High School breakup ceremony, 1965. Image courtesy of the Hocken Collections, Taieri College archives, AG-629-015/060, S17-542a.

History has been around for a while! It first appeared at the University of Otago in 1881 when John Mainwaring Brown, the new professor of English, constitutional history and political economy, taught constitutional history to a class of two students. It was a subject designed for lawyers, covering ‘the development of the English Constitution, and of the Constitutional relations between the Mother Country and the Colonies’. The course, compulsory for the LLB degree, was also open to BA students. Mainwaring Brown’s career was cut tragically short when he disappeared during a tramping expedition in Fiordland in December 1888. The university council recognised that it would be difficult to find somebody capable and willing to teach all of the subjects he had covered and appointed a new professor of English, with separate lecturers for constitutional history and political economy (economics). Alfred Barclay, one of Otago’s earliest graduates and a practising barrister, taught constitutional history for many years, except in the early years of the 20th century when the law school was closed and the subject wasn’t offered.


Harry Bedford, Otago’s first ‘English history’ lecturer. This photograph, taken by William Henshaw Clarke around 1902, was his official portrait as a Member of Parliament. Image courtesy of the Alexander Turnbull Library, General Assembly Library parliamentary portraits, 35mm-00168-f-F.

In 1914, history emerged as a subject in its own right with a new course in ‘English history’. It was taught by Harry Bedford, who had been Otago’s economics lecturer since 1907. Bedford had an impressive CV; he was a brilliant local graduate who started his working life in his father’s tailoring business, served a term in parliament, and practised law while lecturing at Otago. The syllabus for ‘English history’ included ‘a study of the outlines of the History of England, including the development of the constitution down to 1900’, with a more detailed study of a different period each academic year. Constitutional history continued as a separate course for law students, and Bedford also devoted two special lectures a week to ‘Modern History, as prescribed for Commerce students’ from 1916. Bedford was an inspiring teacher and his appointment to a new professorship in economics and history in 1915 came as no surprise. Sadly, he was another promising young professor destined for a tragic death; he drowned during a beach holiday in 1918. With the times still unsettled due to war, the council appointed Archdeacon Woodthorpe, the retired Selwyn warden, as acting professor. But they felt the time had now come to separate the growing disciplines of economics and history, and in 1920 John Elder of Aberdeen was appointed to a new chair in history, endowed by the Presbyterian Church.

Though the Presbyterians selected, appropriately enough, a ‘conservative and hard working Presbyterian’ from Scotland as Otago’s first history professor, Elder brought considerable innovation to the chair. He continued an extensive publishing career commenced in Scotland, producing both popular and academic works on New Zealand history at a time when ‘it was highly unusual for colonial professors to publish anything’. His developing interest in New Zealand’s history was also reflected in the curriculum, which expanded to include more coverage of this country and other colonies among the broad survey courses on offer. He valued archival research highly; this was made possible thanks to the resources held at the Hocken Library, and Elder required MA students to complete a thesis based on such sources. His dour manner didn’t endear him to students, though, and he soon put a stop to a young lecturer’s introduction of seminar discussions: ‘These young men like to hear themselves talk but you’re paid to lecture … So long as I’m head of this department, there’ll be no discussions’.

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William Parker Morrell, photographed in 1930 while studying at Oxford. Image courtesy of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Judith Morrell Nathan collection, ref: 1/2-197548-F.

In 1946 William Morrell – who featured in an earlier blog post on absent-minded professors – succeeded Elder as professor of history. He was a local graduate who studied and taught at Oxford and the University of London, and published widely on imperial and New Zealand history; he later took on the important role of writing the university’s centenary history! Morrell believed not only that history illuminated the present, but that the political state was worthy of study in its own right, and it was through his influence that politics joined the Otago syllabus, initially as part of the history department. Ted Olssen, an Adelaide graduate, was appointed to teach political science and classes commenced in 1948. Students emerging out of the war years and their clash of political ideologies demonstrated an appetite for the subject; it grew and became a separate department in 1967.

Like his predecessors, Willie Morrell believed that New Zealanders’ study of history needed to start with the histories of Britain and Europe, but an imperial framework meant that regions which had come under European control – including New Zealand and the Pacific – also appeared on the syllabus. Gordon Parsonson, who first joined the department as assistant lecturer in 1951 and remains an active researcher in his late 90s, was partly hired because of his interest and experience in Melanesia, acquired during World War II military service there. Angus Ross was another lecturer with expertise on New Zealand and Pacific history, though his distinguished war service had been in Europe. After many years in the department he succeeded Morrell as professor in 1965 and ‘steered the department away from the legacy of imperial history by making appointments trained to look at imperialism from the perspective of the colonised’. John Omer-Cooper, a specialist in African history, took up the newly-established second chair in history in 1973, while Hew McLeod, who became a world-renowned expert on Sikh history and culture, joined the department to teach Asian history in 1971. From 1975 a revamped curriculum gave students majoring in history broader choices; previously compelled to start with European history, they could now, if they wished, focus instead on New Zealand, Australia, the Pacific or Asian history.


Barbara Brookes and Ann Trotter at a Federation of University Women event at the Fortune Theatre, 1993. Image courtesy of Ann Trotter.

Under the umbrella of the histories of various regions, new themes began to emerge, often led by younger staff. Erik Olssen and Dorothy Page, both appointed in 1969 and both future heads of department, became pioneers of social history and women’s history respectively. Ross had a policy of appointing women where possible; although Morrell had also appointed a couple of women in the 1940s, men had long dominated the staff. The policy of recruiting good women academics continued and by the late 1980s they made up nearly half the department. In addition to Page, there were Barbara Brookes (another women’s history expert), Ann Trotter (who taught Asian history and subsequently became assistant-VC for humanities), Pacific historian Judy Bennett and long-serving lecturer Marjorie Maslen.


Angela Wanhalla and Judy Bennett in 2009. Photograph by Sue Lang, courtesy of the history and art history department.

As part of the new movement towards social history, Olssen embarked on the Caversham project, a long-running study of historic residents of southern Dunedin. Generations of honours and postgrad students mined the huge store of data for new insights into work, politics, gender, culture and society in New Zealand’s earliest industrial suburbs. Other new themes which became popular in the late 20th century included environmental history and intellectual history (the history of ideas, incorporating science and religion), while world history provided an antidote to specialism in particular places and eras. A growing – if belated – awareness of the significance of Māori perspectives of history saw the appointment of Michael Reilly to a joint position in history and Māori studies in 1991. He later became full-time in Māori studies, but in the 21st century the history department was fortunate to recruit two brilliant young Ngāi Tahu scholars, Angela Wanhalla and Michael Stevens.

History, like any other department, had its ups and downs through the years; funding was often tight and the trend towards lower enrolments in the humanities led to a loss of two staff in 2016. Art history joined the department in 2001, with a change in name to the history and art history department in 2008. Throughout, it remained a highly productive department with an excellent research record, ranking first in New Zealand for history and art history in the 2003 and 2006 PBRF rounds. It was no slouch in teaching either; in 2002, when OUSA gave its first teaching awards, history was the only department to have two people – Tom Brooking and Tony Ballantyne – in the top 10. As a proud graduate of Otago’s history department, I can testify to the great skills of its staff!

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Recruiting a new generation of students, 2016-style. These secondary students, photographed at Toitū Otago Settlers Museum, were attending a ‘hands-on history’ course run by the university. Photograph by Jane McCabe, courtesy of the history and art history department.


Building a medical campus


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An aerial view showing the medical school and hospital buildings, c.1970. The low-rise 1950s building replaced by the Sayers building can be seen between the Wellcome and Ferguson buildings, with cars parked in front. At the hospital, the clinical services building, opened in 1968, can be seen, but construction is yet to begin on the ward block, which opened in 1980. Several of the buildings in the block east of the hospital are now part of the university: the original Queen Mary maternity hospital now houses the surveying school and marine science department; the 2nd Queen Mary hospital is Hayward College, and the old nurses’ homes are Cumberland College. Image courtesy of the Hocken Collections, University of Otago Medical School Alumnus Association records, MS-1537/806, S17-517b.

There’s a significant university anniversary this year: it’s a century since the medical school opened its first Great King Street building. Otago medical classes started out in the university’s original building in Princes Street, but soon moved to the purpose-built anatomy and chemistry block (now the geology building) on the new site near the Leith. Opened in 1878, the new premises incorporated a lecture room, dissection room, preparation room, morgue, laboratory, anatomy room and professor’s office for the medical school. The facilities weren’t large – they were designed to cater for classes of a dozen or so – and the building was extended in 1883 and again in 1905, to provide for the expanding school and its first physiology professor. As medical student numbers continued to expand, from 80 in 1905 to 155 in 1914, space became desperately short and the medical faculty won government approval for further extensions to the anatomy and physiology departments, plus a new building to house the pathology and bacteriology (microbiology) departments, along with other subjects being taught in far from ideal conditions in the crowded hospital.

The site of the new building – in Great King Street, opposite the hospital – was controversial. Some university council members wanted all new developments to be on the existing campus, but medical academics wanted to be closer to the hospital, and the chancellor, Andrew Cameron, was on their side. Sydney Champtaloup, professor of public health and bacteriology, revealed the thinking behind the move during the 1914 public appeal for funds for the new building. After completing their studies in anatomy and physiology, which would still be taught at the university, said Champtaloup, ‘students are intimately associated with the Hospital. At present students attend some classes at the University, and have then to proceed to the Hospital for others, and to return to the University later. This involves a great waste of time and energy. All lectures and practical classes for senior students should be held in a suitable building near the Hospital’. He also pointed out that the hospital and university both required bacteriology and pathology labs, and ‘a combination of these requirements in one building makes for efficiency and economy, but that building to meet Hospital requirements must be either in the Hospital grounds or in its close proximity’. Although he didn’t mention it, Champtaloup would have to waste considerable time and energy himself if the new building wasn’t close to the hospital, since he was in charge of its bacteriology services.

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The bacteriology and pathology building, later known as the Scott building, which opened in 1917. Image courtesy of the Hocken Collections, University of Otago Medical School Alumnus Assocation records, MS-1537/636, S17-517a.

The public appeal raised the goodly sum of £8000 (over $1 million in 2017 values), which included £2000 from William Dawson (a brewer who made a fortune as one of the founders of Speight’s) and £1000 from members of the medical faculty. It was matched by the government, though the project ran considerably over budget thanks to ‘the presence of subterranean water, later found to characterise the whole area’, along with rising prices due to war conditions. The new building, designed by Mason and Wales and built by Fletcher Brothers, opened in 1917. Of brick with Oamaru stone facings, its neoclassical style seemed quite plain to contemporaries; the Evening Star noted some ‘pretty stained glass’ in the entrance hall was ‘one of the few ornamentations’. The building was large and well-lit, with a lecture theatre able to ‘seat 150 students and give everyone plenty of elbow room’ and other smaller lecture rooms; they incorporated facilities for the latest technology, the lantern slide. The pathology department was on the first floor and the bacteriology department on the second floor; there were also rooms dedicated to medical jurisprudence and materia medica (pharmacology), the library, specimen museum and an assortment of staff and student facilities. ‘The roof is used for store rooms, etc.’, reported the Star with some delicacy; that was where animals and food stores were housed.

The new building was just the beginning. Medical dean Lindo Ferguson had ambitious plans; he imagined the school expanding to take up the entire side of the Great King Street block facing the hospital, replacing its collection of old cottages and shops. Not everybody approved, and there was another battle over the new anatomy and physiology building. In 1919 university council members decided that further extensions to those departments should be on the main university campus, provoking a determined – and successful – campaign by the medical faculty, medical association and ODT to have them change their minds and instead construct a large new building adjoining the 1917 one. Physiology professor John Malcolm countered one of the main objections to the Great King Street site: ‘It had been said that the social life of the university was cut in two through the existing arrangements; and if that were so how about the scientific life of the university? Was it not cut in two as well? The most important was the human life’. After considerable delays in raising funds, in 1927 a splendid new building – ‘one of Dunedin’s most handsome’, declared the ODT – was opened. Designed by Edmund Anscombe in brick and stone facings to complement its neighbour, it provided accommodation for not just anatomy and physiology, but also the ‘sub-departments’ of histology, biochemistry and pharmacology. It had the ‘necessary classrooms, laboratories, and research rooms for a school averaging an annual class of 50 students’.

At the opening of the new block, Ferguson joked that ‘if a dean were content he was not fit to hold his position. No one knew the shortcomings of a school better than the dean, and if the dean thought that enough had been done he should be pole-axed’. He continued to dream of further expansion, and had already foiled suggestions the new dental school building should be immediately next to the medical school; instead its new 1926 building (now the Marples building) was constructed on the next block. Ferguson’s successors took up his scheme and in the midst of World War II work began on yet another large building. It had the prosaic name of ‘the south block’, but later the various buildings were named after the medical deans, according to their chronology, and it became the Hercus building, after third dean Charles Hercus; the earlier buildings were named for the first two deans, John Halliday Scott and Lindo Ferguson.

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The Ferguson building (opened 1927), with the Scott building (1917) and Hercus building (1948) in the distance. Image courtesy of the Hocken Collections, University of Otago Medical School Alumnus Association records, MS-1537/637, S17-517c.

The south block was in brick and of similar scale to its neighbours, but the similarities ended there; it was a striking example of art deco, designed by Miller White and Dunn. Hercus recounted how the Minister of Education, Rex Mason, ‘turned down our original severely utilitarian plan with the statement, “This is not a factory, but a national building of great importance, and it must bear the marks of its function”’. The new design incorporated various artworks, most notably a sculptured marble panel by Richard Gross above the main Hanover Street entrance; there were also plaster murals inside. Building was a challenge because of wartime labour and supply shortages; four Dunedin building firms – Love, Naylor, Mitchells and McLellans – formed the Associated Builders consortium to complete the project. Some students obtained holiday work helping with the demolition and ground works for the foundations, which were dug down 15 metres, but the foreman ‘had to keep his eye on them because many would jump the fence and be off’. The building opened in 1948 and boasted 210 rooms; it became a new home for the preventive medicine, pathology and bacteriology departments and had two dedicated research floors, one of them for animals.

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The new south block (Hercus building) under construction in the 1940s, looking east along Hanover Street. Image courtesy of the Hocken Collections, University of Otago Medical School Alumnus Association, MS-1537/631, S15-619f.

The next building development was less imposing and not destined to last for long: a single-storey brick building, completed in 1956 next to the Ferguson building, provided a space for the surgery and obstetrics and gynaecology departments. Next to it, on the corner of Frederick and Great King Streets, appeared in 1963 the Wellcome Research Institute. Funded entirely by the Wellcome Trust, which was created from a pharmaceutical fortune, the new building was a tribute to the important research on hypertension by Otago medical professor Horace Smirk, and provided a space for various research teams. It soon developed the nickname ‘Hori’s whare’, while the dental school was ‘Jack’s shack’ after dental dean John Walsh and the pharmacology department in the old Knox Sunday school was ‘Fred’s shed’ after its professor, Fred Fastier. The Wellcome building was designed by Niel Wales, the latest generation in old Dunedin firm Mason and Wales, which had also been responsible for the Scott building; the new building’s international style, with its simple forms and lack of ornamentation, reflected the architectural fashion of the period.

The next buildings took the medical campus further into the realms of new architecture. In 1972 the medical library acquired a new home in the Sayers building, named for the fourth dean, Ted Sayers. The building, which replaced the 1950s surgery and O & G construction, also included accommodation for the medical school administration. A year later the multi-storey Adams building (Bill Adams was the fifth dean) emerged behind it, with an entrance from Frederick Street; it provided new space for the preventive and social medicine, pharmacology, pharmacy and surgery departments, along with the university’s higher education development centre. The Sayers building was designed by Alan Neil of Fraser Oakley Pinfold. A 1994 exhibition on University of Otago architecture suggested his ‘use of fair-faced concrete is an essay in Brutalism’. The Adams building was designed by Miller White and Dunn and the design was recycled in the microbiology building, opened in 1974 on Cumberland Street. The 1994 exhibition noted its utilitarian architecture: it ‘appears to have been designed from the inside out’ and ‘no thought appears to have been given to the external appearance .… Built in the tradition of tower blocks in a park-way, it does not invite inspection of detailing’.

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The new Sayers (front) and Adams buildings in the 1970s. Image courtesy of the Hocken Collections, University of Otago Medical School Alumnus Association records, MS-1537/665, S17-517d.

With the 1970s buildings completed, Lindo Ferguson’s 1910s vision of a medical school encompassing the length of the block was fulfilled. Indeed, the school was already spreading much further afield, with microbiology and biochemistry buildings on the new science campus in Cumberland Street and new developments in Christchurch and Wellington. At its Great King Street home base, the school was a showcase of 20th century architecture, from neoclassicism and art deco to international style and brutalism. Across the street, Dunedin Hospital, whose presence had drawn the medical school to this location, also went through multiple developments. That, however, is a whole other story.

Of pills and potions and poisons


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Making up supplies of the new wonder drug, penicillin, in the pathology department’s sterile solutions unit in 1949. In the 1960s the new pharmacy school took over ‘the factory’. Please get in touch if you can identify the woman in this photo! Image courtesy of the Hocken Collections, Prime Minister’s Department photograph, Box-184-007, S16-102a.

The University of Otago’s interest in pills and potions and poisons dates back to its earliest years. In his first annual report on the university laboratory, in 1875, chemistry professor James Black listed all the analyses he had carried out for the public and local officials. They ranged widely, from food and drink he tested for adulteration to coal and minerals and cement he tested for quality. Also on the list were some samples which suggest intriguing mysteries: in June 1874 Dr Niven of Roxburgh sent medicine, pills, a piece of tart and some lung balsam for testing, while in October Dr Cole of Tokomairiro sent urine and other samples to be tested for poison. Toxicology was thus at the very origin of Otago’s work in the pharmacology field.

It was the establishment of the medical school, though, which led to the first employment of a specialist in drugs. In 1883 John Macdonald was appointed lecturer in materia medica, as pharmacology was then known. The first medical school historian, Dudley Carmalt Jones, described Macdonald as ‘a big, handsome Scotsman of a striking presence …. a man who never quarrelled, and never did anything unethical’. As well as teaching students about drugs, he gave clinical teaching as one of the Dunedin Hospital honorary staff, his specialty being skin diseases. Macdonald taught materia medica according to ‘Edinburgh tradition’, with long lists of drug preparations to be memorised. Students also learned the practical skills of pharmacy, including the visual recognition of drugs and the making of pills, ointments and potions. These skills were taught at the hospital by its dispenser. The first to teach medical students their pharmacy skills was Dr John Brown, ‘a dear old eccentric teacher’ who was hospital dispenser for many years. This well-known character was apparently quite lenient with the students, but his successor refused to sign them off as ‘fully competent’, only recording that they had ‘regularly attended’; he also suggested that ‘grave danger’ could be avoided if they learned the theory of materia medica before tackling the making of medicines.

Although the early pharmacology lecturers focused on teaching rather than research, there were some interesting studies taking place around the university. As I wrote in an earlier post on this blog, New Zealand’s first home-grown medical graduate, Ledingham Christie, was awarded an MD degree in 1890 for his research into the toxicity of the tutu plant. In time-honoured mad scientist fashion, after observing the effects of the tutu berry on cats, roosters and rabbits he tested it on himself, taking a month to fully recover! Otago’s first physiology professor, John Malcolm, began working on tutin soon after his 1905 arrival, together with research assistant and hospital physician Frank Fitchett. Their authoritative study On the Physiological Action of Tutin was published in 1909. The following year Fitchett – a local lad who had returned to Dunedin after completing the final years of his medical training in Edinburgh – became pharmacology lecturer. Medical students enjoyed his lectures, even though they took place at 8am, for he filled them with a great fund of entertaining anecdotes from his years of medical practice. In 1920 Fitchett was promoted to be part-time professor of clinical medicine and therapeutics. He visited medical schools in England and Scotland to check out their pharmacology programmes; Otago needed to adapt its teaching to meet the changing requirements of the General Medical Council. Practice in hospital dispensing – ‘condemned’ as unnecessary by the council – was dropped from Otago’s medical syllabus and replaced with a practical class, modelled on Edinburgh’s, in the writing and analysing of prescriptions, and observation of the effects of drugs.

In 1940, after Fitchett retired, Otago had the good fortune to recruit the brilliant Horace Smirk to a new full-time professorial post in medicine. He was a Manchester graduate who worked in London and Vienna before becoming pharmacology professor in Cairo; he continued his pioneering work on drug treatment for high blood pressure in Dunedin. The new professor started out with a boosted staff of lecturers and researchers and within a few years had added further to his team. It was largely in honour of Smirk’s work that Otago received a large grant from the Wellcome Trust in 1961 for a new research building. Smirk had ‘tremendous vitality’, recalls Fred Fastier, one of his pharmacology team (later a professor himself). His colleagues wondered if this had something to do with the enormous quantities of tea he consumed; was his ‘curiously strong brew’ converted into something special ‘by a process apparently acquired in the land of Egypt’? It didn’t, however, work the same way for them.

Meanwhile, the Medical Research Council set up a toxicology research unit at Otago in 1955. Frank Denz was recruited back from England to his home country as first director; with a team including chemist Jack Dacre he began work on food additives such as colouring agents, ‘chosen because they were in extensive use but had not had adequate toxicological assessment’. Denz also taught in the pathology department; after his death in 1960 a very small team carried on with toxicology research. In 1968 the MRC convinced Garth McQueen of the pharmacology department to become director of the unit; he was an Australian who came to Otago in 1954 to work on hypertension with Horace Smirk and stayed on as lecturer in clinical pharmacology. In 1964 McQueen established the New Zealand National Poisons Information Centre, inspired by Dacre’s observations during study leave in the United States. It started out as a one-man operation, run from the Dunedin Hospital Emergency Department, and grew into a busy standalone 24/7 public service with an enormous knowledge base; alongside it McQueen developed New Zealand’s Centre for Adverse Drug Reactions and the Intensive Medicines Monitoring Programme (IMMP). Developed in the wake of the thalidomide tragedy, these, too, provided important public services, recognised with dedicated government funding from 1982 (the IMMP closed in 2013 after losing funding).

Another important 1960s development started out in a very small way: in 1963 six students signed on for a new Otago pharmacy degree. Pharmacists had been pushing for higher education for decades. New Zealand had been registering pharmacists since 1881, requiring them to complete an apprenticeship and pass exams; various private colleges developed. In 1960 the profession finally succeeded in getting a new pharmacy diploma course underway at the Central Institute of Technology (CIT); the Otago degree course was intended for those destined for specialist positions as researchers, lecturers, hospital pharmacists or manufacturing pharmacists. Pharmacy academics were thin on the ground, so the vice-chancellor persuaded pharmacologist and ‘born optimist’ Fred Fastier to administer the new course. Two highly regarded local pharmacists – analytical and consulting chemist Roy Gardner and Dunedin Hospital chief pharmacist John Conroy – ‘came to the rescue’ and became part-time lecturers for the specialist pharmacy subjects. The old Dental School Annexe (next to what is now the Marples Building) was converted to provide specialised labs for the pharmacy programme and sterile solutions unit, which pharmacy took over from the pathology department. The sterile unit – better known as ‘the factory’ – had been manufacturing supplies, including solutions of penicillin and other drugs, for many years to sell around the country; the pathology professor had kept it going in the hope it would prove useful for a future pharmacy department.


Pharmacy student Alan McClintock and technician Sandra Barkman identifying ‘unknown’ chemical compounds in Rob McKeown’s pharmaceutical chemistry lab, c.1983. Image courtesy of Hocken Collections, University of Otago Photographic Unit records, MS-4368/085, S16-669c.

There was plenty of demand for Otago pharmacy graduates and lots of interest in the course; the annual intake was quickly increased to 20 and in 1975 to 25. In 1971 Harry Taylor, who had been heading the CIT programme, became Otago’s first pharmacy professor. A 1981 retirement tribute noted that Taylor saw pharmacy flourish ‘in the most decrepit building in the university, with his administrative work performed in an office no bigger than a commodious cupboard’, but in 1985 it finally moved into better accommodation in the renovated Adams Building. The pharmacy programme was also renovated under energetic Canadian professor Donald Perrier, who introduced a more clinical focus to the degree, which was popular with students. The class continued to grow, taking its biggest jump in 1991; that year, following a long period of political wrangling, a degree became the minimum standard of entry to the pharmacy profession, the CIT course closed and all New Zealand pharmacy training shifted to Otago (from 1999 pharmacists could also qualify through the University of Auckland). The pharmacy department was upgraded to become the pharmacy school, with Peter Coville – affectionately known as Papa Smurf – as first dean.

While pharmacy developed its own postgraduate programmes and research, staff in pharmacology, psychology and several medical school clinical departments also continued a wide variety of research concerning pills and potions and poisons. Some of these had big consequences. In the 1970s McQueen and Otago paediatricians were among those who revealed the toxicity of popular antiseptic hexachlorophene on premature babies. It was widely used from the 1950s onwards in the fight against staph outbreaks in maternity hospitals, but carried its own dangers. Perhaps the most dramatic finding concerning prescribed drugs came through a group of young researchers at the Wellington campus in the late 1980s. Physicians Julian Crane and Richard Beasley and pharmacologist Carl Burgess, all from the medicine department, were suspicious that a popular asthma drug, fenoterol (marketed here as Berotec), might be contributing to an unexplained epidemic of asthma deaths. They asked epidemiologist Neil Pearce of the Wellington campus’s public health department to join them in a study. The results, published in the Lancet in 1989, were explosive, revealing an association between asthma deaths and fenoterol. As with many epidemiological studies, the findings proved controversial. The drug manufacturer, Boehringer Ingelheim, conducted a remarkable campaign to discredit the study, but they weren’t the only ones to dispute it: other researchers, including some of Otago’s own, also resisted suggestions that fenoterol was dangerous. Further studies confirmed the asthma research group’s findings and government subsidies for fenoterol were withdrawn; it was research which prevented many asthma deaths in New Zealand and around the world. From investigating suspicious lung balsams in the 1870s to uncovering dangerous asthma inhalers in the 1980s, we have many reasons to be grateful to Otago researchers.

Admitting women


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At the centre of this charming 1890s photograph of the Wanganui Girls’ College staff is the principal, Isobel Fraser, pouring the tea. She began studying at the University of Otago in 1879 and graduated BA and MA. Image courtesy of the Ian Matheson City Archives, Palmerston North, Public Photograph Collection Scs 52.



Learmonth Dalrymple, who led the campaign for the admission of women to the University of Otago. Image courtesy of Toitū Otago Settlers Museum, F761 (permission of Toitū Otago Settlers Museum must be obtained before any re-use of this image).

No women featured among the founding students (whose story appeared in last month’s post), but their absence did not last long. In August 1871, in response to a petition from 149 women, the university council agreed unanimously to admit women to all classes. This was welcome news to Learmonth Dalrymple, who had worked for years to improve educational opportunities for New Zealand women and girls. Dalrymple arrived in Otago with her family in 1853, carrying ‘an abiding resentment against the conventional and limited education for Scottish girls which she had suffered in the 1830s and 1840s’. In a quiet but determined fashion she led a long campaign against considerable opposition to have the provincial government establish the first public high school for girls in the southern hemisphere. With the Otago Girls’ High School opened in 1871, she and her supporters turned their attention to the fledgling university. They had good support on the council, especially from John Richardson, the chancellor. The council was not willing, however, to go as far as offering degrees to women; as Richardson explained, they would instead be admitted ‘to competition for Certificates which will be equivalent to degrees’. Such restrictions were in line with those in the few other universities in the British empire which admitted women. The most notorious examples were Oxford, which did not grant degrees to women until 1920, and Cambridge, which followed suit in 1948. In practice, Otago’s ban on degrees for women had no impact. By the time the first woman completed the necessary requirements all degrees were awarded through the University of New Zealand, which had no such ban. That university tacitly admitted the eligibility of women in 1874, when it accepted Auckland woman Kate Edger’s application for a scholarship; historian Jim Gardner notes that an institution desperate for enrolments could not afford to ‘turn away degree students in skirts’. Edger became New Zealand’s first woman graduate in 1877.


Mary Montgomery began studying at the University of Otago in 1877. She left to become headmistress of New Plymouth Girls’ High School in 1887. She continued her teaching career in other North Island schools following her marriage to Charles Baker-Gabb, and later completed her BA through Victoria College (Wellington). Image courtesy of New Plymouth Girls’ High School.

Although no women enrolled at Otago in 1871, at least four, and possibly several more, applied for admission in 1872. That was an impressive tally for a roll of just 70 students; it compared favourably with British universities, where a few women attended classes, though not yet on an equal basis with men. The most enlightened – University College, London – counted six women among its 1100 students in 1872. One of the first women at Otago was Anna Barton, who appeared on the list of students successfully completing part of the chemistry course in 1872. Probably attending with her was her mother, Jane Crichton Barton; founding student Alexander Williamson recalled attending classics classes with the Bartons and both women featured on the lists of successful chemistry students in 1873. The Bartons were women with sufficient determination, time and money to commit to a higher education. Jane, the daughter of a Scottish clergyman, was married to prominent Dunedin lawyer George Barton, who later became a judge. Their son Edward attended the university alongside their daughter Anna; he became a leading engineer in Australia, while her later life remains obscure. Another likely brother and sister pair among the early students were John and Miss M. Langmuir; she was probably Margaret, the daughter of Caversham market gardener and nurseryman John Langmuir (senior). Both Langmuirs passed the chemistry exams in 1873, while an unspecified Langmuir also succeeded in English and senior Latin in 1872.


Caroline Freeman, Otago’s first woman graduate. Image courtesy of the Hocken Collections, S13-186a.

Like their male counterparts, most of the early women students did not complete degrees. The first to do so, Caroline Freeman, first appeared in the lists of exam passes in 1875, when she topped the class in psychology and logic and also obtained a first-class pass in junior German. She did not, however, graduate BA until 1885. That was because she continued to work full-time, teaching during the day and attending university classes in the evening. It was not an uncommon pattern, but Freeman demonstrated more determination than most, for several years walking the 11 km home to Green Island after a full day’s work followed by lectures. She later moved into Dunedin and supported herself through tutoring and as a teacher at the girls’ high school. She had no higher schooling herself, following the same path as the many early students who had become pupil teachers as soon as they finished elementary schooling. After graduating Caroline Freeman established private schools for girls in Dunedin and Christchurch.


Ada Mary Fitchett, an Otago student in 1879, went to Melbourne in 1883 to teach at a the new Methodist Ladies’ College, founded by her uncle. She was lady superintendent of MLC from 1896 to 1921. Photograph courtesy of State Library of Victoria, Katherine Shaw Cole collection, H2014.11386.

Although it took over a decade for Otago to produce its first woman graduate, others quickly followed and by 1900 there were 58. As Dorothy Page notes in a study of these women, from 1886 ‘a steady and increasing trickle moved on from the girls’ high school to the university’, with at least 36 of the graduates former pupils of that school. Others came from the girls’ high schools in Southland (opened in 1879) and Waitaki (opened 1887), while a couple hailed from girls’ schools in Timaru and Whanganui. Many of the graduates went on to teaching careers themselves, providing role models and encouragement to future generations of potential women graduates.

There are few student records for the first decade – the names in the list below come from newspaper reports of exam passes. If you know of any other women who studied at Otago during the 1870s, please get in touch!






University of Otago women students of the 1870s – an incomplete list

  • Alexander, Helen
  • Barton, Anna
  • Barton, Jane Crichton (nee Campbell)
  • Begg, Miss
  • Brown, Mary Maxwell
  • Fitchett, Ada Mary
  • Fraser, Isabel
  • Freeman, Caroline
  • Gillies, Isabella
  • Graham(e), Mary G.
  • Haig, Catherine
  • Langmuir, Miss M.
  • Mollison, Jessie
  • Montgomery, Mary


Since this is the last blog post for 2016, I’d like to acknowledge everybody who has supported the project this year, whether by assisting my research, supplying photographs, promoting the blog, or just reading the posts – many thanks! All feedback is much appreciated. And I’m still trying to identify many of the mystery photographs – if you haven’t done so yet, please take a look and see if you can help! I’ll be back in February with more stories from the University of Otago’s fascinating past …

The class of 1871


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Robert Stout, future Premier of New Zealand, claimed the honour of being the University of Otago’s first student. This photograph was taken four years later, in 1875, by the NZ Photographic Co., Dunedin. Image courtesy of the Hocken Collections, Box-030-001, S10-021a.

When classes commenced at the University of Otago in July 1871, the first student to sign on was a 26-year-old lawyer named Robert Stout, admitted to the bar just a few days previously. Though nobody knew it at the time, Otago’s first student was an omen of a good future: Stout became Premier of New Zealand and later Chief Justice. He arrived in Dunedin from his native Shetland in 1864 with teaching experience and surveying qualifications in hand; after a few years teaching he commenced legal training. The energetic Stout was well known around town for he was involved in numerous organisations and notorious as a leading freethinker, who loved debating against religious orthodoxies. His student career was not a long one and he did not complete a degree, but it had important consequences, for he was greatly influenced by the mental science professor, Duncan MacGregor, and later recruited him to become one of the country’s top public servants. Stout’s political career began in 1872, when he was elected to the Otago Provincial Council, but he still found time to serve as the university’s first law lecturer from 1873 until 1875, when election to parliament spelled the end of any academic career. However, his influence on New Zealand universities was immense. He was a member of Otago’s university council for several years and later that of Victoria College (now Victoria University of Wellington), of which he was ‘principal founder’; he also served on the senate of the University of New Zealand for 46 years and was its chancellor from 1903 to 1923.


Peter Seton Hay, the brilliant young mathematician who was one of New Zealand’s earliest graduates. Image courtesy of the Hocken Collections, P2010-011/1-024, Album 605, Hay family portraits, S16-683a.


The university attracted 81 students to its first session. Few student records survive – those identified from various sources are listed at the bottom of this post. Only 20 successfully passed their exams. The others presumably failed or abandoned their studies: ‘not a few dropped attendance, finding the task of preparation too burdensome’, noted council member Donald Stuart. Many, like Stout, were full-time workers and part-time students. Others may have had more time to devote to their studies, but found themselves ill-prepared for tertiary-level education; some did not have the privilege of a high school education. When the Evening Star in 1878 referred to maths and physics professor John Shand as ‘the lucky tenant of one of the University sinecures’, former student Gustav Hirsch rushed to his defence, noting Shand’s heavy workload and the success of his teaching: ‘One of his first students was taken from an elementary school at a very small place up-country, and had just managed to pick up a little mathematical knowledge from the mathematical volume of the “Circle of the Sciences”. Under Professor Shand’s guidance this student a few years afterwards graduated a first-class, with honors in mathematics, and is now an M.A.’ That student was Peter Seton Hay, who had migrated from Scotland as a child and grown up on the family farm at Kaihiku, in the Clutha district; he subsequently became a noted engineer, known particularly for the railway viaducts he designed. He was also famous for ‘prodigious mental calculations’ and ‘solved abstruse mathematical problems in his leisure hours’.

Hay was one of the few early students to complete a degree; most attended classes for a year or two, or even longer, but did not graduate. Otago’s first degree, a BA, was awarded to Alexander Watt Williamson in 1874; it then put aside its power to award degrees in favour of the University of New Zealand, which remained the country’s sole degree-granting body until 1961. Williamson was a young school teacher in the Whanganui district who came to Dunedin to attend the new university. At least one other foundation student came from the North Island, indicating Otago’s status as a national university from the start; Thomas Hutchison also hailed from Whanganui. Hutchison, just 16 years old, was destined for a career in the law and as a magistrate; lawyers and future lawyers were quite a feature among the founding students. Sitting alongside Stout in MacGregor’s mental science classes was 28-year-old William Downie Stewart, the lawyer who had trained Stout; meanwhile, another of Stewart’s law pupils, his future legal partner John Edward Denniston, attended Latin classes. Denniston, who was 26, had been a student at Glasgow University before migrating to New Zealand with his family in 1862; his father was a Southland runholder. Denniston later became a judge.


William Downie Stewart was one of several lawyers or future lawyers among the first students. He was called to the bar in 1867, and this photo was perhaps taken to mark that occasion. Stewart later served in the House of Representatives and Legislative Council. His son, William Downie Stewart junior, was also a well-known lawyer and politician. Image courtesy of the Hocken Collections, William Downie Stewart papers, MS-0985-057/073, S16-683d.

For several other founding students, the university was a step on the way to a career in the ministry. David Borrie of West Taieri, Charles Connor of Popotunoa, John Ferguson of Tokomairiro and John Steven of Kaitangata all studied at Otago before undertaking specialised theological training to become Presbyterian ministers. Ferguson and Steven were already school teachers, pupil teaching being a common route to ‘improvement’ for pupils who did well at school. Connor was just 15 when he signed on at the university. His father, the Presbyterian minister at Popotunoa (Clinton), wrote to the council to enquire if his son could undertake university education without a good grounding in Greek. The cash-strapped clergyman would, he noted, find it impossible to support his son in Dunedin for another full year at the high school, but could stretch to the shorter university session. Charles was ineligible for the university scholarships offered students for the Presbyterian ministry as he was under 16. Meanwhile, Ferguson was able to fund his studies thanks to his success in a competitive exam for the Knox Church Scholarship, worth £30 a year for three years. Connor managed to win a scholarship in his second year; this one was offered only to second-year students, suggesting it was tailored for him, the only candidate. Ferguson and Connor both later travelled ‘home’ for further study in Scotland, while Borrie and Steven completed their ministerial training locally. Thomas Cuddie was another founding student intent on a career in the ministry; sadly he died (probably of tuberculosis) just a couple of months after classes began.


Charles Connor was one of several future Presbyterian ministers among the founding students. His photograph sat alongside that of Peter Seton Hay in the Hay family album – they lived in the same country district. It is tempting to think these photos date from the time they began at the university, when Peter was about 18 years old and Charles just 15. Image courtesy of the Hocken Collections, P2010-011/1-025, Album 605, Hay family portraits, S16-683b.

These men were just the sort of people the university’s founders had in mind. They helped boost the ranks of well-educated teachers, lawyers and ministers, making the country less dependent on imported professionals. Most had arrived in the colony as children or young men and they and their parents had aspirations for a good education. Most might be described as middle class, but some were of humbler means. Thomas Cuddie, for instance, was the son of labouring parents with a struggling small farm at Saddle Hill; he was born aboard the Philip Laing, which brought some of the earliest colonial settlers to Otago in 1848. It would have been impossible for this pious but poor family to fund an education further away without substantial help. Some influential people believed the country would have been better to set up scholarships for New Zealanders to obtain a university education overseas rather than founding a local institution so early, but others were concerned about sending their young people far away and beyond the influence of family; furthermore, some of the most talented might not return. In any case, once a local university was a reality, it became the most accessible option.

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Ferdinand Faithfull Begg – Ferdie to his family – photographed in the 1880s. Image courtesy of the Hocken Collections, Album 398, p.17, Cargill family portraits, S16-683c.

There is some evidence of a ‘brain drain’ among the founding students. As would remain the case, some of the brightest were attracted to further study or other opportunities in Europe and not all returned. Peter Hay’s professors were keen to send him to Cambridge, notes one biography, but Hay ‘did not concur, having other than mathematical plans in which Cupid played a part’. For others of this migrant generation the ties to Otago and New Zealand were not so strong. Two went on to interesting careers in Britain. Cecil Yates Biss was born in India, where his grandfather was a Baptist missionary. He came to New Zealand in his teens with a brother and worked in various civil service jobs, including for the post office. After studying Latin and Greek at the University of Otago in 1871, Biss headed to Cambridge, where he completed the Natural Sciences Tripos with first class honours in 1875; he then qualified in medicine. He became a respected physician, researcher and lecturer in England, though his career was cut short by illness. He was also well known as a leading member of the Plymouth Brethren, and a colleague recalled that the non-smoking teetotaller was ‘rather given to admonishing his patients in regard to excesses and irregularities in living, in addition to ministering to their immediate ailments’.

Ferdinand Faithfull Begg was one of several businessmen among the founding students. He was the son of a prominent Edinburgh Presbyterian cleric. Begg joined his brother in Dunedin in 1863, acquiring good business skills in a bank and a large land agency. He performed well in the advanced maths class at the university in 1871 and returned to Scotland with his father, who had been out on a visit, the following year. There he became a prominent stockbroker, chairing the Edinburgh Stock Exchange and later the London Chamber of Commerce; he was also a member of parliament. One of Begg’s other claims to fame was to be ‘the first to ride a bicycle on the streets of Dunedin’; in 1871 he imported a ‘boneshaker’, complete with wooden wheels, brass pedals and iron tyres, backbone and handles.

There were no women among the founding students, but several joined classes the following year – I’ll feature the story of the admission of women in the next blog post!

University of Otago founding students – an incomplete list

From newspaper reports of exam passes:

  • Begg, Ferdinand Faithfull
  • Biss, Cecil Yates
  • Borrie, David
  • Cameron, J.C. [John Connelly?]
  • Connor, Charles
  • Denniston, John Edward
  • Dick, Robert
  • Duncan, James Wilson
  • Dunn, John Dove
  • Ferguson, John
  • Fraser, J.M.
  • Hay, Peter Seton
  • Hirsch, Gustav
  • Hutchison, Thomas
  • Lusk, Thomas Hamlin
  • Steven, John
  • Stewart, William Downie
  • Stout, Robert
  • Wilding, Richard
  • Williamson, Alexander Watt

Named in Williamson’s diary:

  • Cuddie, Thomas Alexander Burns

Entered in university cash book paying fees:

  • Allan, Alexander George
  • Heeles, M.G. [Matthew Gawthorp?]
  • Hislop
  • Holder, H.R.
  • Holmes, G.H. [George Henry?]
  • Johnston
  • Morrison
  • Smith, F.R.
  • Taylor, W.
  • White, Clement

Wrote to secretary stating their intention to attend classes:

  • Adam, Alexander
  • Colee, Robert Alexander
  • Hill, Walter
  • McLeod, Alexander

I’d love to hear of any other 1871 students, or further details of those listed.

Photo mysteries


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This is a plea for help! Today’s post is rather different from previous ones. I’m posting some photographs I’d like to know more about. Some have appeared on the blog previously, while others are new. They’re all interesting images that I’m thinking of including in the University of Otago history book, and it would be great to have more details before they appear in print. Do you recognise any of the people or places or activities, or can you help with missing dates? If so, I’d love to hear from you, either by a comment on this post, or by email or letter (the ‘about’ page has a link to my university staff page with contact details).

I’ve gathered lots of images from archival, personal and departmental collections over the last few years, but I’m still short in some areas. In particular, I’m keen to locate photos relating to activities involving the commerce division/school of business and the humanities division (though I have a good supply of photos for the languages departments). Zoology, maths and psychology are other departments I’d like to find more images for. Where more general images of student life are concerned, I’d love to find a few photos relating to life in student flats and to lodgings and landladies. I have plenty of capping parade photos, but some other photos of student activities would be great. Overall, the 1980s are a bit of a gap in my lists of potential illustrations, so I’m on the lookout especially for anything from that decade, and to a lesser extent the 1960s, 1970s and 1990s. Another major gap is for images relating to the Christchurch, Wellington and Invercargill campuses. If you have any interesting photos you would be willing to lend to the project, please do get in touch!

Now, on with the mystery photos …

1. Gentlemen dining


Image courtesy of the Hocken Collections, Irvine family papers, MS-4207/006, S16-669a.

These gentlemen, about to indulge in a little fine dining at the Christchurch Club, have connections to the early years of the Christchurch Clinical School (now the University of Otago, Christchurch). Those I have identified so far were either senior Christchurch medical men or Otago administrators and members of the Christchurch Clinical School Council. That council was organised in 1971 and met for the first time in 1972. Max Panckhurst, an Otago chemistry professor who was on the council, died in 1976, so the photo must date from before that, and since it also features Robin Williams, who completed his term as Otago Vice-Chancellor in 1973, it probably comes from the early 1970s. Do you know the exact occasion or year?

The men I have identified are, starting from Max Panckhurst, who is closest to the camera with fair curly hair, and working clockwise: LM Berry, Carl Perkins, George Rolleston, Robin Williams, Leslie Averill, Alan Burdekin (Christchurch Club manager,standing), Bill Adams, LA Bennett, Robin Irvine, unknown, unknown, Pat Cotter (partly obscured), D Horne, Don Beaven, unknown, Fred Shannon, Athol Mann, JL Laurenson. Do you recognise anybody else? Or have I got any of these wrong? Some other potential candidates, who were also on the Clinical School Council, are EA Crothall, DP Girvan, TC Grigg and CF Whitty.

2. Burgers

Were you a Burger? After I published a story about Helensburgh House, a student hall of residence in the former Wakari nurses’ home, I met up with Glenys Roome, who had been its warden. She kindly shared some photos, including these three. Helensburgh House ran from 1984 to 1991 – I’d love to identify which year these were taken, and perhaps some names!





3. The missing singer


Photo courtesy of Michael Shackleton.

All but one of the members of the 1952 sextet in this photo are identified – can you help with the full name of the young man third from left? His first name was John. The lineup was, from left: Linley Ellis, Richard Bush, John ?, Keith Monagan, Michael Shackleton, Brian McMahon. The story of the sextet featured in an earlier post.

4. On the rocks

S15-592b 96-063-36

Image courtesy of the Hocken Collections, Otago University Tramping Club records, 96-063/036, S15-592b.

This is one of my favourite photos – it’s already featured on the blog a couple of times and is sure to end up in the book! In the original tramping club album it is identified as being at Mihiwaka, but somebody kindly pointed out when I posted about the tramping club that this is most likely taken from Mount Cargill. Do you recognise this spot? And can you identify any of the 1946 trampers?

5. Phys-eders

The School of Physical Education, Sport and Exercise Sciences has kindly shared some of their photo collection. The photograph on the beams was taken in the 1970s – were you there, and do you know the exact year? How about the others – any ideas where and when they were taken, or who the people are? I published a post about the early years of the phys ed school in an earlier post, and there are photos on that I’d love to have more information about too, so please take a look!






6. Te Huka Mātauraka

Students 2002

Photo courtesy of the Māori Centre

This photo was taken outside the Māori Centre, Te Huka Mātauraka, in 2002 and featured in a post about the centre. Can you identify anybody?

7. Microbiologists

S16-521c r.6681 WEB JPEG

Image courtesy of the Hocken Collections, Department of Physiology records, r.6681, S16-521c.

This photograph is a good example of the value of this blog. In the original, the man is identified as Franz Bielschowsky, of the cancer research laboratory. When I included it in a story featuring Bielschowsky, people informed me that the man here is actually Leopold Kirschner, a microbiologist working in the Medical Research Council Microbiology Unit. It was probably taken in 1949. Typically for that period, the female assistant is not named – do you know who she is? What, exactly, are they doing? I suspect health and safety procedures have changed since then!


Image courtesy of the Hocken Collections, University of Otago Photographic Unit records, MS-4185/042, S15-500d.

Here’s another microbiology-related photo, taken during the first hands-on science camp in 1990 – it featured in an earlier post about hands-on science. Can you identify any of these high school students? I’m curious to know if any of them ended up as University of Otago students!

8. The St Margaret’s ball

St Mags ball

Image courtesy of Peter Chin.

This photograph, taken at an early 1960s St Margaret’s ball, featured in a story about Chinese students at Otago. At centre front are Jocelyn Wong and Peter Chin – can you identify anybody else? Exactly which year was it?

9. Picnickers


Latin picnic

Image courtesy of Alexander Turnbull Library, Ref: 1/2-166716-F. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22884184

The Latin picnic was a popular event in the early twentieth century. This photo was taken at Whare Flat in 1932 – it featured in an earlier post about writers at the university. People identified so far include Dan Davin, on the far right, with Angus Ross in front of him and Christopher Johnson to Davin’s right. Other students include Frank Hall (back left), Winnie McQuilkan (centre front) and Ida Lawson (in dark jacket behind her). The Classics staff, Prof Thomas Dagger Adams and Mary Turnbull, are at front left. Can you identify anybody else?

10. In the food science lab

I featured these mystery photos quite some time ago on the blog, and people have identified Rachel Noble, a 1980s student, as the woman in the centre of the bottom image. The food scientists tell me these students were in the yellow lab, possibly working on an experimental foods course or the product development course run by Richard Beyer. Can you help with the date, or identify any of the other students?


Images courtesy of the Hocken Collections, from the archives of the Association of Home Science Alumnae of NZ, MS-1516/082, S13-556b (above) and S13-556c (below).



I have quite a few other photograph puzzles, but will save those for future posts!


Thanks very much to those of you who have identified some of the mystery people already – yay! And thanks for the kind offers of further photographs. For those with photographs, here are a few instructions. If they’re already digital, that’s great. If you are scanning them, it would help if you make them high resolution (say 300dpi), preferably in TIFF format, but JPEGs are okay. If they are hard copy, I’m happy to scan them for you if you’re willing to lend them to me – I promise to return them promptly. I can pick up items if you’re in Dunedin, otherwise you can post them to me (it’s probably easiest if you send them to Ali Clarke, c/o Hocken Collections, University of Otago, PO Box 56, Dunedin 9054). Remember if you’re sending images that you need to be willing for them to appear, potentially, in the new university history book (due out 2019) or on this blog! I’ll send you a form to sign granting permission for their use in university publications. Any published photos will be attributed to you; do let me know if there’s a photographer I should clear copyright with as well. Thanks 🙂


A home for art and artists


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Curator Donald Jamieson in the Hocken pictures stack, 1965. Photograph courtesy of the Hocken Collections, Box-240-004, S16-102b.

Otago does not, like some universities, have a fine arts programme; the highly-regarded Dunedin School of Art, established in 1870, is part of Otago Polytechnic. But the university has not neglected art: it has an art history programme, a prestigious fellowship for artists and one of New Zealand’s finest art collections.

That collection began when Thomas Morland Hocken donated his large collection of publications, archives, maps, photographs and paintings to the University of Otago, to be held in trust for the people of New Zealand. The deed of trust was signed in 1907, and in 1910 – shortly before Hocken’s death – the Hocken Library opened in a new wing of the Otago Museum (which was then run by the university). Hocken’s donation included over 400 pictures. Although his wife Bessie Hocken was a painter and photographer, he was not really interested in art for its aesthetics, but for the evidence it provided for research into his true passion, New Zealand history. The artworks he donated ranged from landscapes to political cartoons to paintings of Māori people and activities, and many included keys created by the Hockens to identify people and topographical features. Over the next few decades the library purchased further artworks and others were donated; the first published catalogue of the pictorial collection, dated 1948, included hundreds more works. Like the original collection, additions were mostly acquired for their historical interest, but they included many fine drawings and paintings. A great example is John Buchanan’s 1863 painting of Milford Sound. Linda Tyler, formerly pictorial curator at the Hocken, described this 1920s acquisition as ‘one of the icons of New Zealand art’; she recently discussed it on radio as her favourite New Zealand painting.

From the 1950s the Hocken pictorial collection took a new direction thanks to the influence – and generosity – of some noted art experts and collectors. Poet and editor Charles Brasch headed a new Hocken pictures subcommittee and – not without some opposition – shifted the acquisitions focus from history to aesthetics, and to include modern works. Brasch’s friend Rodney Kennedy made the first of many significant gifts to the Hocken in 1956 with 23 drawings by Colin McCahon. Kennedy attended the Dunedin School of Art in the 1920s and had many artist friends and a fine collection of New Zealand artworks; he was well-known around Otago as a long-serving drama tutor for the university extension department. Brasch, too, began gifting paintings in the late 1950s; both men gave further significant artworks during their lifetimes and by bequest. The Hocken’s important collection of McCahon’s works started with Kennedy and Brasch, but continued with gifts directly from McCahon and a bequest from his parents. Charlton Edgar, who taught at the Dunedin School of Art in the 1930s, gave nearly 400 works to the Hocken in 1961. This gift – known as the Mona Edgar collection in honour of his wife – ‘would update the Hocken with thirty years worth of modern New Zealand art’, wrote Tyler; it ‘changed the historical orientation of the collection irrevocably’. In subsequent decades the Hocken continued to purchase and receive generous donations of New Zealand artworks both modern and historical; by 2007 it held some 14,000 pictures. Those artworks have appeared in many exhibitions (in Dunedin and beyond) and publications and some can now be viewed digitally on the Otago University Research Heritage website. Dr Hocken little knew what he was starting when he gifted those 400 or so works depicting the history of New Zealand to the people of this country!

From 1966 the Hocken benefited from the existence of the Frances Hodgkins Fellowship, named in honour of one of New Zealand’s greatest artists. Modelled on the university’s Robert Burns Fellowship for writers, which had commenced in 1959, the new fellowship offered artists the opportunity to live in Dunedin for a year with a secure income and studio space provided; they had complete freedom of expression to work on projects of their choice. Anonymous ‘friends of the university’ made a large donation which endowed the fellowship, designed to aid and encourage painters and sculptors and foster interest in the arts at the university. The university was becoming an important patron of the arts, with fellowships for composers and dancers and children’s writers to follow later. Such fellowships were few and far between in New Zealand, so they carried considerable prestige.

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Michael Illingworth, photographed in his studio by Max Oettli, 1968. Illingworth was the first Frances Hodgkins Fellow in 1966. Image courtesy of the Hocken Collections, P2011-027, S16-102c. Reproduced with the kind permission of Max Oettli and Dene Illingworth.

The rules stated that potential fellows needed to have ‘executed sufficient work’ to demonstrate talent as a painter or sculptor, and shown that they were ‘a serious artist’ who would be ‘diligent’ in developing their talent and would benefit from the fellowship. There was no requirement for applicants to have any formal education in fine arts, ensuring ‘mavericks’ would not be cut out. The university – or, at least, its selection committee – from the beginning showed a willingness to be bold and support innovative and sometimes controversial artists. The first Frances Hodgkins Fellow, Michael Illingworth, made the news a year earlier when his painting As Adam and Eve, on show at Auckland’s Barry Lett Galleries, attracted an obscenity complaint to the police. That incident cemented the painter’s frustration with the conservatism of middle-class New Zealand. A friend, the writer Kevin Ireland, later described Illingworth as ‘a person with a blunderbuss conversation and philosophy – he sprayed out and hit everything yet his art was so worked and jewel-like and carefully done’. The fellowship got off to rather an unfortunate start when Illingworth left halfway through his 1966 tenure, claiming he couldn’t work in the studio provided. The second Frances Hodgkins Fellow, sculptor Tanya Ashken, found Dunedin more congenial. Among the friends she made was Philip Smithells, director of the physical education school; she joined the students in his gymnastic classes and her observations of their movements and poses contributed to her new sculpture. Following her fellowship there was an exhibition of her work in the foyer of the museum (where the Hocken was still located).

Finding a suitable space for the fellows proved a long-term challenge. In 1975 the Cumberland St house where fellow John Parker had his studio was demolished partway through his term and he moved into an alternative in Leith St. In 1978 fellow Grahame Sydney declared the latest space, near the Leith, ‘a completely satisfactory studio’, but that one didn’t last either. The 2008 fellow, painter Heather Straka, noted that the then studio in Union Street West had good light and hours could pass without her realising: ‘Before I know it, it is 1am and I am still working’. For the past few years the studio has been in a prefab near the Albany Street music studio. Another challenge was funding. Although the original anonymous gift was intended to endow the fellowship permanently, by the late 1970s inflation had eroded the value of its income, along with those of the Burns and Mozart fellowships. The university held a successful appeal to boost fellowship funds, attracting donations from individuals and businesses, along with a government grant. In 1986 the university decided to withhold the Frances Hodgkins Fellowship for a year to build up its capital, but donations from the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council and M.W. James Trust meant it could be offered for a shorter term of 6 months. Since then, the fellowship has been awarded every year.

The list of former Frances Hodgkins Fellows is a veritable who’s who of the New Zealand art world. Many of the artists held the fellowship fairly early or mid-career and went on to great acclaim, such as Ralph Hotere (1969), Marilynn Webb (1974), Jeffrey Harris (1977), Gretchen Albrecht (1981), Fiona Pardington (1996 and 1997), Shane Cotton (1998) and Seraphine Pick (1999). ‘It’s flattering to be in such good company’, said Heather Straka during her tenure. ‘Everyone who has come through this residency has been of quite good note and has produced great work while on the residency’. Freedom from financial worry – for a year, at least – led to the production of many fine works of art: John Ward Knox, the 2015 fellow, described it as ‘a windfall of time and space and freedom’ to create. The Hocken showcased the work of each fellow through an exhibition hosted soon after their tenure, and acquired some of those works for its collection.

If you’re in Dunedin, take the opportunity to see some of the highlights of the Hocken at its current exhibition (on until 22 October). And keep an eye out for the exhibition to be held later this year at the Hocken Collections and Dunedin Public Art Gallery to mark 50 years of the Frances Hodgkins Fellowship. If you’re further away, you can still enjoy many of the Hocken’s art treasures in digital format – happy viewing!

A sporting university


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The women’s A grade hockey team of 1920. Back (from left): R. Patterson, W. Elder, G. Lynn, F. Barraclough. Centre: E. Stubbs, H. Sellwood (captain), Prof George Thompson (president), V. White (deputy captain), M. Morton. Front: E. D’Auvergne, I. Preston. From Otago University Review, 1921.

With the Olympics underway, it seems a good time to think about sport! The first serious sporting fixture at the University of Otago involved rugby, though it was a very different sort of game back then. In 1871 there were just 81 students enrolled at Otago, but they managed to muster a team for a 22-a-side football game against Otago Boys High School. It extended over several hours and two Saturdays and ended in a draw. George Sale, the young classics professor and an old boy of Rugby School, played alongside the students, and in 1884 he became inaugural president of the Otago University Rugby Football Club. Cricket wasn’t far behind rugby, with its first match also in 1871, against the Citizens Cricket Club. Cricket historian George Griffiths suggested this first match was ‘archetypal’, for it ‘began disgracefully late, two selected players failed to turn up, and University were resoundingly beaten’. George Sale was again one of the team. Enthusiasts formed a University of Otago Cricket Club in 1876, but it only lasted three seasons; a second attempt survived from 1895 to 1900. The university managed to scratch together teams for one-off matches, but it was in the 1930s that it again managed to get together a club which played regularly in the local competition.


Taking a break during the home science tennis tournament of 1952. Photo courtesy of Sadie Andrews.

Tennis was one of the most popular early sports, for it required few people and could be played by men and women together. In 1884 students petitioned the university council to provide a tennis court and it duly obliged; the students formed a tennis club and within a couple of years had raised funds to lay down a second court. The tennis club, like many, had its ups and downs through the years. In 1890 one of its courts had to make way for the new School of Mines building and this was not the last time tennis courts were to provide an ideal flat site for building expansion; in the 1970s the Archway Lecture Theatres took the place of tennis courts.

The Otago University Bicycle Club, featured in an earlier post, was founded in 1896, and a year later the University Gymnastic Club began meeting weekly for ‘both exercise and amusement’. By 1901 the ‘noble art’ of boxing was an important feature of the club: ‘It is a huge treat to see a couple of junior Meds punching each other vigorously’, noted its correspondent in the Review. The gymnastic club was very short of members though, and may have evolved into the more specialist boxing club, which was up and running by 1910.

Hockey was another favourite with both men and women. ‘The hockeyites are enthusiastic and promise great things’, noted the Review in 1905, when both women’s and men’s clubs got started. Otago women students were early adopters of basketball (known as netball from 1970). This new sport, which some found preferable ‘to the more strenuous game of hockey’ was taking off in Dunedin schools and church organisations. University teams played in local matches in 1915, the year that the Otago Basket Ball Association, New Zealand’s first, was established, and by 1918 there was an established university club. The Golf Club, consisting of ‘some thirty enthusiastic players’, got started in 1920. Later to start than some other sports clubs, but destined for a flourishing future, was the rowing club, founded in 1929. It started out using the facilities of the Otago Rowing Club, but by the late 1930s had acquired its own boats and had dozens of members. In subsequent decades the growing university was able to support an ever-broadening range of sports clubs, from archery and taekwondo to diving and badminton, and of course some students also played for clubs outside the university.

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Preparing to set off in the men’s harrier race, 1952. Photo courtesy of Sadie Andrews.

Students didn’t have to join a club to enjoy sports. Many a scratch team was put together for a bit of fun, such as the regular annual footy matches between dental and mining students. Residential colleges promoted sports as well, forming teams and playing against other colleges. Soon after Otago’s second college, Knox, opened in 1909, it began playing tennis, hockey and rugby games against the first college, Selwyn. In 1932 they institutionalised their sporting rivalry with the Cameron Shield, hotly contested in various codes ever since. Arthur Porritt, an early 1920s medical student and Selwyn resident, recalled that ‘statutory work accomplished, we indulged to the maximum extent possible in sport …. “Billy” Fea and Mackereth – two “All Blacks” – were our heroes – and we rejoiced in winning the Inter Varsity Tournament’. Porritt was an outstanding athlete himself, winning a bronze medal in the 100m at the 1924 Olympics in Paris (famously portrayed in the film Chariots of Fire, but with a fictional character representing Porritt). Athletics took off at Otago when the Easter Tournament between the four university colleges commenced in 1902. Soon after that first tournament – hosted and won by Canterbury – Peter Buck (Te Rangi Hiroa) presided at the founding meeting of the Otago University Amateur Athletic Club. The club ran annual ‘inter-faculty’ events, where students of Otago’s various faculties competed for athletic glory; they served as trials for the Otago tournament team. In 1923 the athletic club acquired ‘an offspring’, the University Harrier Club, which held Saturday afternoon distance runs. The harrier club reported in 1930 that its ‘finest individual performance’ came from one J. Lovelock, ‘the best distance runner whom Otago University has yet produced’. Jack Lovelock, a medical student of 1929 and 1930, headed to Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship in 1931 and became ‘one of the most celebrated of all Olympic champions’, winning gold in the prestigious 1500m race at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

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Women harriers ready to set off, 1952. Photo courtesy of Sadie Andrews.

Otago students have become sporting stars in many codes through the years. Some came to Otago for its physical education school, which for several decades offered the country’s only sports science tertiary qualification. Many of its alumni became household names, such as netballers Adine Wilson and Anna Rowberry, rugby players Anton Oliver, Josh Kronfeld and Jamie Joseph and cyclist Greg Henderson. Farah Palmer first took rugby seriously after arriving in the south; she went on to lead the Black Ferns to three world cup wins and complete a PhD in physical education. But sports stars came from other disciplines as well. In 1998 Otago claimed a national ‘captaincy treble’: Palmer was captain of the Black Ferns; Taine Randell, a 1997 law and commerce graduate, captain of the All Blacks; and Belinda Colling, a 1998 psychology graduate, captain of the Silver Ferns. Completing a degree while representing your country or province in sport was no easy feat and some sports people dropped out or took longer than usual to finish their studies. In 1990, for instance, John Wright, captain of the New Zealand men’s cricket team, graduated with a BSc in biochemistry, completed after a 15-year break from study. In 2012 the university celebrated when two former students, Hamish Bond and Nathan Cohen, won gold for rowing at the London Olympics; both had studied commerce at Otago before sport took over and they switched to distance education via Massey University. The students’ association recognised its star sportsmen and women with ‘blues’ for outstanding achievements. It also provided financial support for various sports clubs and their facilities. One of the biggest OUSA investments was the Aquatic Centre, opened in 2002 as a new home for the rowing club, which had lost its old premises and boats in a 1999 fire. The splendid facilities presumably contributed to Otago’s long run of success in national and international rowing events in subsequent years.


University sport can be pretty casual! ‘Burgers’ playing volleyball in the spacious surroundings of Helensburgh House, a hall of residence from 1984 to 1991. I’d be delighted to hear from anybody who can identify the year this photo was taken. Photo courtesy of Glenys Roome.

Of course, most students had lesser sporting abilities, and OUSA also developed premises for those who just wanted to keep fit and have fun. Smithells Gym provided room for some indoor activities, but the needs of the physical education school took priority there. OUSA built its Clubs and Societies Building in 1980 to cater for a wide range of activities, and it was soon hosting aerobics classes and weight training. It quickly proved inadequate for the rapidly growing student roll, providing an incentive for the OUSA to take part in a new scheme proposed by the Otago Polytechnic Students Association. The two associations and the university purchased and converted a former stationery factory in Anzac Avenue into the Unipol Recreation Centre, which opened in 1990 and immediately became a hive of physical activity. The university itself developed a recreation services department in 1984, hiring out equipment and organising courses and trips. Recreation services also held the contract to run Unipol. In 2012 Unipol moved to a larger purpose-built space in the new University Plaza building, attracting a jump in student use. Soon afterwards OUSA sold its share of Unipol to the university, unwilling to commit more funds and confident that the university had student needs at heart. Student president Logan Edgar cited the famous example where Unipol had refused a gym booking to the All Blacks ‘when it would have limited the space of students attempting to work out’. OUSA put the proceeds towards a major upgrade of the Clubs and Societies Building (then known as the Recreation Centre), completed in 2014.


This shot of officials at the 1953 interfaculty sports, held at the University Oval, demonstrates the commitment of staff to university sports. From left: Michael Shackleton (medical student), Prof Philip Smithells (Physical Education), Prof Angus Ross (History), Stanley Wilson (Surgery), Prof Bill Adams (Anatomy), Dr Bruce Howie (Pathology), Prof Jack Dodds (Physics), Dr Gil Bogle (Physics). Photo courtesy of Michael Shackleton.

Throughout the university’s history, its students and staff have played an important role in local sport, some as participants and administrators and others as spectators. Indeed, cheering on the local team on the terraces of Carisbrook or, more recently, in ‘the zoo’ at Forsyth Barr Stadium, is an iconic part of ‘scarfie’ culture. This no doubt contributed to the university’s 2014 decision to sponsor the local super rugby team. That decision raised many eyebrows and attracted some opposition, notably from the Tertiary Education Union, unhappy with the extent of spending on marketing within the education sector. Fortunately, the university’s sponsorship coincided with a big improvement in the Highlanders’ results, and when they won the championship in 2015 with ‘University of Otago’ emblazoned on their shirts it was a proud moment for their sponsors. The Highlanders have had another good season, even if they didn’t retain champion status; now it’s time to cheer on our Olympic athletes!

An administrative note

Regular readers may have noticed that this blog post is later than usual. From now on I will be putting up new posts every 4 weeks, rather than every 2. That’s simply because I need to devote more time to writing the book this blog project arose from!


The Nobel connection


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Staff and senior students of the physiology department in 1951. Front row, from left: Laurie Brock, Ken Bradley, Prof Eccles, Eric Hook, Charlie Morris, Wilfrid Rall. Middle row: Arthur Chapman, Jack Coombs, Yap Tien Beng, Molly Bradley, Graham Jeffries, Pearl Cousins. Back row: Arnold Annand, Ron Stevenson, Dan Whyte. Photo courtesy of the Department of Physiology.

At first glance, the Otago physiology department’s one-page annual report for 1951 appears somewhat mundane. It listed student numbers, staff changes, research topics and publications, but it was a simple factual report and made no comment on the teaching workload (which was heavy), research productivity and quality (high), or the achievements of departing staff (remarkable).

A closer look at the 7 publications listed provides further insight into goings-on in the department. Two appeared in the leading journal Nature: ‘Plasticity of mammalian monosynaptic reflexes’, by departing professor Jack Eccles and senior lecturer Archie McIntyre; and ‘The afferent limb of the myotatic reflex arc’, by McIntyre. Several others appeared in the local publication Proceedings of the University of Otago Medical School, including ‘Action potentials of motoneurones with intracellular electrode’, authored by physiology lecturer Laurie Brock (a recent Otago medical graduate), physics lecturer Jack Coombs (another Otago graduate) and Eccles. That article – just a page and a half long – was the first published report of an important breakthrough in neurophysiology research; it was a significant step in the work that won Eccles a Nobel Prize in 1963.

Eccles, born in Melbourne in 1903, commenced at Otago in 1944, bringing impressive credentials from his years as a physiology researcher in Oxford and Sydney. He replaced John Malcolm, who had been physiology professor since 1905. Malcolm was an active researcher, highly respected for his work in biochemistry and nutrition, but Eccles was to take the research activity of the department to a new level. First, though, he had to reacquaint himself with the whole of physiology in order to teach medical students, something he had not done for some years. Preparing 75 lectures for second-year meds, plus others for first-year meds, along with a completely new laboratory course and discussion groups, meant his research ‘virtually came to an end’ during that first year, Eccles later recalled. He did design some of the medical students’ lab work to assist his research, as Miles Hursthouse explained: the professor ‘conducted many interesting experiments, some of them on us! At our practical sessions we had to endure having needles stuck into a muscle, then contract that muscle while measuring the electrical impulse and rate of propagation’. There weren’t many staff to assist, though Eccles was grateful for those he had, including Norman Edson, appointed associate professor of biochemistry in 1944. Biochemistry was a rapidly-growing field, and in 1949 it split from physiology to become an independent department with Edson as inaugural professor; the two fields continued to work closely together despite the administrative separation.

Though he had little time for research in 1944, it was ‘important in my scientific life above all my post-Sherrington years’, recalled Eccles (Charles Sherrington being the distinguished neurophysiologist who inspired him at Oxford). It was then he met the great philosopher Karl Popper, who was teaching at Canterbury. Hearing of the stir that Popper was creating among the scientists of Christchurch, Eccles and Edson invited him to visit Otago. Eccles was heavily influenced by the ‘inspiring new vision of science that Popper gave us’, most notably by his message ‘that science is not inductive, but deductive’. With Popper’s urging, Eccles set about designing experiments that would test a hypothesis ‘in its most vulnerable aspects in an attempt at falsification’. He was keen to prove his theory that messages crossed the synapses of nerve cells by electrical rather than chemical means.

By 1945 Eccles was busy experimenting alongside his teaching duties. David Cole, future dean of the Auckland medical school, completed a BMedSci degree with Eccles that year, recalling that ‘the ebullient JCE’ had ‘ideas tumbling out of his mind’; students appreciated ‘the invaluable experience of working close to the edge of scientific knowledge’. The professor’s lab was ‘a huge cage of chicken wire’ and ‘almost a caricature of the mad scientist amongst his oscilloscopes, wires and animals’. Another student recalled the day that Eccles ‘arrived in great excitement, having, he said, a testable hypothesis about inhibition which had come to him, like Archimedes, in the bath that morning. He retired to his wire cage for 24 hours or more, being fed sandwiches through the door’.

Neurophysiology experiments required sophisticated and intricate electronic equipment; Eccles acknowledged that such technology ‘rapidly outstripped my understanding …. My indebtedness to my associates is immeasurable’. In his travels around the world, he noted, ‘I have left … a trail of elaborately designed shielded research rooms stripped of equipment!’. To Otago he brought not just specialist electrical equipment, but also a technician, Arthur Chapman. He also made the most of the technical expertise he found in Dunedin. Arnold Annand, whose electrical expertise had been honed during service in the Air Force, joined the physiology department as a technician in 1948, beginning a career of almost 40 years building and maintaining equipment for the university’s health science departments. In 1950 Eccles asked Jack Coombs, a ‘shy genius’ who had been lecturing in the physics department since 1940, to design a machine capable of the electronic stimulation and recording he needed for his experiments. Coombs came up with devices which remained, for many years, ‘the best general research instruments for electrophysiology in the world’, said Eccles. Coombs also participated in the neurophysiology experiments. Eccles attracted PhD students – then a rare breed – to Otago. For instance, Wilfrid Rall, a Yale graduate, came to study with Eccles, remaining on as a lecturer for several years before returning to pioneering neuroscience work in the US. Another important recruit to the department was Archie McIntyre, an old Australian neurophysiology colleague. Eccles convinced McIntyre to join him at Otago, where he became senior lecturer in 1949.


Eccles at work on an experiment, assisted by Molly Bradley, in 1951. Photo courtesy of the Department of Physiology.

The breakthrough 1951 experiment required the insertion of a tiny electrode, less than a micrometer wide, into a single nerve cell in the spinal cord of an anaesthetised cat; the action potentials of the cell could then be measured. Similar experiments had been carried out on frog muscle fibres, but never successfully on mammals. The day that revealed that synaptic action was chemically mediated, thus disproving Eccles’s theory of electrical transmission, was remarkable not only for that result. The experiment lasted for many hours, but for some time Eccles was left to tend it alone while one of his colleagues, Laurie Brock, delivered the baby of the wife of the third member of the team, Jack Coombs! As an enthusiastic disciple of Popper’s deductive method, Eccles was happy to accept that his theory was false, becoming a ‘belated’ convert to English neuroscientist Henry Dale’s hypothesis of chemical synaptic transmission even in the central nervous system.

Although Eccles was to carry out further ground-breaking experiments in neurophysiology, they didn’t take place in Dunedin. At the end of 1951 he departed for a plum job as founding physiology professor at the John Curtin School of Medical Research, attached to the recently-established Australian National University, Canberra. There he could carry on his research without the distraction of the heavy teaching load which he found a burden at Otago. Jack Coombs (whose younger brother Doug was geology professor at Otago for many years) and Arthur Chapman followed Eccles to ANU, as did some of the specialised equipment. But he left behind a strong legacy of experimental neuroscience at Otago and, by no means least, his much-respected colleague Archie McIntyre, who succeeded him as physiology professor. Under McIntyre’s leadership the department continued to attract talented research students and staff and maintained a strong experimental focus, albeit one less focused on neurophysiology, as new staff with other interests within physiology joined the team.

Ted Jones, who became a prominent neuroscientist in the USA, arrived at Otago as a medical student a few years after Eccles departed. He could not recall ever being told that Eccles had carried out groundbreaking work ‘in one of those rather grubby basement rooms of the Lindo Ferguson building. If Eccles was remembered at all it was for his irascibility, not his scientific achievements’. Perhaps the subsequent award of a Nobel Prize alerted later students to what this man had achieved in the world’s southernmost medical school – certainly it’s something we can celebrate today!

The absent-minded professor


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The absent-minded professor is not a mythical figure; numerous people have fitted this description through Otago’s history. I thought it would be fun to lighten the midwinter gloom with a few of the more entertaining stories of such characters. I must stress, however, that I have considerable sympathy for these people. It is all too easy for scholars to become caught up in the pursuit of their intellectual passions and lose track of the world around them!

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Noel ‘Bennie’ Benson in characteristic pose, pointing out a feature of geological interest during a field trip in 1924. Image courtesy of the Hocken Collections, Department of Geology archives, MS-3195/132, S16-591b.

The most notorious absent-minded professor in Otago’s past is Noel Benson, who was geology professor from 1917 to 1950. Benson – known as ‘Bennie’ to generations of students – was an excellent geologist, who received one of the ultimate accolades in science, Fellowship of the Royal Society (London). He was a tall and somewhat shambling figure. John Mackie, a student of the 1920s and 1930s who went on to teach in the School of Mines and founded the surveying school, recalled that Benson ‘wore on all occasions an ancient, somewhat shapeless, dark tweed suit which bore the slightly green sheen of age’. At one point he acquired a new suit with two pairs of trousers, but it didn’t survive long. One day, as he assisted a student examining a map in a practical geology class, there was ‘a powerful smell of scorching’. The professor hadn’t noticed the heater under the table, and when he stepped back ‘the toasted fronts of his trouser legs fell out to reveal his pink long-johns’. A few weeks later, running late to meet a visiting scholar at the railway station, he tripped over the tram rails and fell, removing the knees from the second pair of pants. ‘Next day we saw a limping Bennie clad in the old familiar garb’.

Benson was not the best of lecturers, since he generally spoke with his eyes closed or facing the board, forgot to turn the lights on after showing slides or tripped over the projector cord, and often ran over time. As Mackie noted, ‘his thoughts were often far away on trilobites, or the structural features of the margin of Australasia, or the geology of eastern Otago, and if you spoke to him on such occasions he would reply automatically, “Yes – just so!”’. While he was courting his future wife – Helen Rawson, the home science professor – Benson became even more absent-minded than usual: as he lectured in the mining school he gazed ‘dreamily out the window to the home science building opposite’ and addressed ‘burly’ mining students as ‘my dear’, reported long-time physics lecturer Agnes Blackie. Helen Benson did her best to assist her husband in practical matters; for instance, she attached his compass, eraser and pencil to his button holes with string so he had less chance of losing them on field trips. But she couldn’t prevent some of his more famous lapses, such as the time he set off to work carrying his suitcase and the ashcan lid, carefully depositing his case at the front gate and taking the lid to the university.

Despite – or perhaps because of – his eccentricities, students regarded ‘Bennie’ with affection, and his knowledge and passion for geology inspired many. They were less fond of him when he drove them on field trips. John Mackie recalled ‘descending pale and shaken from his vehicle after being driven around winding roads in the bush, mostly on the wrong side, while he was peering at outcrops’.  Fred Fastier wrote that ‘One reason for an astonishing lack of collisions was that Benny kept his trafficator out “just in case” he might need to turn right. He would also get down to his lowest gear at least a mile away from the Mount Cargill Road lest he should forget to do so later on’.

Unfortunately, Benson was not the only absent-minded driver on the Otago staff. Another famous case was his contemporary Henry Devenish Skinner, the anthropology lecturer and museum director. Neil Howard recalled ‘one hair raising trip when driving out to Murdering Beach excavation site he went around the tortuous corners on the old Mt Cargill road on the wrong side, blowing the horn vigorously as he went. “Please excuse the horn,” says he, “you cannot be too careful”’. Another famous driving story relates to history professor William (‘Willie’) Morrell. His daughter Judith Nathan kindly shares the ‘best known story’ of the professor’s ‘legendary absentmindedness. He left my mother behind at the Vice Chancellor’s residence at St Leonard’s. He was taking the guest of honour home so the guest sat in the front and my mother in the back. As the back window was fogged up, she got out to clean it on the outside and he drove off. After a while the guest reportedly said: “Is your wife in the car?” to which my father is alleged to have replied: “Goodness me. I don’t believe she is.” At which point he turned the car around’. Despite such lapses, Morrell did pay attention to detail, as Neil Howard notes: ‘It was quite a performance when he would halt in a lecture, take out a propelling pencil, propel the lead, insert a comma in his lecture notes, ‘unpropel’ the pencil and replace it in his pocket then carry on’.


The future history professor during his own Otago student days, dressed as a schoolgirl for capping in 1920. From left: F.H. McDowall, G.A. Naylor, J.S. Adam, W.P. Morrell, L.S. Rogers and A.G. Crust. Image courtesy of Judith Morrell Nathan.

There were far fewer women academics back in the day and, since they had to overcome significant obstacles to achieve academic careers, they could not really afford to be absent-minded. Nevertheless, women professors stood out and eccentricity was not confined to the male of the species. Sticking to the transport theme, I don’t know if home science professor Ann Gilchrist Strong was a good driver, but her Model A Ford was a prized possession. 1920s student Sylvia Keane recalled that another of the professor’s prize possessions was her fox terrier Binkie, who had a basket in Strong’s office and ‘sported a bright scarlet coat in the winter’. It was ‘quite a memorable sight to see her sitting up beside Mrs Strong in the car’. The first home science professor, Winifred Boys-Smith, used a bicycle rather than a car. In contrast to the American Strong, Boys-Smith was ‘English to the backbone’, recalled Agnes Blackie, and ‘had a clear idea of the respect due to her position’. She was ‘a well-known figure as, clad in an ankle-length, black, caped waterproof coat and a broad-brimmed hat held securely in place with an enveloping motor-veil, she cycled from place to place round the university’.

Eccentricity and absent-mindedness do, of course, survive on campus to this day, but for obvious reasons I have confined these tales to people who have long since departed!