Where it all began



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The university’s first home, complete with ‘loungers’, photographed around 1877. Image courtesy of the Hocken Collections, University of Otago Library records, 96-111/15, S17-612b.

The University of Otago had its first home in Dunedin’s first Oamaru-stone building, designed by William Mason in neoclassical style for a post office. As the building neared completion in 1867, Dunedinites began imagining other uses for it; provincial superintendent James Macandrew suggested it ‘might be turned to much better account than that of a Post Office’. He convinced the government to turn the building over to the province in exchange for a more modest post office building. Locals were already using the ‘new post office’ for meetings and balls, but its first long-term tenant was the Otago Museum. It was the obvious accommodation for the university, and in 1871 – the year that classes began – it moved in. The building wasn’t perfect: the University Council reported it spent ‘a large sum in providing a new roof for the hall, in altering the staircase, and in adapting the building generally to the purposes of a University’. That was, however, cheaper and quicker than starting from scratch.

The Princes St location, right in the centre of town, was fitting for a university which modelled itself on urban foundations such as Edinburgh and London rather than ‘the sleepy cloisters’ of Oxbridge, but it did have its problems. The ‘footpath before its door was a favourite resort for loungers’, suggests George Thompson in the jubilee history, and parental concerns about sending their offspring to ‘the temptations and seductions of a town life’ were real. The biggest problem, though, was the lack of space for an expanding institution, which was sharing the building with the museum and art school and wrangled constant requests from citizens for use of the hall. The University Council wanted to develop residential accommodation for students and, though that didn’t happen for several decades, it did prompt the initial plans to move to a new site.

In 1874 the Otago Provincial Council granted the university a new site in part of the ‘old cemetery reserve’ (subsequently used for Arthur Street School and the Otago Boys’ High School). When, a few months later, the museum was allocated a new site in Great King Street, the Arthur Street location seemed less ideal; University Council member Donald Stuart argued ‘it was absolutely necessary that the Museum be situated in close proximity to the University, on account of the zoological, botanical, and medical classes’. In 1875, after the necessary legislation was passed, the cemetery reserve land was swapped for a new site, conveniently close to the museum and hospital, known as the botanical garden reserve. After delay finding a buyer for its original building, the council began construction on its new home beside the Leith in 1878.

The Colonial Bank became the proud owner of the Princes Street building. Unfortunately for the university, it failed to make its intention to transfer the clock to its new building clear in the sale contract and the Colonial Bank insisted on keeping it. The indebted university could not afford to purchase another and its new Clocktower Building had no clock until 1931, when one donated by the chancellor, Thomas Sidey, was installed. It was a fitting gift by ‘Summertime’ Sidey, the politician who succeeded after a long campaign in introducing daylight saving time to New Zealand. The original university building later became the Dunedin Stock Exchange; it was demolished in 1969 and John Wickliffe House now stands on its site.


Princes Street, featuring the Stock Exchange building with its clocktower, around 1926. Image courtesy of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Sydney Charles Smith photographs, 1/2-046489-G.

From beginnings to endings: today is my last official day of work on the 5-year (part-time) project to write a new history of the University of Otago! That project is now in the capable hands of the excellent team at Otago University Press. They will publish the book late in 2018, in time for the 150th celebrations of 2019. This blog has been an important part of the project for me. It began in mid-2013 with weekly posts, but later became fortnightly, then monthly; this year it has been more sporadic as I have been preoccupied with completing the book. It has been wonderful to have the opportunity to share here some of the great stories I’ve encountered. My sincere thanks to everybody who has read the blog, and particularly to those who have responded with extra information, corrections and encouragement, along with those who have spread the word about the blog and the project. Not all of the 130 stories and accompanying images I’ve shared here will appear in the book – there simply isn’t room for all of them – but many will.

This blog will not die. We’re currently finalising arrangements for its new management and some Otago history students have been working on new stories – look out for those next year! I’ll still be at the University of Otago, continuing in my other role, in the archives at the Hocken Collections. You can still contact me there with queries about the fascinating history of New Zealand’s first university.

Ngā mihi nui ki a koutou katoa,

Ali Clarke, December 2017



The Park Street residences


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Otago has a great collection of residential colleges, some long-established and others quite recent; less well-known are those that flourished briefly but no longer exist. One of the most popular posts on this blog is about Helensburgh House, a ‘temporary’ hall of residence from 1984 to 1991. Today I explore the history of two others that have gone: Dominican Hall and Wesley Hall.


Dominican Hall. It was originally built in the 1880s for Robert Gillies, a businessman and amateur astronomer who included an observatory in the roof and named it Transit House in honour of the Transit of Venus. An OUSA listing of student residences for 1967 noted that at Dominican Hall ‘most necessary facilities are present although there is generally a theme of austerity’. Any austerity must have contrasted with the surviving ‘opulent elegant detail’ of the building, from embossed plaster ceilings to Minton floor tiles and ornate door handles. Image courtesy of Dominican Sisters archives, F15/5/1.

Like the other churches, Catholics saw a need to provide for their young people coming from around the country to Dunedin. In 1945 the Dominican Sisters, a teaching order at the forefront of Catholic education in Otago since arriving in 1871, purchased a grand stone home in spacious grounds in Park Street. In 1946 it began a new life as Dominican Hall, a residential college for 20 women students. One of them, Shona Scannell, later recalled that they formed a ‘lovely family … We went to the pictures together and had social sports groups. I thought it was wonderful’. In 1948 the sisters had additional bedrooms added atop the building; with that and other alterations plus the purchase of a neighbouring property in 1953, Dominican Hall expanded to house 48. Some women had single rooms but, as in most residential colleges of the day, others shared. Residents of the ‘dormitory’ reported on their exploits in the 1960 Dominican Hall magazine. ‘Life with seven in a room can be rather hectic’, noted Maureen Donnelly, but ‘a great sense of comradeship has grown’. They took part in all the social and sporting activities on offer, and ‘If there is any trouble we are all in it together, be it smoking in unlawful places, creeping in rather late, or just not sweeping the floor. We have formed a Rock’n Roll Recorder Group and at one stage our singing was of such quality it was mistaken for the radio’.


Students singing compline led by Father Ambrose Loughnan OP, Dominican Hall, in 1956. Religion was an important feature of Dominican life. The students were cared for by a small group of sisters and a resident chaplain; they hosted visits from the bishop and meetings of the Catholic Students’ Club, held retreats and had their own branch of the Children of Mary sodality. Image courtesy of Dominican Sisters archives, F15/8/2.

Not to be outdone by the Anglicans (who established Selwyn), Presbyterians (Knox and St Margaret’s) and Catholics (Dominican and Aquinas), in 1958 the Methodists joined the student accommodation business. Like several other institutions, Wesley Hall started with the purchase of a private residence. The Park Street home had room for 14 students – all men – and a resident matron, with the Methodist Central Mission’s superintendent acting as non-resident warden. The bedrooms were rather small and ‘no studies are provided’, reported the OUSA in 1967, ‘but there is a common room with piano and table tennis table’. The crowded conditions did not deter some residents. At the end of 1961 matron Elsie Maclean reported: ‘we seem to have some bright lads at present and the majority are anxious to return again next year … Several will be spending their fourth year here’. Their behaviour was generally ‘quite good till about midnight when apparently they become restive and noisy but as this seems to be the usual procedure in the student world, we patiently wait till the spasm subsides’. As a small institution Wesley Hall struggled for recognition by other colleges, though the residents organised events, such as ‘a very enjoyable’ hockey match and lunch with the women of Dominican Hall in 1964. The 1963 and 1964 presidents noted the perils of having too many residents from one district – in this case, Gore – which ‘tends to create a rather narrow range of acquaintances’. It could also ‘cause a certain amount of friction and suspicion ie “Who told my parents that I took so and so out last week?”’, suggested Kenneth Thomson.

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The large Park Street home which became Wesley Hall was originally built in 1918 for lawyer Herbert Adams, but later run as a guest house. Image courtesy of the Hocken Collections, John McIndoe Ltd records, MS-3247/584, S17-564b.

Unlike several other residences with small beginnings, Wesley Hall did not grow larger, though that was the original plan. Methodist Superintendent David Gordon explained in 1970 that the Central Mission planned extensions for years, but on consultation with Otago VC Arthur Beacham concluded ‘with the rising running costs for a hostel, we should build nothing smaller than a 100 bed hostel’. As time passed and the ‘optimum size’ increased, the project grew ‘entirely beyond the resources of the Central Mission’. The government offered subsidies to organisations building student accommodation – that helped with the initial set up of Wesley Hall – but the cost of a new building was significant and the church had other priorities for social service funding. It ‘decided reluctantly’ to close Wesley Hall at the end of 1970; it had run at a loss throughout its 12 years. The building which had housed lively young men as a student residence was purchased by the Department of Health to become ‘a Hostel for the Rehabilitation of Alcoholics’.

An oversupply of accommodation for women led to the end of Dominican Hall; at the end of 1978 the Dominican Sisters announced it was closing. At its peak, it accommodated 50 residents, but by 1978 had just 28, though ’40 can be taken comfortably’. The decline was due to ‘the growth in larger, more modern hostels’, suggested Sister Bernadette (UniCol opened in 1969 and Salmond in 1971). As a small institution it could not afford to carry many vacancies in a period of rising expenses; the demand for improvements to meet DCC fire safety regulations was the final straw. For women who preferred a Catholic residence a new option was available, with Aquinas accepting women in 1979, but it also closed at the end of 1980 after a downturn in the university roll (the university purchased and re-opened it in 1988 after the roll surged again). In their day, Dominican and Wesley were obviously lively places which contributed to the welfare of their residents and the university; it was economics which spelled their end.


Dominican residents ready for a 1955 ball. Back row (from left): Clare Ryan, Judy Knight, Marlene Prentice, Bernadette Lloyd, Kathleen Kennedy. Front: Mary Horn, Pauline Burke, Clare Curran, Yvonne Young, Margaret Potts. Image courtesy of Dominican Sisters archives, F15/9/3.

My thanks to the Dominican Sisters for the wonderful photographs from their archives. I’d love to hear from anybody with photographs of Wesley Hall!

An English story


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The English Department staff outside their premises in Cameron House, a grand two-storeyed family home on Leith Street (later knocked down to make way for UniCol), in 1961. Until tutorials were introduced, the department fitted into a small room in the Clocktower Building. From left: Keith Maslen, Lenore Harty, Gregor Cameron, Alan Horsman, Margaret Dalziel and Bob Robertson. Dalziel later became Otago’s first woman humanities professor and Pro-Vice-Chancellor. Image courtesy of the Department of English and Linguistics.

English is one of Otago’s founding subjects and has always been one of its most popular. In 1871 George Sale, the Cambridge-educated classics professor, taught an English class of 22, though it was an unfamiliar task for him. At his inaugural lecture Sale commented that neither Cambridge nor Oxford had a professor of English so he looked to the Scottish universities for inspiration; he concluded that their teaching encouraged ‘that very vice which it should be the especial object of a University to eradicate – shallowness and superficiality. He was therefore compelled to strike out a line for himself’. 1871 English students started the session with Chaucer, plunging straight into Middle English. When the class progressed to ‘the more modern language’ of Shakespeare’s sonnets after its ‘thorough and profitable perusal of the Canterbury Tales’, it earned a report in the ODT; perhaps the reporter was a student.

In 1881 Sale handed his English classes over to John Mainwaring Brown, another Cambridge graduate, appointed to a new chair of English, constitutional history (for law students) and political economy (economics). Brown was popular – and less intimidating than Sale – but his career ended tragically when he disappeared during a tramping expedition in Fiordland at the end of 1888. With the arrival of Thomas Gilray in 1890, Otago had its first dedicated professor of English; a period of remarkable stability followed as the chair was held by just two men, both Scots, for three decades each.

Gilray was highly organised but not the most engaging lecturer: Muriel May, a student of the 1910s, recalled that he ‘taught by dictating at a relentless pace to his benches of scribbling students in the Lower Oliver classroom …. at the prearranged dates we regurgitated. There were no seminars, no discussions, originality was not fostered nor were personal opinions encouraged’. It didn’t help that he was bound by a national syllabus, with exam papers marked by strangers in the UK. Gilray’s death came as a shock: he collapsed while reading the lesson at the university’s jubilee church service, held in Knox Church in 1920. His successor, Herbert Ramsay, was ‘one of the university’s best lecturers’ and students delighted in his thoughts on Shakespeare. The course and teaching methods remained conservative. Ramsay boasted in a 1950 valedictory speech to the University Council that he never asked them for more staff. He and long-serving lecturer Gregor Cameron did all the teaching, with one additional junior lecturer from the late 1940s; they remained committed to the Scottish lecture-only system. John Greig, a Scot who taught in England, the US and South Africa, introduced radical changes as professor from 1952 to 1956. No fan of the conventional lecture, Greig introduced group tutorials; as a consequence, English’s academic staff jumped from three to seven, plus part-time tutors. He also modernised the curriculum, adding works by twentieth-century authors (Sean O’Casey, T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf) and New Zealand poetry and short stories.

The inclusion of New Zealand literature in university courses was controversial. As Otago lecturer Robert Robertson explained, it was generally taught as ‘a dutiful recognition’ that first-year students should be aware of New Zealand poetry. There was an element of colonial cringe, but teaching local literature was hard work for staff, who had only ‘partial bibliographies, few collected works, no collected letters, not a standard biography, incomplete histories only and a scattered body of occasional criticism of varying merit’. Alan Horsman, a New Zealander who studied and taught in England, arrived as Otago’s new English professor in 1957. He recalls it as a significant year, with the publication of Janet Frame’s Owls Do Cry and Ian Cross’s The God Boy, novels which stood comparison with the best English writing; there was already poetry ‘of top quality’. He was reluctant, though, to introduce a paper devoted to New Zealand literature. Lawrence Jones, an American who arrived as lecturer in 1964, found Otago students responded more enthusiastically to Janet Frame than Thomas Hardy, and his research interests shifted to New Zealand literature. In 1977, in response to student demand, an honours paper fully devoted to New Zealand work was introduced; further undergrad courses followed and research expanded.

Burns Fellows received a year’s salary, a room in the English Department and complete freedom to write. Not all writers found the year easy, but others thrived during their first opportunity to write full-time. Cilla McQueen, the 1985 and 1986 Burns Fellow, is photographed in contemplative mood in the fellow’s office at the 50th anniversary celebrations of the fellowship in 2008. The office was then occupied by Sue Wootton. Image courtesy of the English and Linguistics Department.

Cross and Frame were both recipients of the university’s Robert Burns Fellowship for writers, commenced in 1959. In addition to providing some of the country’s greatest writers an opportunity to create without financial stress for a year, the fellowship was important for the English Department, which hosted the fellows. Staff and students interacted with them: ‘It was a very good thing for the department to have practising writers around, available to be talked with’, says Horsman. Some, like 1966 and 1967 Burns Fellow James K. Baxter, participated in classes. He ‘would come to a class occasionally and make his experience available. He would speak to the class about prosody in a way which, from a practising poet, was authoritative’, recalls Horsman.

Otago ventured into linguistics in the 1970s and in 1990 its small programme moved into the English Department; from 1994 students could major in linguistics. Another applied field which mushroomed in the 1990s was writing. It began when other departments expressed concern over students’ communication skills. In 1993 English introduced a paper on ‘the fundamentals of effective speaking and writing’; it was designed for health science students, for whom it was compulsory until 2006, but other departments at various times recommended or required it and other students also found it useful. It morphed into ‘English for university purposes’. Later the department expanded beyond the remedial or introductory with courses in advanced writing, writing for the professions and a creative writing paper in poetry.


Greg Waite (at centre, with beard), discussing the Textbase of Early Tudor English Project with participants at a conference in 1990. Waite and Alistair Fox started this early example of digital humanities in 1984, producing a machine-readable corpus of early Tudor literary texts, with particular focus on poetry. The project was largely completed by the late 1990s and transferred online in 2002. Image courtesy of the English and Linguistics Department.

Two new endowed chairs expanded the department in a Celtic direction. In 2006 Peter Kuch was appointed as Eamon Cleary Professor of Irish Studies and in 2009 Liam McIlvanney became Stuart Professor of Scottish Studies. Both are literary scholars (and McIlvanney has a sideline as a crime writer). They provided intellectual stimulation to an English Department already a mix of the old and the new: along with esteemed scholars of historic writers (for instance, Jane Austen expert Jocelyn Harris) it employed up-and-comers with interests in digital literature, post-colonial literature and the avant-garde, among other fields. Its writing programme was also a ‘sizeable operation’. Meanwhile, Middle English, Old English and Old Norse were still spake here. Rick McGregor, a 1992 PhD graduate, came from Auckland to research the use of Icelandic sagas by a modern Swedish writer because Old Norse remained on offer in the south; Otago’s blend of conservatism and innovation has distinct advantages!

Chaucer, the English Department’s first text, has never gone out of fashion. Giving a Chaucer reading at Colin Gibson’s retirement function in 1998 are, from left: Greg Waite, Nicola Cummins, Bill Dean and Colin Gibson. Image courtesy of the English and Linguistics Department.

The childcare revolution


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The crèche in its original premises in the old All Saints Church Hall. The notes on the back of this photo are difficult to decipher. The voluntary helpers are identified as Vivienne Moss (although that name is crossed out) and Jenny Heath. The child facing the camera at the centre is Rebecca, with Rachael nearest the camera. Please get in touch if you can confirm any names! Photo courtesy of the Otago University Childcare Association.

There is one organisation affiliated to the university which, although unknown to some students and staff, has had a big impact on the institution since it began nearly 50 years ago: the Otago University Childcare Association (OUCA). During the university’s first century there were few women academics, even fewer married women academics and scarcely any with young children. Microbiologists Margaret and John Loutit arrived at Otago from Australia in 1956; Margaret obtained part-time work as a botany demonstrator and then microbiology lecturer while working on a PhD. As a working mother she encountered considerable criticism. Her salary was mostly absorbed in paying for private childcare, but her hard work was rewarded with the completion of her PhD in 1966; she then became a full-time academic and eventually a professor. For many others, motherhood spelled the end of any academic career, while most students abandoned degrees when they gave birth. In the 1960s and 1970s, when many New Zealanders married young and, whether married or not, also had children young, that meant a lot of ‘academic wastage’.

Improving childcare provision helped the next generation of women. Several younger staff wives instigated the university’s first crèche, designed to provide part-time childcare for students. Since the university was unwilling to provide childcare, the founders set it up as a community venture; the vicar of All Saints Anglican Church offered the use of the old church hall. They invited women students to a meeting late in 1968 and ‘it was evident from the animated discussion that a nursery would fulfil a need’. The University Nursery Association – later renamed the Childcare Association – was a parent cooperative, with Jean Dodd as first president; she was a lecturer’s wife who previously set up a playcentre in Leith Valley. The nursery/crèche (both names were used at various times) opened in 1969 with kindergarten teacher Barbara Horn and Karitane nurse Ann Leary as its first supervisors; parents provided assistance according to a roster.


Outdoor play and learning in the 1990s. Photo courtesy of the Otago University Childcare Association

The new affordable and convenient crèche, together with new access to contraception, made a big difference to women, comments one student of that era, Rosemarie Smith: ‘gaining control over fertility and creating childcare revolutionised women’s access to education – and also to employment in the university’. She ‘graduated in 1971 with a BA and a baby thanks to that crèche’, and worked on the general staff for a couple of years. There was some resistance to the crèche. Most people in positions of authority in the university – generally men – saw no need for it, but there was also resistance from women uneasy about working mothers. There was, however, a demand for childcare and the association grew quickly, from 39 paying members in 1969 to 83 in 1971. That year it moved into the Cumberland Suite (an old house) of the University Union and in 1973 into a house at 525 Great King Street. That was provided by the university as temporary accommodation, since it intended to demolish the building to make way for a carpark. Instead it became a long-term home for the association, which expanded into two adjoining houses in the 1980s.

Childcare became more respectable as increasing numbers of middle-class married women joined the workforce. OUCA helped overcome some resistance in its early years by insisting it was a part-time service, but from 1980 it offered full day care. The service was increasingly used by staff, although students retained priority. In 1994 there were 138 families using university childcare; 71 were staff and 55 were students. It remained affiliated to, rather than owned by, the university, although the university provided its buildings – including splendid new Castle Street premises in 2014 – and small grants from the university and students’ association covered a small portion of its expenses. Unsurprisingly, given its clientele, OUCA attracted highly capable people to its management committee. Among the parents who served were some who subsequently held senior posts in the university, including future vice-chancellor Harlene Hayne; she was succeeded as president by historian Barbara Brookes, who suggests it ‘was perhaps the most important committee in the university in terms of the connections we made’. Brookes, her husband (also an academic) and children all made, through childcare, ‘deep friendships that nourish us today’.

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Behind the facades of several villas in Castle Street, across the road from Selwyn College, Te Pā opened in 2014 as new premises for the Otago University Childcare Association. It incorporated four childcare centres, including a new bilingual centre, Te Pārekereke o Te Kī. The association also continued to run a centre at the College of Education. Graham Warman photographs, courtesy of University of Otago Marketing and Communications.

Learning to lecture


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WR Morris lecturing in the ‘old anatomy lecture theatre’ – now the Gowland Lecture Theatre – in the Lindo Ferguson Building, 1949. Anatomical drawings and skeletons were popular visual aids from the medical school’s earliest classes onwards. Image courtesy of the Hocken Collections, University of Otago Medical School Alumnus Association archives, MS-1537/441, S17-550c.

The University of Otago’s founders followed Scottish precedent in their choice of curriculum and also in teaching methods: rather than the Oxbridge-style tutorial, teaching was based on the professorial lecture. That had the advantage of being economical and many subjects got by with just one staff member for the first few decades. The professor did all the teaching, except in the sciences, which were first to acquire assistants, necessary because of the laboratory classes which supplemented lectures. Humanities subjects had no tutorials until the 1940s, though in some cases the classes were small enough that professors became well acquainted with their students. As mentioned in a recent post about the history department, history professor John Elder told a young lecturer whose students showed marked progress after he introduced seminar discussions: ‘These young men like to hear themselves talk but you’re paid to lecture and you’ll therefore lecture. So long as I’m head of this department, there’ll be no discussions’.

Elder was not the only professor suspicious of tutorials. They eventually sneaked into arts subjects as the rehabilitation department funded tutorials for returned servicemen and women in the wake of World War II; they became standard additions to the lecture programme soon after that. Sometimes the impetus for this innovation came from students and sometimes from staff. In 1948 Frank Mitchell, the education professor, reported that ‘this year the Honours students on their own initiative organised tutorials for students taking Education I. I hope that it will soon be possible to conduct regular tutorials for all stages’. In the same year departing philosophy professor David Raphael noted that tutorials were ‘not just a desirable luxury’ in that subject, but ‘essential for adequate training. Philosophy is a way of doing things with one’s mind, not a set of facts to be learned, and consequently the student must be in a position to practise the accomplishment in question’. Tutorials required a bigger investment in staff, but the growing student roll justified that.

Academics of course varied greatly in their teaching styles. Founding classics professor George Sale, notorious for his disdain of students’ abilities, preferred the stick to the carrot. John Murdoch, in reminiscences of his own teaching career, wrote of meeting some of Sale’s honours students after a lecture in 1907: ‘They had just received their corrected Latin proses, and the most successful had gained a mark of “minus 300”. Sale deducted marks, 10, 50, 100 or more for a mistake, according to his estimate of its seriousness’. Murdoch had little respect for the methods of the early 20th century professors: ‘Otago University as I knew it was in effect a glorified coaching school’. Although the academic staff were ‘capable and well-qualified’, suggested Murdoch, their teaching was determined by a system whereby courses were ‘set by regulations applying to all four [University of New Zealand] colleges, and the success of their efforts was gauged by examiners in England’. Such conditions made ‘inspirational teaching almost hopeless if not quite impossible’, at least in English, ‘a notoriously difficult subject to teach’. Future high school principal Muriel May, an Otago student of the 1910s and 1920s, recalled that Thomas Gilray, the English professor, ‘taught by dictating at a relentless pace to his benches of scribbling students in the Lower Oliver classroom …. at the prearranged dates we regurgitated. There were no seminars, no discussions, originality was not fostered nor were personal opinions encouraged’. There were always, of course, some inspiring teachers. May also recalled that George Thompson’s French lectures ‘were invariably stimulating and enjoyable. (Latin students made comparable claims for the classes of Professor Adams.)’ Lecturer Agnes Blackie was in love with physics, which she found ‘brimful of interest’. ‘I can’t imagine a better subject for a lecturer’, she wrote in her reminiscences. ‘Lectures can be illustrated with fascinating demonstrations which bring the subject to life for the students and are fun for the lecturer to operate’.

From the 1950s, with greater local control of the curriculum and the widespread use of tutorials in addition to the traditional lectures, labs, clinical teaching and field trips, academic staff had greater flexibility in teaching. Their adoption of new technologies varied. Visual aids did not have to be high-tech: the beautiful anatomical drawings of John Scott, who was a skilled artist as well as first dean of the medical school, were used at Otago for many decades. Others used glass slides and a ‘magic lantern’ projector to show images. John Mackie recounted its use by Noel Benson in 1929 first-year geology lectures; it was ‘a contraption on a tripod which stood behind the lecture bench. Believe it or not, this projector incorporated an arc-lamp which spluttered, fizzed and made other dangerous noises, although as a source of light it was quite spectacular’. The notoriously absent-minded professor occasionally tripped over its wires ‘and the whole contrivance would crash to the floor’; that happened also on the day he rushed to extinguish the light after discovering students had replaced his first slide with a full-frontal nude. Slides remained a popular teaching tool, though shown through a more compact slide projector from the mid-20th century, with the slides themselves shifting from glass to film negative to digital format.

In 1940 the dean of arts and sciences, Robert Bell, reported that several departments took advantage of a new scheme for borrowing ‘sound-films’, finding them ‘an extremely valuable and effective addition’ to teaching methods. Not every academic liked new technology; John Howells, who retired from the economics department in the 1990s, commented ‘my major advancement in the technology area stopped with the biro pen’. The emergence of the Audio Visual Learning Centre (AVLC) in 1973 ‘was regarded with suspicion by some staff members who had visions of classes being handed over to various mechanical gadgets’, reported the staff newsletter in 1977. By then, the ‘prejudice’ was ‘disappearing’, with 30 departments already using the AVLC. Its use ranged from ‘tape/slide/workbook programmes’ for anatomy courses to a ‘film providing “evidence” for a simulated Supreme Court trial’ for law students. The impetus for the centre came from the medical school, which was concerned about how it would manage its larger intake of students; it provided space for AVLC academic director David Teather and his team, with a production centre in the Adams building and a study centre with library of audio visual resources in the Scott building.

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By the time this photo was taken in 1983, medical school lectures had become much more relaxed and technology enabled the use of film and other audiovisual aids. Please get in touch if you can help identify the lecturer or class! Image courtesy of the Hocken Collections, University of Otago Photographic Unit archives, MS-4368/086, S17-550b.

Academics using the AVLC ‘face some adjustment of their teaching methods and their attitudes’, noted the staff newsletter in 1975. There was already wider consideration of teaching and learning methods in the university, which new technology helped accelerate. In 1971 the lecturers’ association ran a well-attended seminar on teaching methods and suggested the university set up a research centre on higher education. In 1973 Otago appointed Terry Crooks as a lecturer in the education department, with half of his time devoted to research and advice on university teaching. He, the lecturers’ association and AVLC ran occasional sessions on teaching methods; for instance, a 1976 session looked at the use of film in university teaching, with staff discussing Otago-made films they had used in anthropology, physical education and medicine. Psychology lecturer Louis Leland ‘introduced a film which demonstrated the training of laboratory rats’. He made ‘a similar film each year with rats trained by the current year’s students and uses this to demonstrate to the following year’s students that training rats is within their capability’. In 1976 senate established a higher education research and advisory centre (HERAC) committee. HERAC and the AVLC often worked together and in 1978 they merged under a new acronym, this time destined to last: HEDC, or the Higher Education Development Centre.

Although HEDC had few staff in its early years, it performed a significant role; ‘there was growing awareness of the need for stimulating teaching’ reported the director, David Teather, in 1983. A recent two-day seminar on ‘helping students succeed’ had attracted 140 staff and ‘there was now hardly a department which did not make regular use of the resources at HEDC’ for producing teaching aids. That was just as well, since students ‘now came from school expecting to make use of technology in their work’. Computers became a significant part of that technology, and in 1986 Graham Webb joined the HEDC team; his ‘major responsibility’ was ‘to advise staff members on the educational uses of computers on campus’. Otago’s computing services centre also developed a team with expertise in computer-aided learning and in the 1990s HEDC’s audio-visual production section joined them as part of information technology services. HEDC continued to research and disseminate information on tertiary teaching, provide advice and run courses, notably for new academic staff; from 1996 staff could obtain a formal qualification – a postgraduate diploma in tertiary teaching – taught by the centre. The centre also supported Otago staff from other departments working on teaching-related research and new innovations. To help ‘enhance’ learning and teaching, the university offered special grants for research and innovation in teaching.

HEDC assisted with course evaluations, which gave students an opportunity to provide feedback on their teachers and courses. Staff could use them to identify weaknesses in their teaching which required work, or as evidence of their skills when seeking promotion. In an era of growing emphasis on quality assurance, they helped ‘measure’ courses in departments which were up for review. With a growing body of research from staff and postgraduate students on many aspects of higher education, plus a range of courses and support services for academics wanting to make their teaching more effective, Otago had travelled a long way from the days of Sale scoring papers at ‘minus 200’ and Gilray ‘dictating at a relentless pace’.

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A class underway in the late 1980s or early 1990s in the Castle Lecture Theatres. The overhead transparency was a popular teaching tool for many years, later largely overtaken by Powerpoint digital slides. Unfortunately, the resolution of this old negative isn’t good enough to read what’s on the screen – if you can identify the class, lecturer or year, please get in touch! Image courtesy of the Hocken Collections, University of Otago Photographic Unit archives, MS-4185/060, S17-550a.

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.