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Like many organisations, the university is keen to celebrate its pioneers – the first people to complete a particular achievement. Identifying who those people are is sometimes straightforward, for example, the University of Otago’s first graduate was Alexander Williamson (1874) and its first woman graduate was Caroline Freeman (1885).

Other ‘firsts’ are not so easy to confirm, as the university’s early records are rather sparse where personal information is concerned. I’ve written previously about some of Otago’s early Maori students and graduates. Early records do not note the ethnicity of students and names are not always a reliable indicator, as some Maori students had English names, while some Pakeha students had Maori given names (with Huia quite a popular choice). A little prior knowledge or oral tradition is needed to help spot potential candidates!

I’ve been asked about early students from the Pacific, and some of the same problems arise. For instance, one of Otago’s most famous Pasifika graduates had a name with quite a Welsh sound to it – Thomas Davis. Davis, a Cook Islander, graduated from Otago in medicine in 1945 and had a career in public health and research physiology before serving as Prime Minister of the Cook Islands from 1978 to 1987. Otago awarded him an honorary doctorate in 2005.

Kamisese Mara

One of Otago’s most famous former students was Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, pictured here with his wife Adi Lala in 1969 during his installation as Tui Nayau on the island of Nayau, Fiji. Image courtesy of the Alexander Turnbull Library, PAColl-0199-012.

The earliest Pasifika student I’ve found so far is Ratu Jione Dovi, who began at Otago in 1929 and graduated MBChB in 1935. As the honorific Ratu indicates, he came from a chiefly Fijian family. After graduating Dovi practised in New Zealand and served with the NZEF in the Solomon Islands before settling back in Fiji. Other Fijians of noble descent soon followed Dovi to Otago, among them Ratu Immanuel Vosailagi, who graduated in dentistry in 1944, and perhaps the most famous of all, Ratu Kamisese Mara, who commenced his medical studies at Otago around 1943 but continued his education (in history) at Oxford. Mara, awarded an honorary doctorate by Otago in 1973, served as Prime Minister of Fiji from 1970 to 1992 and then President until 2000. An early Indo-Fijian student was Mutyala Satyanand, who graduated in medicine in 1940, settling afterwards in New Zealand – his son Anand was Governor General of New Zealand from 2006 to 2011.

Are you able to help in my search for early Pacific Island students? If so, I’d love to hear from you! Who were the first Otago students from Samoa and Tonga and Vanuatu and Niue and Tokelau? And what about some early Pasifika women?

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