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When it started out, the University of Otago was a tiny institution, located in a settler community established less than three decades earlier, and as far away as possible from the ancient centres of learning of Europe. Despite these obvious disadvantages, it attracted some remarkably talented scholars to its staff. The first four professors – John Shand (mathematics and natural philosophy), George Sale (classics and English), Duncan MacGregor (mental and moral philosophy) and James Gow Black (chemistry) – were all fine teachers and scholars. They were also young and energetic, and presumably motivated by the opportunity to stamp their mark on a new institution and a new country. Of course, like any large institution Otago has employed a few deadbeats and rogues over the years, but they have been well outnumbered by men and women following the high standards established by those early professors.

These days the university actively publicises the achievements of its staff and students, but it has not always been so diligent about this and some remarkable people passed largely unknown in the wider community, and even within the wider university. An example comes from a golden period in the science faculty in the 1930s and 1940s. There weren’t many students majoring in science then – numbers first hit a hundred in 1943 – though many of the staff were kept busy teaching students in the ‘special schools’ (medical students numbered several hundred each year, dental students over a hundred and home science students passed the hundred-mark in 1939). Recently I had the privilege of meeting Ann Wylie, who lectured in the Department of Botany for many years and remains very alert and active in her nineties. She started out as an Otago student in 1941 and recalls some of the outstanding scholars in the science faculty at that time. “I don’t think anyone else realised,” she comments, that the faculty “really had exceedingly famous people on its staff.”

John Holloway in the Department of Botany garden, c.1931. Image courtesy of the Department of Botany.

John Holloway in the Department of Botany garden, c.1931. Image courtesy of the Department of Botany.

When Ann Wylie went to teach at the University of Manchester she discovered that people there knew all about John Holloway of Otago’s Department of Botany. Holloway, a New Zealander, was an Anglican priest with a passion for plants. After graduating from the University of Auckland he worked in various parishes around New Zealand and for a couple of years in England. He was lecturer in botany at Otago from 1924 to 1944, when ill health forced his retirement. Holloway was an active researcher who did pioneering work on ferns and their relatives. The significance of his scholarship was recognised in his election as a Fellow of the Royal Society (London) in 1937; he had been a Fellow of the New Zealand Institute (later renamed the Royal Society of New Zealand) since 1921 and served as its President in 1939 and 1940.

In both of these honours Holloway followed in the footsteps of one of his Otago colleagues, William Benham, Professor of Biology. Benham was President of the New Zealand Institute 1916-1917 and elected a Fellow of London’s Royal Society in 1907. A graduate of University College, London, he taught at Bedford College for Women and at Oxford before arriving in Otago as professor in 1898. He retired in 1937 but remained an active presence in the university well into the 1940s. Benham was a highly-regarded zoologist who researched and published widely but had a particular interest in earthworms.

In 1941, yet another Otago science faculty member of this period joined the list of Fellows of the Royal Society: Noel Benson, Professor of Geology from 1917 to 1950. Benson was born in England but grew up in Tasmania; he was educated in Australia and at Cambridge. Benson carried out pioneering work in petrology in various parts of Australia before arriving at Otago in 1917; he then expanded his work to include the rocks of New Zealand. He was a tireless researcher and his obituary from the Royal Society commented that “his output and range of published research was amazingly large and though his geological outlook was wide he was a master of detail.”

The achievements of these three men are all the more remarkable when we take into account the special challenges they faced in what was then a small remote institution. They had very wide responsibilities. Benham had to teach botany as well as zoology until 1920, when Winifred Betts became the first Otago staff member dedicated to botany. When Holloway took over from her in 1924 he was the Department of Botany, as Benson was the Department of Geology in his early years at Otago. Holloway’s room in the basement of Otago Museum served as the botany lecture room, office and laboratory for many years and he did all the teaching, administration and lab preparation, as well as running the botany garden. Benson, likewise, did all the teaching and administration for geology, along with the menial chores of the department. Perhaps more irksome than this, though, was the academic isolation – lacking colleagues in their own field, they could only communicate with scholars of similar interests by mail or after a long journey.

As we celebrate the achievements of Otago staff of the twenty-first century, let’s also spare a thought for their remarkable predecessors of the early twentieth century!

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