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The Department of Psychology neuroscience lab in the 1980s. From the University of Otago Handbook for Intending Students - Science & Surveying, 1989.

The Department of Psychology neuroscience lab in the 1980s. From the University of Otago Handbook for Intending Students – Science & Surveying, 1989.

One of the university’s significant milestones this year is the 50th anniversary of one of its largest departments, psychology. In 1964 Stephen Griew arrived from Bristol to become Otago’s first Professor of Psychology and in the following year, assisted by two lecturers, began teaching papers which would enable students to major in psychology for a BSc or BA degree and go on to postgraduate study.

Psychology had been taught at Otago for many years prior to the foundation of the department, but it was part of the philosophy programme. The roots of the discipline are reflected in one of its early names, experimental philosophy. At Otago it formed part of the subject known as mental science, or mental and moral philosophy. In 1882 the course in mental science covered three areas: psychology, ethics and logic. The psychology lectures examined “Outlines of the physiology of the nervous system; Instinct; the senses and the intellect; Abstraction, with outlines of the Realistic Controversy; Perception, with outlines of the chief ancient and modern theories.” Though courses in psychology expanded over the years, they remained part of the philosophy programme and it wasn’t possible to study psychology at an advanced level without majoring in philosophy. Students completing a science degree could complete a psychology paper without also studying philosophy, but had to do more laboratory work than arts majors, and had no options for more advanced study.

The introduction of the full degree programme for psychology in the 1960s reflected a growing demand for this field of study and about 90 students completed the first-year course – described in the calendar as “a synoptic introduction to the experimental study of behaviour” – in 1965. Otago was certainly not ahead of the times: Victoria, Canterbury and Auckland universities had all separated their philosophy and psychology departments in the 1950s. The department’s first PhD graduate, in 1968, was Michael Davison, who came to Otago from Bristol to study with Griew; he went on to a distinguished career at the University of Auckland. Another early PhD graduate was Geoff White, who had been one of those pioneering first-year students in 1965. After some years teaching at Victoria University of Wellington, he returned to Otago in 1985, becoming professor and head of department in 1988; his success in developing the research culture of the department resulted in his later appointment as the university’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research). His successor as DVC was another professor from the department, Harlene Hayne, who is now Otago’s Vice-Chancellor. The department takes pride in its ranking as New Zealand’s top academic unit for research, across all disciplines, achieved in the 2012 Performance-Based Research Fund assessment.

In 1986 the department set up a new first-year laboratory course using a new microcomputer network, developed using the staff’s DIY skills. This proved very popular and some of the experiments are still used in courses nearly thirty years later. By the mid-1990s there were over 1000 first-year students; fortunately there were also numerous PhD students who could serve as demonstrators. The rapidly growing department put a strain on resources, especially buildings. For many years it was scattered around various old houses and prefabs, and parts of the department are still there today. The Goddard Laboratories were purpose-built in 1989 to cater for the growing undergraduate classes. They are named after Professor Graham Goddard, the head of department who tragically drowned in a flash flood while tramping in 1987. In 2000 another new building meant the animal laboratories finally had adequate housing, rather than a leaky Nissen Hut. The William James Building, opened in 2012, provided a large purpose-built space with facilities for teaching, research and staff offices.

Do you have any memories to share from the early years of the Department of Psychology? Do you recall performing experiments using the 1980s computer network, or in the neuroscience lab (pictured above)?