Ian Chirnside, who is now 106 years old, has a pretty good claim to be Otago’s oldest surviving graduate! Certainly it’s unlikely that there are any earlier university staff members out there, because he started working on campus when he was just 14 years old, in 1922. I recently had the great privilege of meeting Ian. He has an impressive memory and enjoyed chatting about life at Otago in the 1920s and 1930s.
Ian grew up in Dunedin, the sixth in a family of eight children. Like most working class children of that generation, they all left school young to earn a living and help support the household. Ian and one of his brothers tossed a coin to select between two job possibilities. The brother took the foundry job, and Ian’s future was sealed when he became “the boy” – the lowliest technical assistant – at the Dental School. He had a wide range of tasks. There was plenty of cleaning, including scraping the wax off the students’ benches. Other tasks were more exciting: some of the students were frightened of the blow torch used to melt gold for fillings, so Ian dealt with it for them. He also learned to develop photographs. When the School was short of suitable specimens, it used photos for teaching and one of Ian’s tasks was to print a set of copies for each student. He became interested in photography and had his own box brownie camera. This was swept away in the big Leith flood of 1923, when water covered the roads and the Dental School (the building which is now the Staff Club) was left overhanging the river. The dental students clubbed together to buy Ian a replacement camera.
Another of Ian’s duties was to serve as messenger boy for the Dean, H.P. Pickerill: “at the time I thought something of it,” he recalls. Pickerill was a major figure, and not only in dentistry. He was one of the pioneers of plastic surgery during World War I, bringing some of the badly wounded men he treated back to Dunedin after the war for further treatment. But it seems he could also be a little absent-minded, because Ian regularly biked out to the Pickerill home in Ravensbourne to collect something the Dean had forgotten, such as appropriate clothing for a formal dinner at which he was to be guest of honour. One interesting duty he carried out for Pickerill was to turn on and off the wall switch of an electric knife used during surgery!
Ian loved working at the Dental School, finding the students and staff very friendly. When he was promoted his younger brother, Alan Chirnside, became “boy” in his place. The brothers decided they would like to train in dentistry themselves, but as they had no secondary schooling they first had to study to obtain matriculation (entry to university). After work, they would run home to Maori Hill for tea and then run down to the King Edward Technical School night classes, often arriving late. Their determination and hard work paid off in the end, with Alan graduating in dentistry in 1938 and Ian in 1940. Ian has fond memories of his student years, especially of capping. The government, town council and taxi drivers (especially Red Band Taxis) always got “a bit of a rip” from the students. One year he drove an old-fashioned buggy in the capping procession. He borrowed the buggy from the Oval, one draught horse from his father (who worked with horses) and another from the grocer who lived nextdoor. Ian and another dental student dressed up as “hayseeds” for the occasion. They managed to get caught in the tram rails, which were the same width as the wheels on their buggy. Later they parked outside Arthur Barnett’s store “for the sake of the girls,” putting down a piece of grass turf to try and prevent the horses from wandering off!
After graduating, Ian spent a few years away from the Dental School, including some time spent in military service with the Dental Corps in the Pacific. In 1945 he returned as a lecturer to the place he loved so well, remaining until his retirement in the early 1970s. By that time he had evolved from the junior lackey without any secondary schooling to an associate professor, complete with doctoral degree. He saw many changes over his long career, the most significant technical development being the arrival of the fast-cutting drill. Ian continues to take an interest in the world of dentistry. His eyesight is not too good these days, but his daughter reads him articles about new developments. He is especially intrigued by the use of robotics in teaching!