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The physically and intellectually imposing Professor George Sale, photographed around 1876. Image courtesy of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Rolleston album 2. Reference PA1-q-197-11-2.

The physically and intellectually imposing Professor George Sale, photographed around 1876. Image courtesy of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Rolleston album 2. Reference PA1-q-197-11-2.

You’d think it would be pretty tricky to recruit four good candidates to be the inaugural teaching staff of a tiny institution, located as far as it was possible to get from Europe, in a town which was the centre of a colony only a couple of decades old. But Otago managed to secure the services of four outstanding men as its first professors. All were young and presumably attracted to the idea of shaping a new university in a lively new colony; they must have had a considerable taste for adventure.

The oldest, George Sale (1831-1922), was just 39 years old when appointed Professor of Classics in 1870, while the youngest, Duncan Macgregor (1843-1906), was only 27 on his appointment as Professor of Mental and Moral Philosophy. Joining them on the foundation staff were John Shand (1834-1914), Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy, and James Gow Black (1835-1914), Professor of Natural Science.

Sale, a Cambridge graduate, had already spent some years in New Zealand. He migrated in 1860, partly for health reasons, but probably also to escape the conventions of the life of an English gentleman. He worked on a Canterbury sheep run, was first editor of the Christchurch Press, joined the Otago goldrush as a miner, and then returned to Canterbury to become Provincial Treasurer; he later held various official posts on the West Coast goldfields. The illness of his father, a master at Rugby School, prompted his return to England in 1869; there he was selected over 61 other applicants for the Otago chair of classics.

Sale’s three professorial colleagues were all Scots of humble backgrounds whose academic ability had served them well; all had more conventional CVs than the colourful Sale. Black came from a poor Perthshire crofting family and started teaching at 14 years of age; he eventually obtained three degrees from the University of Edinburgh, including in 1869 a doctorate, an unusual and elite qualification in those days. Shand hailed from Morayshire, where his father was a farm steward. Capable in many fields, he excelled particularly at mathematics and obtained a master’s degree from the University of Aberdeen. After that he taught in various Scottish academies and also in the military mathematics department of the Royal Academy in Gosport, England. Macgregor was a mason’s son and another Aberdeen graduate; like Black he came from Perthshire. After completing his MA at Aberdeen, where he excelled in mental and moral philosophy, he graduated in medicine from the University of Edinburgh in 1870.

Fortunately all four men had broad academic interests, because they had to teach a variety of subjects in Otago’s early years. Sale was responsible for teaching English as well as Latin and Greek until the appointment of the first Professor of English, John Mainwaring Brown, in 1880. Shand taught both mathematics and physics (then termed natural philosophy) until 1886, when he was appointed to a newly-created chair of natural philosophy and Frederick Gibbons became Professor of Mathematics. As Professor of Natural Science, Black was responsible for teaching both chemistry and geology until 1874, when Frederick Hutton, newly appointed Provincial Geologist, became lecturer in geology and zoology, allowing Black to concentrate on chemistry. Macgregor’s subject, mental and moral philosophy (sometimes known as mental science) incorporated both philosophy and psychology.

Macgregor left the University of Otago to become national Inspector of Lunatic Asylums, Hospitals and Charitable Institutions in 1886. His Otago career of 15 years may seem long, but it paled next to those of his early colleagues. Sale retired in 1908, Black in 1911, and Shand was eventually forced to leave due to failing eyesight in 1913 after 42 years as an Otago professor. These four remarkable men not only shaped New Zealand’s first university, but also played an active part in the local community and were well-known citizens of Dunedin.

What did the students make of these men? Reminscences written by early students for the university’s jubilee help bring the professors to life. David Renfrew White, who later became Otago’s first Professor of Education, recalled that Macgregor was unconventional, had “no professorial airs or restraint,” and was much loved by his students. His lectures were very interesting and challenging: “there was no drudgery and wearisomeness about this class; the hour was all too short.” He once lit a cigar while supervising a written exam, and “one at least of the students thought that if he, too, were allowed to smoke he would do a better examination paper.”

Shand was “patient with the dullest student, and of a quiet, philosophic temperament. He looked with clear common-sense on men and things,” commented White. Violet Greig, another early student, remembered Shand’s “radiant smile and glorious white hair … I can see him now looking over his spectacles as he stands with that metre rule in his hand waiting for the students to assemble, and I can hear him now dictating our ‘expiriments for tu-marra’ …” The kindly Shand was a “born teacher,” commented Thomas Pearce: “who will ever forget his blackboard performances, his cancellations and eliminations and reductions from complexity to simplicity.”

Black was energetic and genial and “always doing kindnesses to someone” remembered Greig; he was a popular president of the university’s football association. His classes could be exciting and sometimes literally explosive. Greig could “still hear the thud of the rock sulphur on that table as the doctor held it high and threw it noisily down to impress upon his students that it was one form of sulphur.” Pearce  commented on his “ebullient nature” and original turn of phrase; “students flocked to his classes not to learn chemistry, but to feel the magic force of his originality.”

Sale was a highly respected scholar who was “a splendid guide” to anybody with an interest in classics, recalled 1890s student John Callan. Unfortunately many Otago students did not have an interest in, or gift for, Latin, which was a compulsory subject: “our knowledge of classics must have been a source of continual torture to the professor,” wrote John O’Shea. Callan commented that, if Sale struggled to teach adequate Latin to “the rest of us, he at least kept us in order, partly by his gift of crushing sarcasm, but more just by being what he was, a silent, massive man, full of unutterable possibilities.” He was a keen athlete, who preceded Black as president of that all-important football association.

1890s student John O’Shea sums it all up well. “I have heard it said by older students that when Sale, Shand, Black, and Macgregor taught the University the students felt that they were led by giants. I knew the first three in their later days, and I can believe the statement.”