In 2007 the University of Otago reached a milestone so significant it held a gala ball at Larnach Castle. A large group of postgraduate students gathered for a convivial evening, celebrating the enrolment of over 1000 PhD students at Otago that year. Students of a century earlier could not have imagined such an event. They would have been shocked at the numbers, for a start, but many would also have no idea what a PhD was. The growth of the premier research degree is one of the significant changes in university life over recent decades.
PhDs are a fairly recent phenomenon in the British and colonial world. The PhD as a higher research degree had its origins in Berlin in the early 1800s and was adopted in the USA from the 1860s. Oxford did not pick up the baton until 1917 but by 1919 it was in all British universities. The University of New Zealand – the federal authority which set the syllabus, conducted exams and awarded degrees for all universities here until 1961 – introduced the PhD degree in 1922, but the programme quickly ran into problems thanks to a requirement for full-time study. That made it less flexible than existing higher degrees, which had been around since the 19th century. By 1900 three Otago students had earned a Doctor of Science degree, three were Doctors of Laws and four Doctors of Medicine. For those degrees students presented a thesis or publication, completed without any supervision from the university. Settling on a uniform standard for the PhD was another difficulty and, in the face of few enrolments, in 1926 the University of New Zealand abolished the PhD degree.
By the time existing students had completed, there were just nine graduates from the University of New Zealand’s first experiment with the PhD. Three were from Otago, and it’s nice that they were distributed around three of the current four academic divisions: sciences, humanities and commerce. The honour of being the first Otago student to graduate PhD, in 1927, goes to Rudolf Penseler, whose thesis was ‘Experiments on the Synthesis of Apofenchocamphoric Acid’, completed in the chemistry department. He later did further research in England and Germany before returning to a varied career in New Zealand. Following Penseler, James Salmond graduated with a PhD in history in 1928 and Walter Boraman in economics in 1929. Boraman became a secondary teacher and school inspector, while Salmond became a minister, educator and leader in the Presbyterian Church (Salmond College is named for him and his sister).
After World War Two, as the country came to value increasingly the research work being done in universities, the PhD degree was re-introduced, this time to stay. Otago’s first post-war PhD graduate was Richard (Dick) Batt, a chemist, in 1948. Like quite a few of that generation of PhD graduates he went on to a distinguished academic career, in his case at Massey University, where he became a noted alcohol researcher. The next made his career closer to home. Arthur Campbell, who was once Batt’s flatmate, graduated PhD in 1953. With the regulations now more flexible, he was able to complete his research part-time while working as an assistant lecturer; in fact he did most of his work late at night in the laboratory. After completing he spent some time researching in Glasgow before returning to the Otago chemistry department, where he later became professor. He eventually retired in 1987, noted as ‘an analytical chemist without peer’. A second 1953 graduate – Lyle Fastier, based in the medical school – completed ‘an experimental study of the mouse encephalomyelitis group of viruses’. The following year Margaret Di Menna became Otago’s – and New Zealand’s – first female PhD graduate, with her microbiology thesis on ‘Yeasts of the human body: their nature and relationships’.
By the end of the 1950s another ten PhD graduates had been added to Otago’s credit, all of them in chemistry and biochemistry with one exception, which was in botany. Through the 1960s the Otago PhD slowly grew in popularity, though it took a while before the prejudice against ‘colonial’ degrees was lost and the best scholars no longer felt compelled to travel overseas for doctoral work. The colonial cringe is now long gone, with candidates coming from all over the world to study here. Good Otago staff attracted good research students, with the medical school a particularly important draw for researchers. Though fields of study broadened through the 1960s and 1970s, a very large proportion of Otago PhDs in those decades were in biochemistry, physiology and microbiology, together with chemistry. Funding was significant in attracting students too. After the devolution of scholarships, once run nationally by the University Grants Committee, Otago committed heavily to providing support for PhD students. In 1995 it boasted of being the New Zealand leader in postgraduate support, granting 97 scholarships (paying full fees plus $12,000) to PhD candidates, plus 89 awards to masters students. Scholarships assumed ever greater significance as the government reduced the duration of its financial support to students.
In 1995 Otago had just under 500 PhD candidates in a wide variety of fields, with 38% in the sciences, 34% in health sciences, 19% in humanities and 9% in commerce. The following year Paul Theivananthampillai became the 1000th person to graduate with an Otago PhD (the count began in 1962, following the abolition of the University of New Zealand). Like many before him the 1000th graduate was already an Otago staff member; he completed his study on ‘the coalignment of strategic control systems’ while lecturing in the Department of Accountancy. The next 1000 Otago PhD graduates took just nine years to produce. Now (June 2015), the University of Otago boasts 3514 PhD graduates, together with 25 who graduated under the old federal system. Their research represents a pretty significant contribution to the sum of human knowledge! Some of that knowledge can now be accessed freely on the Otago University Research Archive, which has digital versions of many Otago PhDs – happy reading!