The Rhodes Scholarship – one of the most prestigious academic awards in the world – has shaped the lives of some of Otago’s most gifted graduates. The scholarship, which provides for study at Oxford University, has been awarded since 1902 thanks to a generous bequest from Cecil Rhodes. Rhodes, an English clergyman’s son and Oxford alumnus, made his fortune as a mining magnate in southern Africa. He was an ardent promoter of the British Empire and played a large hand in African politics as Prime Minister of Cape Colony in the 1890s. His business ethics and racial views seem highly suspect today, but the purpose of the scholarship he founded – to promote peace and civic leadership by bringing together young people from the British colonies, Germany and the USA to further their education – remains admirable. The scholarships provide tuition and living costs for two or three years of study at Oxford; they are awarded to young people who demonstrate a combination of intellect, moral character, leadership, physical vigour, and an unselfishness which will lead to a commitment to public service.
There have now been 219 Rhodes Scholars from New Zealand. This country was generally allocated one scholarship per year from 1904, with two per year from 1926 until 1993, when the allocation was increased to three. Otago has a proud record of producing 61 of New Zealand’s Rhodes Scholars, and for some years now has been neck-and-neck with the much larger University of Auckland for first place honours. Rhodes Scholars are, by definition, outstanding people. All have interesting stories and it is not possible to recount them all here. Some feature in items produced to celebrate the centenary of the scholarship, including an Otago Magazine article and an exhibition at the University of Otago Library Special Collections.
Otago’s – and New Zealand’s – first Rhodes Scholar was a geologist, Allan Thomson. He taught at Oxford and worked in Australia before returning to New Zealand, where he was a palaeontologist with the Geological Survey before becoming director of the Dominion Museum. He made major contributions to the organisation of science in this country before his life was sadly cut short by tuberculosis (his initial diagnosis prevented him from taking up a position on Robert Falcon Scott’s Terra Nova expedition to Antarctica).
A considerable number of Otago Rhodes Scholars continued their careers beyond these shores. For example, there were several from the 1930s – when there were fewer scholarly opportunities in New Zealand – who became well known: doctor and Olympic champion Jack Lovelock (1931), journalist and war correspondent Geoffrey Cox (1932), Oxford English professor Norman Davis (1934), and writer and publisher Dan Davin (1936). Quite a few, like Davis, continued their academic careers at Oxford and other overseas universities.
Other scholars brought their overseas experience back to New Zealand. Where leadership is concerned, the best known is Arthur Porritt (1923). At Oxford he completed the medical studies begun at Otago and went on to a stellar surgical career in England, becoming president of the Royal College of Surgeons and British Medical Association. He was also a stellar athlete; his bronze-medal win at the 1924 Paris Olympics was represented by the fictional Tom Watson in the film Chariots of Fire. From 1967 to 1972 Porritt returned to New Zealand and served as the first locally-born Governor General.
Some Otago Rhodes Scholars returned to their alma mater and took up significant leadership roles. Hubert Ryburn (1921) was a mathematics scholar and Presbyterian minister; he sat on the University Council from 1946 and served as Chancellor from 1955 to 1970. Otago managed to entice another former Rhodes Scholar, Robert Aitken (1924), back to New Zealand to serve as its first full-time administrative head in 1948. Aitken left his position as Regius Professor of Medicine at the University of Aberdeen to become Otago’s vice-chancellor; he left in 1953 for a position as vice-chancellor at Birmingham. A more recent vice-chancellor, David Skegg, was also a Rhodes Scholar (1972). Skegg, who graduated top of his class at the Otago Medical School, relished the opportunity to study at Oxford with distinguished medical epidemiologist Richard Doll. In 1980, at just 32 years, Skegg returned to Otago as Professor of Preventive and Social Medicine, skilfully leading that department until 2004, when he became a popular vice-chancellor. He left that role in 2011, but continues as a highly respected research professor to this day.
Others also returned to Otago, sometimes briefly, and sometimes to make a career. A couple of recent examples are Jesse Wall (2008), now on the law faculty staff, and bioethicist Tom Douglas (2003), who remains at Oxford but visited last year to foster research links with Otago staff.
Athletes Porritt and Lovelock weren’t the only famous sportsmen on Otago’s Rhodes list, which also features two All Black captains, Chris Laidlaw (1968) and David Kirk (1985). For Kirk, like some others, the scholarship provided an opportunity to branch out from his original field of study. He was a medical graduate, but studied PPE (politics, philosophy, economics) at Oxford, returning to a career in politics, then business, in New Zealand and Australia. For Kirk, Oxford also provided a welcome respite from his celebrity status in New Zealand as Rugby World Cup-winning captain.
Cecil Rhodes’s will limited the scholarship to men. By the 1960s this had become a sore point, and from 1968 to 2000 Rhodes Visiting Fellowships were awarded so women who had already embarked on academic careers could also benefit from time at Oxford. Only 32 of these fellowships were awarded, so it is remarkable that 11 went to New Zealand women, two of them from Otago: archaeologist Helen Leach (1980) and lawyer Mindy Chen-Wishart (1992). In 1977 an Act of Parliament overturned the gender restriction and made the original scholarships open to women. Otago’s first woman Rhodes Scholar was law student Christine French (1981); since then women have accounted for just over half of the Otago recipients. The Rhodes Project, established by one of the first American women Rhodes Scholars to promote public understanding of female achievement, provides information about some of the Rhodes Scholar women and their subsequent careers.
Though Otago’s first Rhodes Scholar was a scientist, the list is dominated by arts, law and medical students; the most recent Otago science student to win a Rhodes was Jane Larkindale (1996), who majored in plant biotechnology and physics and is now a research scientist in the USA. Commerce students are even rarer, though Louis Chambers (2013) was a student of economics as well as law. Talented commerce and science students of today might like to consider this a challenge!