The Nobel connection


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Staff and senior students of the physiology department in 1951. Front row, from left: Laurie Brock, Ken Bradley, Prof Eccles, Eric Hook, Charlie Morris, Wilfrid Rall. Middle row: Arthur Chapman, Jack Coombs, Yap Tien Beng, Molly Bradley, Graham Jeffries, Pearl Cousins. Back row: Arnold Annand, Ron Stevenson, Dan Whyte. Photo courtesy of the Department of Physiology.

At first glance, the Otago physiology department’s one-page annual report for 1951 appears somewhat mundane. It listed student numbers, staff changes, research topics and publications, but it was a simple factual report and made no comment on the teaching workload (which was heavy), research productivity and quality (high), or the achievements of departing staff (remarkable).

A closer look at the 7 publications listed provides further insight into goings-on in the department. Two appeared in the leading journal Nature: ‘Plasticity of mammalian monosynaptic reflexes’, by departing professor Jack Eccles and senior lecturer Archie McIntyre; and ‘The afferent limb of the myotatic reflex arc’, by McIntyre. Several others appeared in the local publication Proceedings of the University of Otago Medical School, including ‘Action potentials of motoneurones with intracellular electrode’, authored by physiology lecturer Laurie Brock (a recent Otago medical graduate), physics lecturer Jack Coombs (another Otago graduate) and Eccles. That article – just a page and a half long – was the first published report of an important breakthrough in neurophysiology research; it was a significant step in the work that won Eccles a Nobel Prize in 1963.

Eccles, born in Melbourne in 1903, commenced at Otago in 1944, bringing impressive credentials from his years as a physiology researcher in Oxford and Sydney. He replaced John Malcolm, who had been physiology professor since 1905. Malcolm was an active researcher, highly respected for his work in biochemistry and nutrition, but Eccles was to take the research activity of the department to a new level. First, though, he had to reacquaint himself with the whole of physiology in order to teach medical students, something he had not done for some years. Preparing 75 lectures for second-year meds, plus others for first-year meds, along with a completely new laboratory course and discussion groups, meant his research ‘virtually came to an end’ during that first year, Eccles later recalled. He did design some of the medical students’ lab work to assist his research, as Miles Hursthouse explained: the professor ‘conducted many interesting experiments, some of them on us! At our practical sessions we had to endure having needles stuck into a muscle, then contract that muscle while measuring the electrical impulse and rate of propagation’. There weren’t many staff to assist, though Eccles was grateful for those he had, including Norman Edson, appointed associate professor of biochemistry in 1944. Biochemistry was a rapidly-growing field, and in 1949 it split from physiology to become an independent department with Edson as inaugural professor; the two fields continued to work closely together despite the administrative separation.

Though he had little time for research in 1944, it was ‘important in my scientific life above all my post-Sherrington years’, recalled Eccles (Charles Sherrington being the distinguished neurophysiologist who inspired him at Oxford). It was then he met the great philosopher Karl Popper, who was teaching at Canterbury. Hearing of the stir that Popper was creating among the scientists of Christchurch, Eccles and Edson invited him to visit Otago. Eccles was heavily influenced by the ‘inspiring new vision of science that Popper gave us’, most notably by his message ‘that science is not inductive, but deductive’. With Popper’s urging, Eccles set about designing experiments that would test a hypothesis ‘in its most vulnerable aspects in an attempt at falsification’. He was keen to prove his theory that messages crossed the synapses of nerve cells by electrical rather than chemical means.

By 1945 Eccles was busy experimenting alongside his teaching duties. David Cole, future dean of the Auckland medical school, completed a BMedSci degree with Eccles that year, recalling that ‘the ebullient JCE’ had ‘ideas tumbling out of his mind’; students appreciated ‘the invaluable experience of working close to the edge of scientific knowledge’. The professor’s lab was ‘a huge cage of chicken wire’ and ‘almost a caricature of the mad scientist amongst his oscilloscopes, wires and animals’. Another student recalled the day that Eccles ‘arrived in great excitement, having, he said, a testable hypothesis about inhibition which had come to him, like Archimedes, in the bath that morning. He retired to his wire cage for 24 hours or more, being fed sandwiches through the door’.

Neurophysiology experiments required sophisticated and intricate electronic equipment; Eccles acknowledged that such technology ‘rapidly outstripped my understanding …. My indebtedness to my associates is immeasurable’. In his travels around the world, he noted, ‘I have left … a trail of elaborately designed shielded research rooms stripped of equipment!’. To Otago he brought not just specialist electrical equipment, but also a technician, Arthur Chapman. He also made the most of the technical expertise he found in Dunedin. Arnold Annand, whose electrical expertise had been honed during service in the Air Force, joined the physiology department as a technician in 1948, beginning a career of almost 40 years building and maintaining equipment for the university’s health science departments. In 1950 Eccles asked Jack Coombs, a ‘shy genius’ who had been lecturing in the physics department since 1940, to design a machine capable of the electronic stimulation and recording he needed for his experiments. Coombs came up with devices which remained, for many years, ‘the best general research instruments for electrophysiology in the world’, said Eccles. Coombs also participated in the neurophysiology experiments. Eccles attracted PhD students – then a rare breed – to Otago. For instance, Wilfrid Rall, a Yale graduate, came to study with Eccles, remaining on as a lecturer for several years before returning to pioneering neuroscience work in the US. Another important recruit to the department was Archie McIntyre, an old Australian neurophysiology colleague. Eccles convinced McIntyre to join him at Otago, where he became senior lecturer in 1949.


Eccles at work on an experiment, assisted by Molly Bradley, in 1951. Photo courtesy of the Department of Physiology.

The breakthrough 1951 experiment required the insertion of a tiny electrode, less than a micrometer wide, into a single nerve cell in the spinal cord of an anaesthetised cat; the action potentials of the cell could then be measured. Similar experiments had been carried out on frog muscle fibres, but never successfully on mammals. The day that revealed that synaptic action was chemically mediated, thus disproving Eccles’s theory of electrical transmission, was remarkable not only for that result. The experiment lasted for many hours, but for some time Eccles was left to tend it alone while one of his colleagues, Laurie Brock, delivered the baby of the wife of the third member of the team, Jack Coombs! As an enthusiastic disciple of Popper’s deductive method, Eccles was happy to accept that his theory was false, becoming a ‘belated’ convert to English neuroscientist Henry Dale’s hypothesis of chemical synaptic transmission even in the central nervous system.

Although Eccles was to carry out further ground-breaking experiments in neurophysiology, they didn’t take place in Dunedin. At the end of 1951 he departed for a plum job as founding physiology professor at the John Curtin School of Medical Research, attached to the recently-established Australian National University, Canberra. There he could carry on his research without the distraction of the heavy teaching load which he found a burden at Otago. Jack Coombs (whose younger brother Doug was geology professor at Otago for many years) and Arthur Chapman followed Eccles to ANU, as did some of the specialised equipment. But he left behind a strong legacy of experimental neuroscience at Otago and, by no means least, his much-respected colleague Archie McIntyre, who succeeded him as physiology professor. Under McIntyre’s leadership the department continued to attract talented research students and staff and maintained a strong experimental focus, albeit one less focused on neurophysiology, as new staff with other interests within physiology joined the team.

Ted Jones, who became a prominent neuroscientist in the USA, arrived at Otago as a medical student a few years after Eccles departed. He could not recall ever being told that Eccles had carried out groundbreaking work ‘in one of those rather grubby basement rooms of the Lindo Ferguson building. If Eccles was remembered at all it was for his irascibility, not his scientific achievements’. Perhaps the subsequent award of a Nobel Prize alerted later students to what this man had achieved in the world’s southernmost medical school – certainly it’s something we can celebrate today!

The absent-minded professor


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The absent-minded professor is not a mythical figure; numerous people have fitted this description through Otago’s history. I thought it would be fun to lighten the midwinter gloom with a few of the more entertaining stories of such characters. I must stress, however, that I have considerable sympathy for these people. It is all too easy for scholars to become caught up in the pursuit of their intellectual passions and lose track of the world around them!

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Noel ‘Bennie’ Benson in characteristic pose, pointing out a feature of geological interest during a field trip in 1924. Image courtesy of the Hocken Collections, Department of Geology archives, MS-3195/132, S16-591b.

The most notorious absent-minded professor in Otago’s past is Noel Benson, who was geology professor from 1917 to 1950. Benson – known as ‘Bennie’ to generations of students – was an excellent geologist, who received one of the ultimate accolades in science, Fellowship of the Royal Society (London). He was a tall and somewhat shambling figure. John Mackie, a student of the 1920s and 1930s who went on to teach in the School of Mines and founded the surveying school, recalled that Benson ‘wore on all occasions an ancient, somewhat shapeless, dark tweed suit which bore the slightly green sheen of age’. At one point he acquired a new suit with two pairs of trousers, but it didn’t survive long. One day, as he assisted a student examining a map in a practical geology class, there was ‘a powerful smell of scorching’. The professor hadn’t noticed the heater under the table, and when he stepped back ‘the toasted fronts of his trouser legs fell out to reveal his pink long-johns’. A few weeks later, running late to meet a visiting scholar at the railway station, he tripped over the tram rails and fell, removing the knees from the second pair of pants. ‘Next day we saw a limping Bennie clad in the old familiar garb’.

Benson was not the best of lecturers, since he generally spoke with his eyes closed or facing the board, forgot to turn the lights on after showing slides or tripped over the projector cord, and often ran over time. As Mackie noted, ‘his thoughts were often far away on trilobites, or the structural features of the margin of Australasia, or the geology of eastern Otago, and if you spoke to him on such occasions he would reply automatically, “Yes – just so!”’. While he was courting his future wife – Helen Rawson, the home science professor – Benson became even more absent-minded than usual: as he lectured in the mining school he gazed ‘dreamily out the window to the home science building opposite’ and addressed ‘burly’ mining students as ‘my dear’, reported long-time physics lecturer Agnes Blackie. Helen Benson did her best to assist her husband in practical matters; for instance, she attached his compass, eraser and pencil to his button holes with string so he had less chance of losing them on field trips. But she couldn’t prevent some of his more famous lapses, such as the time he set off to work carrying his suitcase and the ashcan lid, carefully depositing his case at the front gate and taking the lid to the university.

Despite – or perhaps because of – his eccentricities, students regarded ‘Bennie’ with affection, and his knowledge and passion for geology inspired many. They were less fond of him when he drove them on field trips. John Mackie recalled ‘descending pale and shaken from his vehicle after being driven around winding roads in the bush, mostly on the wrong side, while he was peering at outcrops’.  Fred Fastier wrote that ‘One reason for an astonishing lack of collisions was that Benny kept his trafficator out “just in case” he might need to turn right. He would also get down to his lowest gear at least a mile away from the Mount Cargill Road lest he should forget to do so later on’.

Unfortunately, Benson was not the only absent-minded driver on the Otago staff. Another famous case was his contemporary Henry Devenish Skinner, the anthropology lecturer and museum director. Neil Howard recalled ‘one hair raising trip when driving out to Murdering Beach excavation site he went around the tortuous corners on the old Mt Cargill road on the wrong side, blowing the horn vigorously as he went. “Please excuse the horn,” says he, “you cannot be too careful”’. Another famous driving story relates to history professor William (‘Willie’) Morrell. His daughter Judith Nathan kindly shares the ‘best known story’ of the professor’s ‘legendary absentmindedness. He left my mother behind at the Vice Chancellor’s residence at St Leonard’s. He was taking the guest of honour home so the guest sat in the front and my mother in the back. As the back window was fogged up, she got out to clean it on the outside and he drove off. After a while the guest reportedly said: “Is your wife in the car?” to which my father is alleged to have replied: “Goodness me. I don’t believe she is.” At which point he turned the car around’. Despite such lapses, Morrell did pay attention to detail, as Neil Howard notes: ‘It was quite a performance when he would halt in a lecture, take out a propelling pencil, propel the lead, insert a comma in his lecture notes, ‘unpropel’ the pencil and replace it in his pocket then carry on’.


The future history professor during his own Otago student days, dressed as a schoolgirl for capping in 1920. From left: F.H. McDowall, G.A. Naylor, J.S. Adam, W.P. Morrell, L.S. Rogers and A.G. Crust. Image courtesy of Judith Morrell Nathan.

There were far fewer women academics back in the day and, since they had to overcome significant obstacles to achieve academic careers, they could not really afford to be absent-minded. Nevertheless, women professors stood out and eccentricity was not confined to the male of the species. Sticking to the transport theme, I don’t know if home science professor Ann Gilchrist Strong was a good driver, but her Model A Ford was a prized possession. 1920s student Sylvia Keane recalled that another of the professor’s prize possessions was her fox terrier Binkie, who had a basket in Strong’s office and ‘sported a bright scarlet coat in the winter’. It was ‘quite a memorable sight to see her sitting up beside Mrs Strong in the car’. The first home science professor, Winifred Boys-Smith, used a bicycle rather than a car. In contrast to the American Strong, Boys-Smith was ‘English to the backbone’, recalled Agnes Blackie, and ‘had a clear idea of the respect due to her position’. She was ‘a well-known figure as, clad in an ankle-length, black, caped waterproof coat and a broad-brimmed hat held securely in place with an enveloping motor-veil, she cycled from place to place round the university’.

Eccentricity and absent-mindedness do, of course, survive on campus to this day, but for obvious reasons I have confined these tales to people who have long since departed!

A chorus of laughs – the Sextet


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The 1962 Sextette in traditional clown costume. Back from left: Doug Cox, Alastair Stokes, Terry Wilson, Peter Chin. Front: Roger McElroy, Gus Ferguson (pianist), Ian Robertson. Photo by de Clifford Photography, courtesy of Peter Chin.

The Sextet has been entertaining audiences at Otago’s capping show with beautifully-sung and witty words for over a century. Given its tendency to come close to the line – and sometimes to cross it – with offensive subject material, it seems only appropriate that its origins were not ‘politically correct’. The capping show itself dates back to 1894, when the University of New Zealand authorities banned public graduation ceremonies after becoming fed up with riotous student behaviour at these supposedly formal occasions. That prompted students to develop their own capping carnival of dances, concerts and processions, while the official graduation ceremony, when reinstated, became a much more seemly affair.

The capping concert soon became a hit with both students and the public, offering amusing commentary on the life and personalities of the university in particular, sometimes extending to the rest of Dunedin and the wider world. Alternative lyrics set to popular tunes were one of its standbys. One of the Sextet’s most famous old boys, conductor and composer Tecwyn Evans, researched its history as an honours project in 1993. He traced its origins to the appearance of ‘Coon’s Quartette’ at the 1903 capping concert. Presumably they made themselves up in ‘blackface’, then popular but later heavily criticised for its racist stereotypes. A review of the 1905 capping concert noted that ‘a coon tableau and a cake walk by a quartet of coloured gentlemen went well’.

The 1903 quartet was followed by various 4 or 5-man combinations, with the first 6-man singing group appearing in 1912. By 1919 the Sextette (as it was known until 1966, when it became the Sextet) was a regular feature of the capping concert, famous for its cheeky words sung with angelic voices. An ODT review of the 1923 concert noted ‘their rendering of topical verses was to many the very best item of the evening. In their first appearance they made play behind great song books of ’Varsity blue. Their songs when they appeared in evening dress in the second half were particularly clever and most amusing as one after another unburdened himself of the confession of the murder of some professor or other equally undesirable person. They also successfully burlesqued the Sistine Choir, and were rewarded with the most prolonged and emphatic applause of the evening’. The tradition of appearing in clown costume for some items and in evening dress for others quickly developed, though occasionally they branched out into other outfits.


The 1948 Sextette dressed as Victorian clergy to fit in with the theme of the capping show, ‘Dunover, or Cargill Rides Again’ (in honour of the centenary of the Otago colony). Left to right: Ninian Walden, John Somerville, Linley Ellis, Brian Neill, Ritchie Gilmour, Michael Shackleton. Photo courtesy of Michael Shackleton.

The Sextet, like the capping carnival, took a break during World War II. When the concert recommenced in 1945, getting traditions going again with no experienced seniors to help proved tricky. Concert director David Cole (future dean of the Auckland medical school) noted that ‘we could only find a quartette the first year but the sextette has reigned supreme again since then’.


The 1952 Sextette, from left: Linley Ellis, Richard Bush, John ?, Keith Monagan, Michael Shackleton, Brian McMahon. Photo courtesy of Michael Shackleton.

Writer James K. Baxter, who was Burns Fellow at Otago in 1966 and 1967, was a fan of capping shows, ‘chiefly on account of their vigour and their freedom of satire, both of which the country sorely needs’. In a review in the notorious but short-lived student publication Falus, he commended the 1967 production as more sophisticated than usual, though it did mean that ‘the sheer drive of spontaneous gutsiness was not so strong’. Fortunately, the ‘casual energy of Sextet provided a counterpoint’. Their performance included a ‘Geering interlude’ – presumably a commentary on the well-known theology professor, who was tried for heresy that year – among other things. ‘The alternation of wide-open satire with straight singing broadened their presentation … I think they were indispensable’, wrote Baxter.


The 1959 Sextette in action. Back from left: Bob McKegg, Jim Cleland, Alastair Brown. Front: John Burton, Peter Chin, Meikle Skelly. Peter Foreman was the pianist. Photo courtesy of Peter Chin.

Members of the Sextet were chosen for their vocal skill. Shy young first-year law student Peter Chin headed along to the audition for the large capping chorus with some friends from school in 1959. At the audition, talent-spotters suggested he should audition for the Sextet, and he was to sing with them for 3 of his 5 years at university. Becoming part of this elite group provided him with an instant introduction into student society. Chin – a future mayor of Dunedin – later became a well-known performer in local productions. The abilities of the Sextet have, naturally, varied from year to year, but there are some very famous names among the old boys, with vocal stars Roger Wilson, Martin Snell, Simon O’Neill and Jonathan Lemalu all lending their talents to the group during their university days. Although the performances have been a cappella for many years, in the past the group had a piano accompanist, and generally sang in unison rather than with the harmonies which became a feature during the 1970s.

The lyrics, also, varied in quality from year to year; sometimes the Sextet wrote the words themselves, and sometimes they received help from others. An anonymous article in a 1991 graduate publication noted that the content varied ‘from the traditional to the topical and from the harmless to the emphatically unsuitable’. Certainly the level of sexual innuendo in the lyrics grew and became more explicit, and in 2010 Rape Crisis criticised the Sextet for trivialising rape and sexual abuse in some lyrics.

Because the capping stage was open to men only until 1947, the Sextet started as an all-male group, and so it determinedly remained. In 1966 the show featured an all-female vocal group, named the Sextette, in addition to the all-male Sextet, but it proved a one-off. The ODT reported that ‘the girls do a good job, but their voices are not strong enough and most of their words are lost’. Finally, in 2001, a new female a cappella group – the Sexytet – debuted at the capping show, becoming a regular feature. The women’s group, which settled on ‘1950s housewife’ costumes, performed witty and smutty songs in beautiful harmonies, as in Sextet tradition.


The 1963 Sextette enjoying themselves backstage. Back from left – Terry Wilson, Jenny Black, Peter McKenzie, Alistair Wright. Front – Gus Ferguson (pianist), John Sayers, Peter Chin, Bob Salamonsen. Photo by Alan Stuart, courtesy of Peter Chin.

Through the years the Sextet has provided a lot of laughs to a lot of people. And, though they often put in a lot of work practising, the singers have clearly enjoyed themselves very much too (with a notable exception in 1993, when they were pelted with beer cans when performing as a warm-up act before a rugby test match at Carisbrook). Video of performances by Sextets and Sexytets of recent years can be found on Youtube – viewer discretion is definitely advised!

Photo by Daniel Chew © |

The 2014 Sextet. Through the years the clown hats have been lost, but more make-up added. Photo by Daniel Chew, courtesy of OUSA.

The accounting night school


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The Otago University Commerce Faculty Association in 1922. Image courtesy of the Hocken Collections, Paterson and Lang records, 83-070 Box 3, S16-571a.

The University of Otago has been teaching commerce subjects for over a century, but for the first 50 years it was a part-time enterprise. While lectures in economics date back to the 1870s, other commerce disciplines started in the 20th century. In 1904, in response to advocacy from business leaders who wanted ‘keener, better educated, more live young men’ in the business world, the University of New Zealand approved a new degree, the Bachelor of Commerce. It was closely modelled on similar degrees recently introduced in England’s northern universities. The degree included a mix of subjects, some not yet taught at Otago, so it had little impact to begin with, but a few years later further advocacy from the business sector helped get commerce classes going.

The New Zealand Society of Accountants, which controlled entry to the accountancy profession, in 1911 negotiated with the University of New Zealand to have its examinations run by the university; the university amended its BCom syllabus so that its papers and topics met the qualifying requirements of the NZSA. Funding from the NZSA helped smooth the path of the new system. It offered a five-year subsidy to each of the university colleges; when supplemented with a matching subsidy from the government plus student fees this enabled the cash-strapped University of Otago to take on the new venture of teaching specialist commerce subjects in addition to its existing economics programme. In 1912 young Dunedin accountant George Reid, who had completed a BCom with honours at Victoria University College in 1910, commenced as Otago’s first part-time accounting lecturer, and economics lecturer Harry Bedford added to his schedule the business law teaching required by commerce students (mercantile law, rights and duties of trustees, law of bankruptcy and law of joint stock companies). The new classes met ‘a felt want, a fact which is amply demonstrated by the large number of students who have availed themselves of the facilities offered’, noted the university’s annual report; 46 students enrolled in commerce subjects in that first year.

For the first five decades, almost all commerce students were part-timers working towards their professional accountancy exams; they already had full-time jobs. They could have studied at the technical school or by correspondence from one of the commercial colleges, but the University of Otago courses were an attractive option for southerners, for the commerce faculty soon developed a reputation for high quality teaching, with students typically scoring very well in external exams. Though the early teachers were lauded for their professional knowledge, dedication and teaching skills, they were not, of course, without flaws. One accounting lecturer resigned suddenly in the middle of 1947 after he was accused of embezzling bank funds, hardly the desired behaviour of a man educating the next generation of accountants.

Very few students went on to complete degrees in the early decades. By 1920 just five Otago students had graduated with a BCom; the first, in 1915, was Owen Wilkinson. Before he had even received his certificate, Wilkinson had signed on with the Field Artillery and headed to Gallipoli; he later became an accountant in Christchurch and presided over the Canterbury Chamber of Commerce. It was a very masculine world. The first woman enrolled in the commerce faculty in 1914 and by 1917 the female roll had reached 13. The dean, George Reid, reported that ‘during the latter part of the war period, exceptional opportunities opened up for women in the more advanced branches of commercial work’, with a ‘large number of women seeking to qualify themselves by attendance at the classes in commerce’. But in 1920 female enrolments fell, with just 6 women studying alongside 130 men: ‘evidently the reinstatement of returned soldiers in commercial occupations has made commercial training less attractive to women’, noted Reid. The faculty wanted to attract women, stating in bold print in the 1920 calendar that classes were ‘open to persons of both sexes, without restriction as to age or occupation’. But numbers remained low, and by the time the next world war broke out there were just 9 women studying alongside 118 men.

Classes were held outside business hours to suit both students and lecturers, who were practising accountants and lawyers. Tom Cowan, a student of the 1930s and part-time lecturer from the 1940s, noted they ‘shivered through law lectures in the early mornings and … at the end of the day returned to their desks in the Lower Oliver classroom to study accounting’. An anonymous commerce student noted the advantages and disadvantages of part-time study in a 1946 Review article. ‘Because he dissipates his energy for eight hours a day in an office, [the part-time student] invariably approaches his study with a weary mind, which is not conducive to the clearest thought and greatest absorption’. Part-timers had to develop an ‘orderly and efficient’ attitude, ‘qualities to be commended in all who seek advancement and success, at least in the commercial world’. They had ‘little time for the frivolities and interests so precious to the average student’. However, commerce students did support one another through their own students’ association. This organised various social events, including an annual dinner and ball and rugby matches against the law faculty; debating flourished in the 1920s and by the 1930s there was an annual fancy dress post-exam party at the Gardens tea kiosk.

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It wasn’t all grim – the 1933 commerce faculty ball, held in the Dunedin Town Hall Concert Chamber. Image courtesy of the Hocken Collections, Box 237-005, S16-548c.

The 1960s were revolutionary for commerce education at Otago. In 1960 – 48 years after teaching had begun – Tom Cowan became the first ever full-time staff member and was promoted to a new chair of accountancy the following year. He set up in an office ‘right under the clock tower, then in a shaky condition. Perhaps there was some hope that an Act of God might crush the Commerce intruder and his fledgling Department, and, with him, the threatening aspirations of his Faculty’, recalled Cowan. From 1962, controversially, Otago’s commerce lectures shifted from the evening and early mornings to daytime, with the advanced accounting courses on Saturdays as part of a compromise with local employers. It was all part of a strategy to recruit more full-time and degree students; the 1960 Parry report on New Zealand universities was highly critical of part-time study, which was associated with high attrition rates, and commerce faculties were the worst offenders. The faculty was now able to introduce tutorials in the evenings, giving students more contact time with their teachers; course standards rose. Employers became more reluctant to employ part-time students, since they needed to be released during business hours for lectures, and full-time study became more attractive. By 1970, two-thirds of commerce students were full-time, a dramatic change from the 8% of 1960, and in the same period degree completions in commerce jumped from 8 to 76. The roll also grew dramatically, like that of the university as a whole; there were 238 commerce students in 1960, but 580 in 1970 (together with an additional 92 external students, mostly in Invercargill). Some of these new students were attracted to the greater diversity of subjects on offer. From the mid-1960s BCom students could choose between three majors: accounting, economics or management. Otago’s first management course was taught in 1962 and marketing courses commenced in 1966; both proved popular immediately and acquired their own professors the following decade … but that’s another story!

Do you have any memories to share of the accounting night school days? I’m keen to track down photographs relating to the commerce faculty (right through to the 1990s) – I’ve found plenty of formal portraits, but would love to see some more interesting images!

The class of 1946


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Waiting for the capping parade to start, 1946. Image courtesy of Arthur Campbell.

1946: New Zealand’s population drew close to 2 million, the long war was finally over, Prime Minister Peter Fraser led the Labour government into a fourth term, Southland held the Ranfurly Shield and The Best Years of Our Lives beat It’s a Wonderful Life to take the Oscar for best picture. But what was life like for Otago’s 2440 students? I recently stumbled upon a survey of a large group of students, which provides some fascinating insights into their lives.

The survey was carried out by the recently-established Student Health Service. The medical school had been carrying out medical examinations of its own students for a while, but in 1946 the university decided to open a general practice health service for all students. It was initiated by the Preventive and Social Medicine Department and partly funded by a social security grant allocated for each student who signed up; it aimed to combine ‘preventive and therapeutic work’. By the end of its first year the service had signed up 736 students, and carried out a statistical analysis of 614 of these, for whom detailed records were available. The information, therefore, covered a quarter of Otago students of that time. It wasn’t a fully representative sample, though. Unsurprisingly, medical students were over-represented, accounting for 53% of the survey, when they were 28% of all Otago students. Home science students were also over-represented, being 20% of those surveyed when they made up just 8% of the student roll. On the other hand, only 15% of those in the survey were arts or science students, at a time when they made up 37% of Otago students. Presumably students at the ‘special’ schools, such as home science, were more likely to sign up to student health as they often came from out of town, and did not already have a local family doctor. The involvement of so many home science students helped sway the gender of the survey, which was 40% female when only 27% of Otago students were women.

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A group of dental students clean their pride and joy, 1946. Image courtesy of Michael Shackleton.

The data reported on the physical, mental and social well-being of the students. In an effort to measure the impact of the students’ early environment and class background, they were asked about their home locations and father’s occupation. These reflected New Zealand’s strongly urbanised culture. Just 13% had grown up in the country, and a further 7% in a ‘village’, while 78% had ‘town’ backgrounds. A remarkable 44% had a father with a professional background, 28% were in business, 13% in farming and just 14% in trades. At the 1945 census, just 10% of married men engaged in the workforce were classed as being in ‘clerical and professional occupations’, so it is clear that the children of the upper echelons of society were greatly over-represented at the university. Ethnicity was not recorded, but birthplace was, and 93% of the students had been born in New Zealand – internationalisation had a long way to go! Most of the others had been born in Britain, while a few came from Australia, central Europe, China and the Pacific. 10% of students in the survey lived at home – presumably that included the 6% who were married – and 46% in residential colleges. Flatting was yet to take off in popularity, with just 4% of the sample in flats; 39% lived in ‘digs’, or private board.

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The shadow of the war loomed large. The ‘SS War Bride’ was the science students’ float for the 1946 capping parade. Image courtesy of Arthur Campbell.

The shadow of the war loomed large, with 10% of those surveyed having served overseas with the military; this ‘might have a considerable bearing on physical and mental health’, noted Archie Douglas, the student health director. It also had quite a bearing on student life. Tom O’Donnell, a future medical professor and dean of the Wellington school of medicine, was just 16 years old when he arrived to study at Otago towards the end of the war, and recalled that the few returned servicemen in his class provided some welcome maturity. In 1946, a third of the second-year medical class had served in the war. Miles Hursthouse, who was in that class, noted that it ‘became known in that and subsequent years for the dedication and hard work of the students’. The older men, like him, ‘were realising a lifetime ambition and worked like blazes for it, thus stimulating the younger ones to keep with or beat us academically’.

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One of many popular physical activities of 1946 students – tramping. Image courtesy of the Hocken Collections, Otago University Tramping Club records, 96-063/036, S15-592b.

But it wasn’t all work: 64% of the students played at least one sport on a regular basis and 41% participated actively in clubs and societies. Reports in the Otago University Review reveal that 1946 was a great year for sports clubs. The boxing, cricket, golf, harrier, ski, soccer and tennis clubs all had successful years, and rowing, after a ‘lapse of some years’, ‘assumed its rightful place in the sporting life of the University’. The rugby club had more members than ever before and fielded 8 teams in the Dunedin competition; 6 players represented Otago and medical student Ron Elvidge, captain of the A team, was selected for the All Blacks. Other clubs and societies had varied success. The Review noted that the photographic society had come to a halt but the literary society had staged a comeback; the debating societies were ‘moderately active’. A new chess club was waiting for chess sets to arrive; the game had ‘a large following’ in the medical school. A new musical union formed a ‘long-needed union between the various musical groups’, with regular ‘gramophone recitals’ and several chamber music recitals in Allen Hall. A piano recital by Lili Kraus, a Hungarian Jew recently released from internship under the Japanese, was a highlight of the year. The dramatic society and dramatic club both staged productions, including The Black Eye, The Spartan Girl, Orange Blossom, a section from The Taming of the Shrew and a play reading of Blithe Spirit. ‘Ill-considered criticism is sometimes levelled at the Drama Club’, suggested OUSA’s intellectual affairs rep, but it ‘works under many difficulties’. The biological society and medical history society flourished, as did the Christian groups, which maintained ‘a continuity for which other societies contend in vain’.

The health service made an attempt to assess the ‘mental hygiene’ of students with a scale measuring their ‘temperament’. A creditable 43% were described as ‘calm’, 39% as ‘average’ and 17% as ‘nervous’. The nervous perhaps included the 8% classed as heavy smokers (’more than 10 cigarettes a day, or the equivalent in pipes’); a further 36% were ‘light’ smokers, while 56% didn’t smoke. Physical examination of the students uncovered a range of physical ‘defects’. The most common – each affecting 17% of the study group – were ‘thyroid’, ‘previous respiratory illness’ and ‘vision unsatisfactory’ (17% wore glasses regularly and 4% for reading – according to my optometrist those are very low percentages compared with today’s student cohort). The most common reason for students to consult the health service was a skin problem, while the greatest cause of acute sickness was ‘the feverish attack labelled flu’. Another problem ‘constantly calling for diagnosis and treatment’ was ‘the possible appendix’.

Mining float

The School of Mines float for 1946 featured ‘Paddy’s Band of Angels’, a reference to recently-retired cabinet minister Paddy Webb, who declared that ‘the people should take their hats off to the miners’. The capping parade was a popular public event. Image courtesy of Arthur Campbell.

Infectious disease loomed large in the histories of 1946 students. The ‘common cold and its complications is the outstanding ailment of the student group’, reported Douglas, but many had previously suffered more serious infections. Half had experienced mumps, and more than half whooping cough and chickenpox, while a remarkable 95% had suffered measles. A smaller number had survived scarlet fever, diphtheria and polio. Pneumonia and rheumatic fever were the most common causes of the ‘serious illness’ that 9% reported as part of their health history. The threat of tuberculosis – for which the first effective drug treatment, streptomycin, was only discovered in 1944 – was a constant concern. 10% of students had been in contact with TB within their own family. The clinic conducted 270 Mantoux tests and 72 were positive, indicating those people had been infected with TB, though they did not necessarily have active disease (‘latent’ TB being more common). The other main tool of tuberculosis screening – a chest x-ray – was provided to 309 students.

The class of 1946 was clearly a hardy group. Though they came, on the whole, from relatively privileged backgrounds, these young people had grown up during an economic depression, recovered from a range of potentially life-threatening or disabling illnesses and survived a long war (some of them on active service). They worked hard and many of them played hard. The capping carnival – which had been on hold during the war years – was revived in full in 1946 and enjoyed by both students and community. There was an air of conservatism among students: one of the most controversial issues on campus in 1946 was a campaign to overthrow the traditional exclusion of women from participation in the capping show. Women remained behind the scenes in 1946 but would finally appear on stage at the 1947 show.

Capping show 46

The cast of the Knox Farce, ‘Cameo and Mabelette’, performed at the 1946 capping show. Image courtesy of Michael Shackleton.

I don’t suppose the director of the student health service had historians in mind when he compiled his report on the clinic’s first year! Nevertheless, his broad-ranging analysis has survived to provide a fascinating window into the lives of one generation of Otago students. I am grateful to him, and also to some former students of 1946 – Arthur Campbell and Michael Shackleton – who have shared some of their photographs from student days.

Three more colleges


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The first stage of Knox College under construction, c.1908. Image courtesy of the Hocken Collections, Universal Post Card Co., G. Campbell series, Box-308-006, S16-548b.

The Anglicans – a minority group in colonial Otago – were the first to establish a residential college at the university, as I outlined in a recent post. The much larger Presbyterian community was slower to get started, but once it did, it went one better, opening a college for men in 1909 (Knox) and another for women in 1911 (St Margaret’s). As the university grew, the Presbyterians also added a third college – Salmond – in 1971. As had been the case with Selwyn, it was the needs of theology students that helped get these colleges started, though they were open to other students from the beginning.

The campaign to open a Presbyterian residential college was started and led by popular Presbyterian minister Andrew Cameron. Cameron, one of Otago’s early graduates, was on the university council (he later served as chancellor) and convened the church’s committee on theological training. The church had started training its own ministers locally in the 1870s. Classes took place at the theology professor’s home in Leith Street (where St Margaret’s now stands), but between the professor’s large family, the library and a growing student body the space quickly grew cramped. Cameron was keen to establish a college which would provide a better space for theology training, together with residential accommodation for its students and those of the university. He identified a good site in Opoho – the land already belonged to the Presbyterian Church – and in 1902 set about a major fundraising campaign. The campaign started well with a large donation from one of New Zealand’s wealthiest men, John Ross, of the large importing and manufacturing firm Ross and Glendining. Other donations trickled in, and in 1908 the foundation stone of a grand and imposing building was laid. The first 40 residents moved into Knox College – named after the Scottish theological reformer – in 1909. Nineteen of them were students at the theological hall and the remainder were university students (9 of those completing the undergraduate university degree necessary before they could start theological training). With new wings and alterations, by 1914 the college had expanded to house 94 residents.

Knox Farce

The Knox farce was a regular feature of capping concerts for many years. The cast of the 1946 farce, ‘Cameo and Mabelette’, included Ratu Kamisese Mara, future Prime Minister of Fiji (the tall figure, standing at centre). Image courtesy of Michael Shackleton.

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The original St Margaret’s College in 1911. The building had previously housed the Presbyterian theology professor. Image from the Otago Witness, 19 April 1911, courtesy of the Hocken Collections, S10-133a.

Other than the master’s family and the domestic staff, all of the Knox residents were men: the idea that male and female students might live in the same college was well outside the norms of the era. But women coming to study at the university or teachers’ college in Dunedin also needed somewhere to live, especially as landladies often preferred male to female boarders (because men often spent more time out of the house, and also required fewer laundry facilities). In 1909 a Women Student’s Hostel Committee was formed by church people interested in establishing a women’s college. After various political complications, they managed to secure the lease of the building vacated by the theological college when Knox opened. It was a rundown building but the site, right next to the university, was ideal. After a few hurried repairs, early in 1911 the first residents moved into St Margaret’s College, which was named after a highly devout medieval Queen of Scotland. By the end of the year the new college had 15 residents, made up of 12 training college and 3 university students. It was a small beginning, but the college council had big plans; unfortunately it did not have any money. After several years of fundraising, in 1914 construction commenced on a new brick building, and at the end of 1917 it was complete, with room for 70 residents. Life in St Margaret’s was strictly controlled, but the women established a happy community at a time when they were not welcomed by all parts of the university. Almost a third of Otago students were women in the 1910s (even more in the war years), and as St Margaret’s historian Susannah Grant points out, the college ‘stood on the hill as a visible symbol of women’s increasing participation in higher education’. It also served as a focal point and meeting place for all women students.

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St Margaret’s College residents and staff in 1924. Image courtesy of Hocken Collections, St Margaret’s College records, AG-157-N2, S10-532a.

Knox and St Margaret’s grew through the decades, especially during the 1960s, when both added new wings. By the end of that decade Knox provided a home for 155 residents and St Margaret’s for 170. There was no shortage of demand for student accommodation, with the university roll doubling between 1960 and 1970. That was one of the motives behind a 1960s scheme to build another women’s residential college in the grounds of Knox College. The initial spur for the new project was, however, the needs of women training for church vocations. Since 1903 women training as Presbyterian deaconesses had lived together as a small community, but some of their leaders felt they would benefit from living alongside other students, just as men training for the ministry did at Knox College. After all, the women already shared some classes with men at the theological hall. In 1963 the Presbyterian Church approved the scheme for a new residence, which would cater for women training as deaconesses as well as other women students of all denominations and all faculties. The idea that Presbyterian women should be granted the same privileges as men gained further impetus the following year, when the church approved the ordination of women as clergy. Nobody yet considered the more radical possibility that men and women might actually live together in one college.

A fundraising appeal got underway in 1965; generous government subsidies for the building of student accommodation meant the church only needed to raise part of the expense. There were considerable delays, with the government deferring its contribution due to financial difficulties and tightening controls on the building industry, but construction finally started late in 1969. In 1971 the first intake of 140 women moved in; three were students for the Presbyterian ministry, with the rest at the university or teachers’ college. Salmond Hall (known as Salmond College from 2006) was named for a prominent local Presbyterian family, in particular Mary Salmond, a former principal of the deaconess college, and her brother James Salmond, a minister and leader of Christian education. The first warden, Keren Fulton, combined experience and good Presbyterian credentials; she had run the YWCA hostel, Kinnaird House, and was a Presbyterian deacon.

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The newly-built Salmond Hall, c.1971. Image courtesy of Hocken Collections, Salmond Anderson Architects records, MS-3821/2000, S16-548a.

Salmond quickly developed a life of its own. Though it shared a few facilities, such as tennis courts, with its older neighbour up the hill, and they held a few combined social events, Salmond and Knox maintained distinct identities and cultures. They were, however, governed by the same council. Once Salmond was up and running that council turned its attention to the needs of another growing group of students for the ministry: those who were married, often with children. In 1976 it opened a new complex of flats in the Knox grounds, named Somerville Court in honour of Knox master and university chancellor Jack Somerville. They included flats designed for families alongside others which catered for the growing demand for flats from groups of single students. As private flat provision grew, there was less call for these flats, so they were absorbed into Knox College. Together with other additions and alterations, this expanded Knox to cater for 215 residents; St Margaret’s now accommodates 224 residents and Salmond 238.

Knox 2008

An aerial view of Knox College in 2008. The Somerville Court flats are to the left of the main building, and the Presbyterian theological hall (now the Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership) and library at the rear. Image courtesy of University of Otago Marketing and Communications.

Knox, St Margaret’s and Salmond are now formally affiliated to the University of Otago, but continue to be owned and managed by the Presbyterian Church. Despite their religious background, they have always been open to students of any faith (or none). I suspect, though, that some of the Presbyterian founders might be a little surprised to know that the college they established for young ladies in 1911 has had a Catholic priest (Peter Norris) as warden since 1989! They might also be surprised to discover that the colleges, like all at Otago, accommodate both men and women. Salmond did not remain a solely female domain for long, admitting a few men from 1975, while St Margaret’s admitted men for the first time in 1981. Knox admitted its first woman as a senior resident in 1982, meaning it narrowly escaped becoming the last single sex college at Otago; both Knox and Selwyn provided a home for undergraduate women from 1982.

St Margarets 2012

St Margaret’s College, 2012. Image courtesy of University of Otago Marketing and Communications.

With over 600 residents each year, the Presbyterian colleges make a big contribution to the university (and in Salmond’s case, also to the Otago Polytechnic). Do you have any stories to share of their past? I’m especially interested in hearing memories of Salmond, since it doesn’t have the benefit of a published history, like Knox and St Margaret’s!

Salmond 2009

Salmond College in 2009. Image courtesy of University of Otago Marketing and Communications.

On a foreign field


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Alexander Maclure (mistakenly named here as Arnold) and other international volunteers arrested while attempting to enter Spain, at an appearance in a French court in 1937. Image from the Workers Weekly, 2 July 1937, courtesy of the Hocken Collections, S16-521d.

I’ve written previously about the university in World War I and World War II, so to mark Anzac Day this year I’m exploring the intriguing and little-known story of an Otago student killed in one of the other conflicts of the 20th century, the Spanish Civil War. Alexander Crocker Maclure was not your average Otago student. For a start, he came from Canada, not a common origin for students at that time. Born in 1912, Alex Maclure grew up in Montreal. After leaving school, where he did well, he headed to remote northern Manitoba, working as a wireless operator at Fort Churchill. He was, it seems, a man of adventure and one keen to escape his roots in Westmount, a wealthy Anglophone enclave of Montreal. His parents loved their oldest son, but had no time for his leftist politics; indeed, his father chaired the council of the Montreal branch of the Royal Empire Society. In 1931 Alex Maclure enrolled at the Otago School of Mines. We can only speculate about why he came here when he could have attended one of Canada’s mining schools. The Otago school had a distinguished international reputation, so perhaps that was the drawcard; perhaps he wanted also to explore a new country.

There were only around 1100 students at Otago when Maclure arrived, and he quickly earned the reputation of being the most politically radical person on campus. That wasn’t an especially big challenge: a study by Sharon Dooley of Otago students in the depression concluded that most were ‘conservative members of the middle class’, preoccupied with completing their qualifications. There were a few, like future history professor Angus Ross, who were shocked by the poverty they witnessed in those difficult times and took an active interest in politics as a result, but Maclure was unusual in being a committed member of the Communist Party (it expelled him more than once for unorthodox views). Maclure was a driving force behind the formation of the first formal left-wing groups on campus. The Public Questions Union, first affiliated to OUSA in 1932, organised regular discussions and mock parliaments; it also served as a ‘front’ for the Independent Radical Club, ‘an influential cell’ of more radical students, with about 30 members by 1935.

Maclure was heavily committed to his political beliefs. He was always up for a discussion and a very good speaker, though his views shocked many. He started out living at the Dunedin YMCA and later lived in digs in Cumberland and Hyde streets. His university enrolment card for 1935 gave his address as ‘no fixed abode’; that may have been when friends recalled him living in a deserted house, unable to afford heating or food. He had little choice but to turn to his parents for financial support. Writer Dan Davin, a student contemporary, later wrote a vivid portrait of Maclure (disguised as McGregor) in his short story ‘The Hydra’, published in The Gorse Blooms Pale in 1947. It revealed the radical as an extremist, who always ‘seemed too vehement, slightly absurd’; other students threw him in the Leith when he advertised the first meeting of the Radical Club. But Davin also expressed some sympathy with Maclure’s views on food riots by the unemployed, and felt uncomfortable at his conviction and fine for scrawling political slogans on Dunedin footpaths. Maclure wrote about politics wherever he could, including in student publications Critic and the Otago University Review. Meanwhile, he slogged his way through the mining course, completing some of the practical component in the West Coast mines. He took a year off his course in 1933 and it is unclear what he did then; perhaps he simply got a job to fund his later studies. He completed his final course work at the school of mines in 1936; he didn’t receive his diploma, but that was only because he had yet to complete the required thesis about his practical work, often submitted by students a year or two after they left the mining school.

Maclure now had other priorities. Like other political junkies he developed a keen interest in events in Spain, where in 1931 a coalition left-right government took over from the previous deeply conservative dictatorship and monarch, and after the 1936 election a coalition leftist government – the Popular Front – won power. Later that year the right-wing military began an uprising, led by General Francisco Franco, and a brutal civil war broke out in earnest; the war was eventually won by Franco in 1939. The fight was confined to Spain, but it had much broader significance as a battle between the extremes of left and right in a region where fascism was on the rise. Hitler and Mussolini committed resources, including troops, to Franco’s cause and, in the absence of any effective intervention from other countries, leftists around the world recruited volunteers to support the republican government’s battle against the right. The International Brigades, as they were known, eventually included around 40,000 volunteers from 50 countries. Soon after the war broke out Alex Maclure helped set up the General Spanish Aid Committee, later absorbed into the Spanish Medical Aid Committee, which became this country’s major relief organisation for the war.

But Maclure wanted to do more than raise funds. Early in 1937 he returned briefly to Canada, where he joined a group of Canadian and American volunteers heading to Spain. He intended to get involved in the blood transfusion unit, but because of his record as a crack marksman (he won prizes for his shooting ability at school) he was posted to a fighting unit of the MacKenzie-Papineau Battalion. The first challenge was to gain entry into Spain, as France closed its border in February 1937. Maclure and some of his companions were captured by French authorities while travelling up the Mediterranean, hidden in the hold of a fishing vessel; together with several others, picked up by border patrols in the Pyrenees; they spent 20 days in a French prison for evading a non-intervention agreement, which supposedly banned all foreign powers from intervening in Spain. The Workers Weekly, the New Zealand communist paper, published a letter from Maclure in jail, as did the Grey River Argus. The prisoners were in high spirits, and received lots of support from French locals. They finally made their way into Spain some weeks later, crossing by foot in darkness over mountain trails.

Maclure’s movements in Spain remain unclear, but he became sergeant in charge of one of the American Division’s machine guns and was reported wounded and missing in August 1937; he died a couple of months later, probably in battle at Fuentes de Ebro, in the Zaragoza (Saragossa) province of northern Spain. News of Maclure’s death reached Dunedin in December 1937; the Workers Weekly proclaimed the heroism of a comrade ‘killed in action defending, with his comrades in the International Brigade, freedom and world peace against the Fascist invaders’. He ‘demonstrated that New Zealand can point to men to whom freedom means more than life itself’. An obituary in the first issue of Critic for 1938 recalled Maclure’s years as an Otago student, noting his ‘considerable’ intellect and his whole-hearted promotion of his Communist beliefs. ‘His enthusiasm, his sincerity, his moral fearlessness earned him the regard of all who respect such qualities’. Critic did not, naturally enough, demonstrate such approval of Maclure’s politics as the Workers Weekly, commenting that ‘there are many who heartily deplore the theories for which Maclure fought’. It did, however, acclaim his sincerity: ‘to whatever creed we cling we can not but feel admiration for the rare and fine qualities in Maclure’s character, qualities that are revealed by his giving up his life for his ideals’.

Maclure was, to the best of my knowledge, the only Otago student or graduate to serve as a frontline soldier in the Spanish Civil War, but a couple of others did play significant roles in journalism and medicine. Geoffrey Cox completed an MA in history at Otago before heading to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar in 1932. He stayed on in England, beginning an acclaimed career in journalism as a junior reporter for the News Chronicle. In the early months of the Spanish Civil War, Cox became the paper’s correspondent in Madrid. The original correspondent had been captured, and Cox suggested he was sent because the paper saw him as junior enough to be expendable. His reports from the Spanish capital, then heavily besieged by Franco’s forces, became one of the few sources of information to the outside world. His vividly written eye-witness account of five weeks in Madrid was published in the book Defence of Madrid the following year. His reputation as a correspondent grew as he reported for the Daily Express from Vienna and Paris in the years leading up to World War II, covering the Anschluss and Munich crisis and the invasion of Poland, then the war in Finland and German invasion of the low countries. After the fall of France he signed on with the New Zealand Division and served with distinction. When the war ended he returned to his career as an English newspaper journalist, later becoming a pioneer of television journalism.

Geoffrey Cox

Geoffrey Cox, photographed by S.P. Andrew in 1932. Image courtesy of the Alexander Turnbull Library, reference 1/2-C-22830. Alexander Turnbull Library

Douglas Jolly was another Otago graduate who published a book based on his experiences in the Spanish Civil War, but it had a very different purpose: to equip surgeons for battle. Jolly graduated in medicine in 1930. During his university years, and later, he was heavily involved in the Student Christian Movement, becoming a convinced Christian socialist. When the war broke out in Spain he was in England, close to completing his specialist qualifications as a surgeon. As the republicans lost most of their military medical services with the army rebellion and the Red Cross refused to intervene in an internal conflict, there was a call for international volunteers to support the leftist cause. Jolly immediately abandoned his studies, arriving in Spain in November 1936 with the first contingent of British medics. He was assigned to the XI International Brigade, for whom he formed a 50-bed mobile surgical unit. He gave two years of almost continuous service as a frontline surgeon, only departing when all international volunteers were withdrawn from Spain. He proved an excellent surgeon, ‘courageous and totally reliable’, much respected by all with whom he served. His patients included civilians injured in air raids alongside frontline soldiers, and the settings for the ever-mobile field unit ranged from the basement of a shell-ruined flour mill to railway tunnels and a cave. After the war he campaigned on behalf of post-war refugees, including during a return visit to New Zealand in 1939. When World War II broke out he returned to England and wrote the medical manual Field Surgery in Total War, published in October 1940 to glowing reviews. His advice on abdominal surgery saved many lives, and his systems for dealing with multiple injured patients became the basis for surgical units in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. Doug Jolly also signed on with the Royal Army Medical Corps, serving as a surgeon in North Africa and Italy. His long service on the battlefields of two wars eventually caught up with Jolly; after World War II he lost his enthusiasm and confidence for surgery, spending the rest of his career as medical officer at Queen Mary’s Hospital for amputees in London.

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Marianne Bielschowsky in April 1939. Image courtesy of the Hocken Collections, Bielschowsky papers, MS-1493/036, S16-521d.

The involvement of two later Otago staff members, Franz and Marianne Bielschowsky, in the Spanish Civil War was less intentional than that of the three Otago-educated people already mentioned. They were already living in Spain when war broke out. Franz Bielschowsky, son of distinguished German neurologist Max Bielschowsky, undertook his medical training in a succession of German universities before completing an MD at Berlin and embarking on a career in medical research in Dusseldorf. Early in 1933 he was dismissed from his job because of his Jewish parentage and fled to Amsterdam. In 1934 he relocated to Madrid, where he became a lecturer in the medical faculty; in the following year he was appointed director of the biochemistry department of the new Institute for Experimental Medicine at the Central University of Madrid. Marianne Angermann, a German biochemist who had worked with Franz Bielschowsky in Dusseldorf, joined him at the Institute in Madrid late in 1935; they were to marry in 1937. Angermann and Bielschowsky refused offers to leave Spain when the civil war began; they did not feel vulnerable and respected the support they saw for the republican government. But as the siege of Madrid lengthened, their research work became impossible. Franz joined the republican medical service and worked at a military hospital in Madrid. The Bielschowskys remained in Madrid after the withdrawal of international medical staff in 1938, but fled Spain early in 1939, as Franco’s forces prepared to enter the capital. They were now refugees for a second time, and as war took over Europe they ended up in England. They both obtained work at the University of Sheffield, where Franz’s research took a new direction, investigating the role of hormones in the development of cancers. In 1948 the Bielschowskys arrived in Otago, where Franz had been appointed director of the cancer research laboratory. Like his work in Sheffield it was sponsored by the British Empire Cancer Campaign Society. Franz continued a productive research career at Otago for 17 years, until his sudden death in 1965. Marianne, who worked alongside him, continued her work until her own death in 1977. She was especially known for her development of various special strains of mice, used worldwide for medical research.

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Franz Bielschowsky in 1949, when he was Director of Cancer Research at the University of Otago. Image courtesy of the Hocken Collections, Physiology Department records, r.6681, S16-521c. (I would be delighted to hear from anybody who can identify the woman in this photo).

The Spanish Civil War of the 1930s might be dismissed as foreign by many New Zealanders, but its dramatic progress caught up several people from these distant shores. The involvement of people connected with Otago reflected the international influences – and standing – of this university. There were an international student from Canada whose politics drove him to his death in a fight against fascism, and two New Zealanders – a Cromwell-born doctor and a Palmerston North-born journalist – who took the skills developed at Otago and further honed in England to make their own contributions during that brutal war. Last, but by no means least, came the cultured German scientists whose fortunes became caught up in that war; it was one of the events which led them to eventually settle and make an important contribution in this more peaceful corner of the world.

I am grateful to Wellington historians Simon Nathan and Mark Derby for sharing information about Alexander Maclure. I highly recommend to anybody interested in learning more the book edited by Mark Derby, Kiwi Compañeros: New Zealand and the Spanish Civil War. Mark tells me discussions are underway about a possible memorial to Doug Jolly in his home town, Cromwell.

An update (18 July 2016) – somebody who knew the Bielschowskys has kindly been in touch to alert me that the photo labelled as being of Franz is not actually him! She suggests it may be of Leopold Kirschner. If you recognise this gentleman, I’d love to hear from you.

A further update (20 July 2016) – a couple more people have confirmed that the man in the laboratory photograph is not Franz Bielschowsky, but Leopold (‘Poldi’) Kirschner. Kirschner was a microbiologist and worked in the Medical Research Council’s Microbiology Research Unit. He was another of Europe’s Jewish diaspora.Originally from Austria, he did important work on leptospirosis in Indonesia, but was interned there during the war. He continued the work on leptospirosis at Otago. My sincere thanks to those who helped correct the photo identification. The identity of the woman in the photo remains a mystery – suggestions are welcome!

The ‘latest’ health science – nursing


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Matrons conference

Some of New Zealand’s leading nurses of the 1920s, when the university attempted to set up a nursing diploma. They were photographed at the first conference of hospital matrons, held at Wellington Hospital in 1927. Image courtesy of the Alexander Turnbull Library, S.P. Andrew Ltd collection, reference 1/1-018313-F.

The University of Otago is perhaps most famous for its health science courses, but many people are unaware of its contributions to the largest of the health professions: nursing. There have been many twists and turns in the path to nursing education at Otago, which this blog post attempts to map.

Nurse training in this country started out with ad hoc programmes in various hospitals; it was an apprentice-style system, with nurses learning on the job and providing the bulk of the hospital workforce as they did so. In 1901 New Zealand introduced the registration of nurses. From that date general nurses could become registered after completing the required years of training and passing a state examination. Separate registration was later added for obstetric, psychiatric and psychopaedic nurses, along with another roll for nurses who had completed shorter training programmes, with greater restrictions on their practice (known initially as nursing aids, then community nurses, then enrolled nurses, then nurse assistants, then enrolled nurses again). The hospital-based education of nurses slowly improved, with more time dedicated to teaching from dedicated nurse tutors, but there was no higher education available for those tutors. Advancing education programmes became a priority for those who wished to increase the professional standing of nurses and improve the care they offered.

When Otago’s home science school started out in the 1910s, nurses took notice. In 1912 leading nurse Hester Maclean, who edited the nursing journal Kai Tiaki, published there the response of home science professor Winifred Boys-Smith to Maclean’s enquiries about the potential of the school’s new courses for women who intended to enter the nursing profession. Boys-Smith suggested that the diploma course would be ‘incalculably useful to a girl who wanted to become a really efficient hospital nurse, for it would enable her to obtain a sound and much more advanced knowledge of physiology, sanitary science and household economics, than she could afford the time to gain, while she was training at a hospital’. The courses might also benefit nurses already trained who wished to improve their qualifications: Boys-Smith hoped to attract ‘quite a number of the more intelligent nurses, who wish to make themselves especially efficient for the higher posts which offer’. It is unclear whether or not any nurses or potential nurses enrolled at the home science school at this point, but the courses there did become the core of a new venture a decade later.

In 1922, in response to various concerns about the state of nursing education, and advocacy from the Trained Nurses’ Association, the University of Otago council began planning a five-year nursing diploma. In consultation with the home science and medical schools, it approved a curriculum consisting of two years of university courses, two years of ‘ward work and general hospital training’, and a final year of specialised nursing education. An attractive feature of this programme was that it used existing courses at the home science school and hospital and would not require the council to employ any additional academic staff until the fifth year. Meanwhile, the government’s department of health was keen to see an advanced course for already-trained nurses, and suggested the fifth year of the proposed Otago diploma could become that course; it offered to send two senior nurses overseas to be educated as lecturers for the programme. Janet Moore headed to London and Mary Lambie to Toronto in 1925, with the fifth year/advanced programme scheduled to commence in 1926; meanwhile several women started the first years of the programme through the home science school.

Unfortunately, the scheme then fell apart due to a series of misunderstandings between the university and the health department. Neither had explicitly stated who was to pay the salaries of the specialist nursing lecturers. The university council assumed the health department’s involvement and support meant they would stump up the cash required, while the health department assumed the university would pay its own staff. Those council members who had only supported the project on the basis it would cost the university nothing stubbornly refused to commit any funding, even after the nurses’ association offered to pay a contribution. The health department proved equally stubborn over the matter. Admittedly the university was strapped for cash, but it is sad that a programme that could have changed the course of New Zealand nursing education collapsed over the cost of two salaries. Moore and Lambie approached Victoria College (later Victoria University of Wellington), where they got a more sympathetic response to a proposal for a short diploma course for already-registered nurses. The government proved more willing to offer funding for this course, which commenced in 1928 at Wellington Hospital, jointly supervised by Victoria, the health department and the hospital boards association. For 50 years the School of Advanced Nursing Studies, as it became known, was to provide New Zealand’s only advanced education for nurses. The first two students in Otago’s collapsed programme, who had already completed the first 4 years, went on to complete the new Wellington course. One of them, Winifred Fraser, applied to Otago for a diploma of nursing, becoming the one and only person awarded that qualification. Most of the other women partway through their course switched to home science.

After this unfortunate episode, the University of Otago kept out of nursing education for many decades. Meanwhile, dissatisfaction with New Zealand nursing education remained, with high attrition rates, a failure to keep up with new developments and a continuing focus on student nurses as a labour force rather than learners. In 1970 the government approached the World Health Organisation, which appointed Helen Carpenter (director of the University of Toronto’s nursing school) to review the current system. Her report (An improved system of nursing education for New Zealand) led to major reforms. The education of registered nurses shifted from the health sector to the tertiary education sector. Commencing at Wellington and Christchurch in 1973, technical institutes around the country established nursing schools, and registered nurse programmes at hospitals were gradually phased out (though hospitals continued to train community/enrolled nurses). The technical institutes also later developed advanced diploma courses in various clinical fields, taking over the role of the School of Advanced Nursing Studies.

One of Carpenter’s recommendations was that a proportion of nurses should be educated to a still higher level, through universities. She suggested that Otago’s preventive and social medicine department, along with the education departments at Victoria, Massey and Canterbury, could start by appointing a nurse to their academic staff, with a view to building up nursing research and later courses. Otago’s medical faculty proved largely supportive of the idea, but over the next decade various proposed schemes came to nothing. Meanwhile, Victoria and Massey began offering a few BA papers in nursing studies. Proposals from Otago included a diploma in nursing administration, and later a basic-level bachelor’s degree, but neither made it past the University Grants Committee. In 1979, faced with various proposals for new nursing courses, the UGC appointed a special committee on nursing education, which recommended turning down Otago and Massey’s proposals for basic degrees, and another from Auckland for a post-basic bachelor’s degree. Victoria, it suggested, could develop its existing programme into a full nursing degree, complete with clinical education, while Massey should continue its existing courses. Victoria approached Otago’s Wellington clinical school to see if they might cooperate in an undergraduate nursing degree. That scheme got quite advanced but eventually fell through due to the government’s unwillingness to supply funding. Victoria’s nursing programme went into abeyance for a while in the early 1980s, but it later built up a postgraduate school. There were many differing opinions about university-level nursing education but it was, generally, finance that prevented many a dreamed-of programme from getting going. In Dunedin, any sense of urgency for an undergraduate programme that would lead to nursing registration ended once the Otago Polytechnic opened its nursing school in 1984.

Of course, nurses did enrol in a variety of other University of Otago courses. A good example is nursing academic Beverley Burrell, who trained as a nurse at Dunedin Hospital in the 1970s. After developing an interest in education through the playcentre movement, she enrolled in education courses at the university, going on to complete a BA and MA in women’s studies. There was a close synergy between her nursing experience and her university study.


Robyn Beach leading a class in the ‘nursing – high acuity’ paper in the Centre for Postgraduate Nursing Studies premises in Oxford Terrace, Christchurch, 2012. Image courtesy of the Centre for Postgraduate Nursing Studies.

In the end, it was on the Christchurch campus that Otago finally got a successful programme specifically for nurses off the ground. The medical school there offered a wide range of postgraduate courses, undertaken by a variety of health professionals, including nurses; for instance, many nurses completed public health and mental health postgrad qualifications. With the government injecting money into ongoing clinical training for healthcare workers, and increasing demand for nursing-specific courses, in 1997 the Centre for Postgraduate Nursing Studies opened. Initially hosted by Christchurch’s Department of Public Health and General Practice, it grew quickly and soon became an independent centre. Christchurch nurses had long wanted a local alternative to the postgraduate nursing programmes offered by Massey and Victoria universities, but flexible teaching methods, including block courses and distance education, meant the new Christchurch courses soon had students from all over the South Island, and a few from further afield. Starting out with papers on nursing practice and mental health nursing practice, the centre soon developed a range of papers, some generic and others in specialist fields of practice. Students could complete a postgraduate diploma or master’s degree in health sciences, endorsed in nursing, or various shorter certificate courses in specialist fields; the centre also offered PhDs. From 2006 a new master of health sciences option allowed an alternative to the papers plus thesis requirement: students could now complete papers and a ‘clinically applied research practicum’ for an endorsement in ‘nursing – clinical’. This was an important development because it met the clinically-oriented master’s degree requirement for those who applied to the New Zealand Nursing Council for registration as a nurse practitioner, a new level of practice which included prescribing rights.


Beverley Burrell teaching a course for the ‘nursing – leadership and management’ paper in 2011. The class was held in the Philatelic Society rooms, one of many temporary premises used after the usual venues were closed due to earthquake damage. Image courtesy of the Centre for Postgraduate Nursing Studies.

As the nursing centre grew, so did its research. Staff attracted considerable research funding, including from the Health Research Council, and also benefited from Tertiary Education Commission funding targeted at developing research capability in nursing and other health professions which had not done well under the PBRF system. In 2008 Lisa Whitehead received the university’s early career award for distinction in research, recognising her achievements in research on the management of long-term conditions (a field of particular interest for the nursing centre). As its research capability grew, the centre attracted more PhD students from both New Zealand and overseas; by 2012 it had 10 PhD candidates enrolled among its 350 students and had the largest postgraduate programme on the Christchurch campus.

Temp clinical teaching at Addington  Raceway

The Addington Raceway was another stand-in venue for nursing courses following the Christchurch earthquakes. Here it is set up ready for clinical teaching for the ‘health assessment and advanced nursing practice’ paper in 2011. Image courtesy of the Centre for Postgraduate Nursing Studies.

The nursing centre has never been short of initiative and has introduced a variety of new courses to meet needs in the health sector. In 2016 it enrolled the first students in perhaps its most exciting venture to date: a new master of nursing science degree, which allows people with a bachelor’s degree in any discipline to complete the professional education required for registration as a nurse in a concentrated two-year programme. While this type of programme has been available in North America for decades and in Australia for several years, it is the first qualification of its type in New Zealand and required new regulations from the Nursing Council. Finally, some 90 years after the first ill-starred attempt, the University of Otago is offering a course which leads to the registration of nurses!

Scientific women


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Winifred Betts, Otago’s first specialist botany lecturer. Image courtesy of the Hocken Collections, Botany Department archives,  r.6461, S14-586a.

There’s been a fair bit of discussion recently about sexism in science. This has inspired me to write about some of the women academics who led the way for women in the sciences at Otago. Their path was not always easy, and for many decades the university was more willing to employ gifted women than to promote them, but they made important contributions to teaching and research and deserve better attention. Some have already appeared on this blog: marine biologist Betty Batham here; and Muriel Bell, Elizabeth Gregory and Marion Robinson all feature on this post about nutrition research. Today’s story, therefore, concentrates on some of Otago’s other women scientists.

Winifred (Winnie) Betts was Otago’s first botany lecturer, though it is telling that botany officially dated its beginning as an independent department from 1924, when her male successor, John Holloway, commenced as lecturer. Botany classes were taught from the university’s early years by the professor of natural science, later the professor of biology, but these men specialised in zoology rather than botany, and it was irksome having to teach both subjects to the growing student body. Recent zoology honours graduate Winifred Farnie was assistant lecturer in biology in 1917 and 1918, but in 1919, after some years of trying, biology professor William Benham managed to persuade the university council that it was time that botany had its own lecturer. Winnie Betts was just 25 years old when she commenced this new position at the beginning of 1920. Born in Moteuka, she was educated at Nelson College for Girls and the University of Otago, graduating BSc in 1916 and MSc in 1917. She then received a National Research Scholarship – one was awarded at each university each year. This provided her with an income of £100 a year along with lab expenses so she could carry out independent research. In 1919, at a lecture to an admittedly partisan audience in Nelson, distinguished botanist Leonard Cockayne described Betts as ‘the most brilliant woman scientist in New Zealand’. In December 1920 Winnie Betts married another brilliant Otago graduate, the mathematician Alexander Aitken. Aitken, whose studies were interrupted by war service (he was badly wounded at the Somme), was by then teaching at Otago Boys’ High School. This was an era when most women left paid employment when they married, so it is intriguing that Winnie Aitken continued working as botany lecturer for some years. That came to an end in December 1923, when the Aitkens moved to Scotland to further Alexander’s academic career (he eventually became professor of mathematics at the University of Edinburgh).

Several other women were appointed to the biological sciences between the wars; all had started out at Otago as outstanding students. Marion Fyfe became a zoology lecturer in 1921 and when Beryl Brewin joined her in 1936 women thereby accounted for two-thirds of the zoology academic staff! They remained to teach generations of Otago students: Fyfe retired in 1957 and ‘live wire’ Brewin in 1963. Both were by then senior lecturers and Fyfe, described as ‘the backbone’ of the zoology department, had acted as its head on some occasions. Ella Campbell became assistant lecturer in botany in 1937, leaving to become the first woman academic at Massey University in 1945. An expert on liverworts, she was made a Dame in 1997 for her contribution as ‘a pioneer in the field of university botanic research’. When Campbell left, Brenda Slade (later Brenda Shore) became assistant lecturer in botany; she had just finished a BSc in the department. She later took leave to complete a PhD at Cambridge in her specialist field of leaf development, then returned to Otago, eventually retiring as associate professor in 1982. Two other biology students of that generation returned to Otago after overseas study and research. One was the aforementioned Betty Batham, who returned with a Cambridge PhD in 1950 to become first director of the Portobello Marine Biology Station, newly taken over by the university. Another was Ann Wylie, recruited back to Otago’s botany department in 1961 to take responsibility for teaching in the rapidly-developing field of cytology and genetics. Like her colleague Brenda Shore, with whom she had first taught in the botany department in 1945 when lecturer John Holloway became ill, Wylie eventually rose to the status of associate professor, retiring in 1987. I have had the pleasure of interviewing Ann Wylie, who is still active and sharp-witted in her nineties. She recalls that women were well accepted in zoology and botany and she did not experience prejudice, though she also notes that women lecturers behaved as ‘honorary men’; it was they who had to adapt rather than the men. There was a strong sense of collegiality between women academics from various departments and they often socialised together.

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Agnes Blackie, photographed around the 1960s, at the end of her long career as a physics lecturer. Image courtesy of the Hocken Collections, c/nE5302/11A, S16-521e.

The physical sciences weren’t so welcoming of women staff in this period. The school of mines and departments of geology, mathematics and chemistry remained resolutely male until later in the twentieth century. Indeed, the only woman academic in the physical sciences at Otago for many decades was Agnes Blackie in physics. She was appointed assistant lecturer in the department in 1919, eventually retiring as senior lecturer in 1958, though she continued teaching part-time for some years after that. The petite Blackie, who fell in love with physics as an Otago undergraduate, stood out in this largely male domain. Long-serving physics technician Stan Hughes, who started in the mid-1920s, recalled: ‘In the distance I saw this schoolgirl who later turned out to be Miss Agnes Blackie …. Agnes was very quiet with very thin features and my first impression was that a couple of mutton pies would do her the world of good’. In her early years, working with students sometimes older than herself (including returned servicemen), she had to endure considerable teasing, but was a gifted teacher who earned the affection and respect of generations of students, especially those who struggled with physics. She taught a range of students in addition to those specialising in physics, such as physiotherapy students learning about electricity and radiation, music students studying acoustics and home science students learning about household electricity and appliances, energy and calories, ventilation and humidity. Many a future doctor or dentist only made it through their compulsory physics course thanks to Blackie’s helpful teaching.

Not all of Otago’s pioneering women scientists were home-grown. Englishwomen Winifred Boys-Smith and Helen Rawson were the founding staff of the new home science school, whose courses commenced in 1911. Both had completed the natural science tripos at Cambridge but were unable to obtain degrees because they were women. Boys-Smith was Otago’s – and New Zealand’s – first female professor and Rawson succeeded her in the chair of home science. Otago chemistry professor James Black, by then in his seventies, had his doubts about these women’s scientific abilities. The first two home science degree students later recalled that when they progressed ‘from Professor Black’s Chemistry to take Applied Chemistry under Miss Rawson, they were informed in no indefinite words as to his grave doubts of Miss Rawson’s knowledge of things chemical. “A fine lassie, but is she sound on the soda-ammonia process? I’ll put it down on paper for her,” said the dear old man’. Rawson’s ‘brilliant career’ at Cambridge and London evidently counted for nothing to him. Home science did, to some extent, segregate capable women from the ‘pure’ science courses, but it also offered them opportunities. The degree students took advanced courses in chemistry, and many went on to become school teachers in the pure sciences as well as home economics. Some became highly-regarded researchers and academics, either overseas (Neige Todhunter is a good example) or in New Zealand (such as Elizabeth Gregory and Marion Robinson, mentioned above).

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Helen Thomson (centre back) teaching a laboratory class on the chemistry of the household at the School of Home Science in 1936. Thomson was one of numerous women who made an academic career in science through the school. After completing undergraduate and master’s degrees there, she was appointed lecturer in 1931 and remained on staff for 30 years, taking leave for overseas research. She graduated with a PhD in textile chemistry from Leeds University in 1947. Image courtesy of the Hocken Collections, Consumer and Applied Science records, 97-081/4, S16-521a.

Another English import was Betty Bernardelli, who arrived at Otago in 1948 and took charge of the psychology laboratory (then part of the philosophy department). She had qualifications from Oxford and Cambridge, and had been officer in charge of psychological testing in the vocational advice service of the Royal Air Force during the war. She came to New Zealand with her husband Harro Bernadelli, who became lecturer in the economics department; in 1961 they left Otago for posts at the University of Auckland. The appointment of Bernardelli, a married woman, represented progress; an earlier generation of women academics had been single on appointment and mostly resigned if they married (a notable Otago example was home science professor Helen Rawson, whose academic career ended on her marriage to geology professor Noel Benson in 1923). It would be many years, however, before most people welcomed the advent of married women on the academic staff. Margaret Loutit came from Australia to Otago in 1956, when her husband John Loutit was appointed lecturer in the microbiology department. Already armed with an MSc, she obtained part-time work as a botany demonstrator and then microbiology lecturer while working on a PhD. As the working mother of young children she experienced considerable criticism, often from other women (notably the wives of other academic staff). Her salary was mostly absorbed in paying for private childcare; there were no crèche facilities at that time. However, her hard work was rewarded with the completion of her PhD in 1966 and in the following year she became a full-time staff member. Margaret Loutit was a gifted teacher and productive researcher in soil and water microbiology; she also made important contributions to university administration. She was promoted to a personal chair in 1981. John Loutit had become a professor in 1970, so they had the then rare status of ‘professorial spouses’.

There were other scientific women who held academic posts in the medical school: noted researchers Marianne Bielschowsky and Barbara Heslop, for example. However, there isn’t room to do justice to their achievements here, so I’ll have to save those for another time …

Otago’s pioneering women scientists – some of whom ended their careers not so very long ago – achieved remarkable things in the face of considerable difficulties. In proving the capability of women in the academic world of science they made things a little easier for those who followed and I am delighted to be able to pay tribute to them here. Do you have any stories to share of women in science at Otago?

The first residential college


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The first Selwyn building, photographed in the early 1900s. Another storey was added in 1930, together with a new wing. On the left is the Selwyn Collegiate School building, erected in 1907. After the school closed in 1911 it became part of the college. Image courtesy of the Hocken Collections, Selwyn College archives, 84-086/062, S16-503a.

There are many friendly rivalries between the University of Otago’s 15 residential colleges, but there’s one honour that nobody can ever take away from Selwyn College: that of being the oldest. It opened in 1893, but the planning behind it went back another twenty years or so, almost to the university’s beginnings. As I explained in a recent post, when the university moved from the centre of town to its current Dunedin campus in the late 1870s it had to abandon initial plans of providing student accommodation due to lack of funds. Students who couldn’t stay at home needed to find their own place to live, generally in private board. Over the years the cash-strapped university naturally prioritised teaching facilities when it planned new developments, and the idea of providing student residences fell well down the wish list. Studholme, which opened in 1915 to provide both accommodation and practical experience to home science students, was the only university-initiated hall of residence until Unicol opened as a centennial project in 1969.

The churches and – in the case of Arana and Carrington – groups of community-minded Christians, stepped in to fill what they saw as a need. Church people were concerned for the well-being of their own young people who came to Otago from all over New Zealand to study in its ‘special’ schools, including medicine, dentistry and mining. Residential colleges enabled them to provide oversight and pastoral care to students. In the case of the first two colleges – Selwyn and Knox – they also had connections to theological training.

Selwyn was the brainchild of Samuel Nevill, first Bishop of the Anglican Diocese of Dunedin (which covered all of Otago and Southland). The southern church was small and short of funds, but Nevill was determined to set up theological training locally and began a long fundraising campaign for a college in 1872. As he later remarked, ‘however much we may desire to obtain clergy who have had the great advantage of Home [that is, English] training, we cannot afford to rely only upon such a source of supply’. Also in 1872, two students started out as candidates for the Anglican ministry, living in Nevill’s own home (thanks to a wealthy wife, he had built his own substantial residence, Bishopscourt). Through the years he continued to accommodate others, with various clergy serving as tutors. In the face of considerable apathy and opposition, Nevill’s fund for a college slowly built up and at the 1886 synod the bishop announced ‘I have taken another step forward in this matter by the purchase of a house, very conveniently situated in relation to the university, which I should wish future students to attend if possible’. This house – destined to become the warden’s residence – became home to the theology tutor for the next few years.

Building finally got underway in 1891 and in 1893 Selwyn College – named after New Zealand’s first Anglican bishop, George Augustus Selwyn – opened its doors to its first six students. It was, from the beginning, a ‘mixed’ college, open to men studying at the university alongside the candidates for the priesthood; the foundation residents included five candidates for holy orders plus one medical student. This was seen to be advantageous to both groups, as Bishop Julius of Christchurch explained when the foundation stone was laid. Theological students would ‘be infinitely advantaged by contact with men who are training for other professions, and for the knowledge they will gain there … from those who look upon life from other points of view’. These other students, meanwhile, would ‘have the advantage of association with men, brave, spiritually-minded men, men already given heart and soul to God’s service, and they cannot fail to be better for such influence’.

The college struggled in its first few decades due to its ongoing lack of funds. By 1909 there were 25 residents and, with no shortage of applications, the warden was anxious to expand. In 1911 Selwyn Collegiate School closed and its building became part of the college. This was a private school for boys that had been taken over by the Anglican church and installed in an old house in the Selwyn College grounds plus part of the warden’s residence. In 1907 a brand new classroom block was opened for the school but it failed to attract enough students to keep going. The former classrooms became rather austere bedrooms for Selwyn residents. Some residents had their rooms in a neighbouring house purchased by Alice Woodthorpe, the warden’s wife, and later the college’s Board of Governors, which took over management of Selwyn from the St Paul’s Cathedral Chapter in 1914, purchased other neighbouring houses. The wardens’ families – wives, mothers and sisters – played an important part in college life in the early decades, often serving as matrons and cooks.

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A Selwyn College bedroom/study, from an album by photographer C.M. Collins. It probably dates from around 1930, when the new wing was added. Image courtesy of the Hocken Collections, Selwyn College archives, 84-086/062, S16-503b.

Resident numbers dropped during World War I and the college actually closed for a year in 1918, after warden Robert Woodthorpe left. In 1919 LG (‘Algy’) Whitehead began a long reign – 31 years – as Selwyn warden, earning widespread respect and affection. He set about renovating the rundown buildings and, with the superior fundraising skills of politician James Allen to hand, was able to raise enough money to build a new wing of the college and add a third storey to the original building. Opened in 1930, the new wing included a splendid dining hall funded as a memorial by the family of the Massey brothers, killed in World War I. Life at Selwyn remained spartan by today’s standards, but was becoming increasingly comfortable. Later on, in the 1950s and 1960s, further buildings and extensions took the roll up to over 90.

Early Selwyn residents soon developed communal traditions, with some surviving into modern times; perhaps most famous is the Selwyn ballet, which dates back to 1928. The theological students were quickly outnumbered by others, particularly medical students. Nevertheless, religion remained an important influence, and until the mid-1980s all the wardens were Anglican clergy. They conducted services at the adjacent All Saints Church, which students were expected to attend. Algy Whitehead started regular high teas around 1920. He was a wine connoisseur who noted that it started as ‘a soft drink affair. Then it ascended to wine, but later degenerated to beer’. One of Selwyn’s most famous former residents, Rhodes Scholar, surgeon, Olympian and Governor General Arthur Porritt, later recalled that life in Selwyn in the early 1920s was ‘cosmopolitan to a degree, very free and easy (in contrast to Knox!) and though we were relatively few in numbers we could produce a team in almost any sport. Despite our “Boys about Town” reputation we were 100% loyal to our “Headmaster” – the Rev Algy Whitehead (and his two spinster sisters who cared for our material and domestic welfare) and tried to ensure that our not infrequent pranks brought no odium on him’. Knox, in good Presbyterian fashion, had much stricter rules about alcohol, but was more liberal in allowing female visitors. Both of these colleges developed a reputation for misogyny in later decades, and Selwyn was the last Otago college to admit women, in 1983 (even then protest from male residents and alumni continued for some years).

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Another photo, this time of a common room, from the C.M. Collins album. Image courtesy of the Hocken Collections, Selwyn College archives, 84-086/062, S16-503c.

Residential colleges are now a central part of life at the University of Otago, but the tradition of living in college was slow to get off the ground. It took twenty years of determined effort for Bishop Nevill to get the first, Selwyn, opened. Otago has many reasons to be grateful to the man whose vision established a place which has provided a home for thousands of its students, and set an example for others to follow!