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.
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.
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’.
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’.
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.
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.