Victoria University of Wellington 1899 ~ 1999 A History
[seven] — Mites and earthquakes
Mites and earthquakes
IN THE FESTSCHRIFT published for Hunter in 1946 the newly appointed professor of zoology, L.R. (Larry) Richardson, made the only contribution from the science departments. It was a lament for the arrested development of biology since the heady days of the nineteenth century, diverted to utilitarian purposes during two world wars and by narrow ‘fadism’ in the years in between, while the physical sciences had marched steadily forward. There was ‘desperate need for fresh vision in all aspects of biology in New Zealand’ and to exploit the country's unique advantages in this field: its isolation and its dependence on primary industry.1 A decade later, his survey of science at Victoria in the 1954 issue of Spike had an altogether more optimistic tone. This was an appreciation of triumph over adversity. In spite of understaffing, underfunding and grossly overcrowded laboratories, between 1940 and 1952 Victoria had produced more MSc graduates in the laboratory sciences, he reported, than any other college (a third of the total, and over half in zoology). Even if four zoology students had to share one light to illuminate their dissections, and classes conducting elementary physics experiments on electrical currents and magnetism were so crowded that ‘one compass can hardly be free from the magnetic fields in the next set-up’, yet there was ‘a richness and variety of research such that it is difficult to describe’.2 It would become more so.
The story of science at Victoria in its second 50 years is, in its broad contours, the story of science and universities elsewhere, and is not solely one of progress. The two or three decades after the war were a period of confidence and growth, especially at first in chemistry and physics (the queen of the sciences in the first half of this century), stimulated by the ‘exciting glamour’ of nuclear science in the atomic age. This was the era of ‘big science’. ‘We are,’ observed Victoria's new physics professor in 1951, ‘in the midst of an era of amazingly rapid scientific progress.’3 Slightly later the application of physical and chemical knowledge to page 159 biological science opened new and equally exciting fields in ecology, molecular biology and genetics. The priority given to science blocks in university building in the 1950s and 1960s was literally the concrete expression of the postwar science boom.
It was followed by a period of relative stagnation, with the spectacular exception of computer science, and by retrenchment and ‘painful redistributions of resources’.4 Science students were just over a fifth of Victoria's roll in the 1950s and '60s, peaking at 23.5% in 1962, but they began losing ground in the early 1970s, marking a low of 15.7% in 1976. This too was a larger phenomenon: the ‘famous “swing” from science’ to the arts and social sciences that was already observable by the late 1960s.5 Permanent staff in the science faculty quadrupled between 1950 and 1975 – the most spectacular growth occurring in the 1960s, and in chemistry and physics – but thereafter remained constant. The general ‘steady state’ of university staffing from the 1970s had differential effects, and was acutely felt in some of the sciences. A decline in postgraduate study also had a particular meaning for science, for it was mostly science students who took PhD or ‘research’ degrees, and the characteristic form of scientific research in the university is the collaborative work of teams of staff and graduate students.6
The use of science, however, also became problematic in the postwar era. Charles Watson-Munro, the flamboyant ‘atom scientist’ who succeeded Florance in the physics chair, gave his inaugural lecture on ‘Peacetime applications of atomic energy’. Twenty years later, in 1971, a new professor of organic chemistry contrasted the ‘sinister side effects’ of modern science with what he imagined to be the ‘untainted wholesomeness’ of pre-war chemistry, and argued that the potential misuse of chemical knowledge (in the form, for example, of pesticides or genetic manipulation) was as insidious as that of nuclear physics.10 Environmentalism (or ecology) was a prevailing theme in science in the 1970s.
Growing specialisation, the proliferation of courses of study and the fragmentation of disciplines also caused anxiety in the academy. The founding professors were polymaths, partly out of colonial necessity, and partly because the field of scientific knowledge and its academic study was so much smaller then. The first professor of applied mathematics referred in his inaugural address in 1964 to this university's custom, in creating a second chair, ‘to associate with it some title, however bizarre, other than that of merely the second Chair in that Department, and thereby apparently to create a whole corpus of new academic subjects’ (although, of course, his own subject had a long and honourable independent history). To argue, he observed, that there was as much danger in a superficial general education as in narrow specialisation was a controversial view.11 In 1965 J.T. Salmon, a biologist by training, a botanist by inclination, and newly appointed professor of zoology, looked forward to a return to the teaching of biology as a unified subject. A new chemistry professor discoursed to his colleagues page 161 in 1967 on ‘Pantology: a futuristic view of physical chemistry’. Such comments are not unrelated to the traditional inaugural theme of claiming one's own subject to be the centre of all knowledge. But a wider concern about excessive specialisation also showed in the nature of the Victoria science degree. When all the university science faculties were examining their degree structures in 1959, Victoria rejected others' moves towards compulsory specialisation, and introduced (not without debate) the ‘Type B’ BSc for students wanting to take a broad undergraduate science degree.12 The principles of flexibility at undergraduate level – offering a choice of a general or a specialised course – and that ‘undue specialisation … is undesirable’ were explicitly reaffirmed when the faculty recommended the introduction of half-units in 1964, and moving (along with the rest of the university) to the credit degree in 1969.13
The interdisciplinary tendency of the modern university and modern science is a related (and narratively difficult) theme. In institutional terms this saw the establishment of multi-disciplinary laboratories, and a research centre and an institute in the 1970s; and the reconfiguration of departments into larger schools – of earth, biological, mathematical, and chemical and physical sciences – in the 1980s and 1990s. Science also became more technological, and expensive. Victoria's 1973 quinquennial submission remarked on a ‘veritable explosion’ in instrumentation in the 1960s, in accelerators and spectrometers; the proliferation of computers had barely begun.14 Chemistry and physics continued to take the lion's share of all University Grants Committee research funding and Victoria followed this pattern. (Indeed, the grants committee research fund was explicitly biased towards the physical sciences.) Of the $105,778 Victoria received from this fund in 1967, for example, all but $1500 was for science.15
This story is also particular to Victoria in some of its broad themes. One is location: Victoria's often-noted ‘Wellington locale’, which has meant a particular relationship with the government science establishment, although not always as close as or in the particular form hoped for. It has been closer in some fields (earth sciences and applied mathematics, for example) than in others (such as chemistry and physics). R.H. Clark, professor of geology, once thought of ‘a National Science Faculty, involving all the scientific personnel in the Wellington area’, a vision reminiscent of Robert Stout's in 1886 (when he planned for the new college to take over the Colonial Museum).16 Victoria's submission to the Hughes Parry committee proposed (hopefully) that the DSIR set up research units at the university, headed by a senior academic. The reality has been co-operation in a more ad hoc fashion, established by individual initiative at a personal or departmental level.
The absence of an engineering or medical school also influenced the character of Victoria's science faculty. The pure science departments at other universities (except Waikato) could develop a mutually supportive relationship with their professional schools. In practical terms, the possession of an engineering school facilitated the development and maintenance of research equipment, while Victoria's lack of a medical school (not for want of trying, as we shall later see) largely shut page 162 it out of the single largest source of scientific research funding outside the University Grants Committee – medical research organisations. In the 1960s the establishment of an independent Massey University with its strong agricultural science base was felt by Victoria, and Williams' and Culliford's suspicions of Massey's expansionist plans were to prove not wholly unfounded. So was a tendency, first remarked in the late 1960s, for medical and engineering students to do their intermediate year at the same university as their professional course.
Despite Hunter's pioneering efforts, what constitutes ‘science’ at Victoria has been fairly narrowly defined. In faculty terms, the social sciences have been identified with the arts rather than science; and psychology and geography, with a foot in both, have resented the ‘amused tolerance’ with which they have been regarded by the ‘proper’ sciences, and fought hard for recognition as (and the resources appropriate to) a laboratory science. Victoria has never been a predominantly science-oriented university – except perhaps at the moment of its founding, in the initiative of Easterfield, the chemist, and the brilliance of Maclaurin, the mathematical physicist. This is not to say, however, that the sciences in later years have not contributed their share of lustre and academic personality to the university. It is perhaps typical of the small university that distinction is found with individuals rather than schools, and sometimes in unlikely places. Arguably, however, it has not been in chemistry or physics that Victoria has made its greatest scientific contribution, but in the field of another of its very distinguished early professors, Cotton: in earth science.
Within 10 years of the end of the war, all of the science departments had new professors. Of the two who succeeded Kirk, in the newly independent departments of Botany and Zoology, H.D. Gordon, the botanist, also shared something of his character: a gentleman-scholar and much-loved teacher, unassuming, and academically conservative. He came from Edinburgh via Tasmania, and specialised in fungal associates of the rhododendron, plant geography and morphology. Richardson was something else. He is distinguished in Victoria's history in at least two ways. He was Australian born and North American educated, with a degree from McGill University in Canada, at a time when it was still the norm to find professors in the United Kingdom. He resigned from his chair in circumstances of controversy surpassed only by the departure of von Zedlitz – although that was a case of quite different complexion.
Larry Richardson, zoology professor, about to embark on the Peewee. Dominion collection, ATL F58934 1/4
In effect the management imposed on the Zoology Department during 1964 anticipated the reform introduced across the university in 1972.21 However, at the end of the academic year the committee unanimously dissolved itself and the department reverted to the normal ways. Fell had been only on leave of absence for the year, but chose to remain at Harvard, where he pursued a controversial career (especially in his excursions into epigraphy – the deciphering of ancient scripts – and archaeology).22 It was Salmon, the other associate professor, who succeeded to the chair. Richardson returned to enjoy ‘the climate of the “banana belt” of Australia’, and to his early research field of leeches.23
There was trouble in Physics in the early 1960s too; but, compared with the Richardson affair which was discussed throughout the university (the other science professors were outraged at the way he had been treated), it was not widely known outside the department itself. The discovery of radiation contamination in the Physics Department was made by a technician trying out a new geiger counter in late 1961. The Dominion X-Ray and Radium Laboratory was called in in the new year and a quantity of contaminated material was removed, encased in concrete and dumped at sea. In March 1963 further evidence of radium contamination was found when the department acquired a new portable radiation monitor. Meanwhile, in February a lecturer in the department, Ron Humphrey, had died of leukaemia. A graduate of the college, Humphrey had joined the staff in 1949, had conducted experiments with radon and been responsible for the storage of isotopes. He had been ill for two years, and his family were suing the university for compensation. page 165 More extensive and varying levels of contamination was found when the Radium Laboratory was investigated a second time, on equipment, benches, papers, light fittings, in dust, on floors and walls. Much of it was low level and fixed (and therefore of little hazard). There were some hot spots, and evidence that Humphrey's hands had been contaminated. In the conclusion of the investigating officer, ‘contamination found in various parts of the building indicates that at some time in the past materials (mostly, but not exclusively, radium) either have been handled without such care as present knowledge of radiation hazards would require, or, after accidental spillage, have not been removed from the affected area’.24 Such an accident or mishandling could have happened up to 10 or even 20 years earlier. Decontamination was carried out between March and July 1963: sanding and scrubbing surfaces, lining some walls, and the removal of irredeemably contaminated material (some of which had been locked, and possibly forgotten, in the cosmic ray laboratory on the third floor pending a possible court case) to a garage in Wai-te-ata Road. Three years later this material was buried at the Wilton landfill and the garage was destroyed.
Burial of radioactive waste at sea or under landfills was standard practice at this time, but careless handling should not have been. Reading the national laboratory's report 25 years later, the university registrar and former chemistry professor, Ted Harvey, described such apparently ‘slap-happy procedures’ as ‘incredibly inept and inadequate’ even by the standards of the day (chemists, he observed, would have been more careful).25 The story had reached the press in 1963, but a decision was made by the acting vice-chancellor, Ian Campbell, to play it down (‘cover-up’, Harvey later insisted, was too strong a word). The contamination, it was reported then, was ‘believed to have resulted from the accidental splashing or spilling of a weak solution of radioactive materials’.26 Whether it had resulted in Humphrey's death was not determined. The case was settled out of court.27
The suggestion made when Victoria's radiation ‘scandal’ hit the headlines properly in 1988 that Charles Watson-Munro ‘used to walk around with a couple of hunks of radium in his pocket’ is hardly credible.28 But Victoria's Physics Department, like every other, had a nuclear science bent in the 1950s. Watson-Munro had started his career at Victoria as a lab-boy in the 1930s, graduating MSc in 1937. He had begun his atomic career at the DSIR surveying the country's uranium resources; moved on to cosmic rays and radar during the war; and spent a year after it at Harwell helping build Britain's first nuclear reactor. At Victoria, where he took up the chair in 1951, his research was in atmospheric radioactivity. He left after four years, however, to become scientific head of the Australian Atomic Energy Commission (where he would claim to be ‘the only atom scientist whose swearing has figured in a scientific report’).29 His successor, Darcy Walker, was a less flamboyant figure, and one described on his retirement in 1980 as a ‘stabilising influence’ in the university.30 An Auckland graduate who had done his postgraduate work and then taught at Birmingham, Walker was appointed as a good all-rounder, but his page 166 postwar research had been in nuclear physics (and then in high-energy and ionospheric physics). He fostered nuclear physics, solid-state physics and geophysics as the three main fields of the Victoria department (and university rugby as his main extracurricular interest).
Walker also played a leading role in the establishment of the Institute of Nuclear Science – although this, from Victoria's point of view, was one of the ones that got away. He was a member of the Committee on Atomic Energy set up by the government in 1956, and responsible for a report from Victoria's Professorial Board which the university Senate adopted as its bid to get in on the action (there was resentment in the university that the government was preparing to take New Zealand into the nuclear age without it).31 The Walker plan was for a single nuclear science institute to be established on a university campus, jointly sponsored by the university and the DSIR, to engage in both applied research and postgraduate teaching. The hardware – an accelerator and a small nuclear reactor – would remain the property of the government. The need for an institute, and soon, was generally agreed: ‘A country backward in nuclear science can only stumble blindly in the atomic age, ignorant of opportunities, deficient in technique and the pawn of countries more advanced,’ the Victoria report began.32 Naturally, Victoria thought the best university site was its own. While others were also at work in the field – on cosmic rays at Auckland and Otago as well as Victoria – and Auckland was already in possession of a small accelerator, Victoria offered its central location and the lack of any other professional school to compete for the attention of its pure science departments.33 But the DSIR had other ideas (fuelling university suspicions of its becoming ‘a sort of National University’) and these prevailed.34 The Institute of Nuclear Science was established in 1959 as a branch of the DSIR, at Gracefield in Lower Hutt.
A Tramping Club group, c.1935 (Charles Watson-Munro, atom scientist, left). John Pascoe photo, ATL C23839
When the government then invited the universities to apply for funding for nuclear science development, Victoria submitted requests totalling £26,000 from the Physics Department and £11,500 from Chemistry, which was already heavily engaged in isotope research and had appointed a nuclear chemistry specialist. It was given a £16,500 non-recurring grant. The rejection of its bid for a chair and senior lectureship in nuclear physics was especially disappointing. Subsequently, the appointment of a professor, who would work in association with the new institute, was approved in July 1960, but the university was unable to fill the position.35 Its difficulty in attracting applicants (there were only two) was blamed at Victoria on the sluggishness of the DSIR in getting the institute established. The 400-watt van de Graaff accelerator Victoria installed in 1963 (in a concrete bunker beneath the Hunter building) was made available to the institute pending the arrival of its own. Eventually Victoria established its chair of nuclear physics in 1968, and the sole applicant this time, a senior lecturer in the department, was appointed.
Other developing fields in physics in the 1960s included radio physics and applied electronics, in which senior lectureships were created in 1962 (these were briefly seen as the basis for the future establishment of an engineering school). The first professor of theoretical physics, N.F. Barber, who was appointed in 1964, was a geophysicist who had been with the DSIR since 1953 but had more recently headed the radio research division of the Dominion Physical Laboratory. (The loss of its staff to the universities was a sore point with the DSIR in this period.) A professor of physical electronics, David Beaglehole (son of Ernest), was appointed in 1969.
Professors proliferated. So (in turn) did associate professors and readers. By the page 168 end of the 1960s the Physics Department had five professors (of physics, theoretical physics, geophysics, nuclear physics and physical electronics), two associate professors and a reader: eight out of a permanent staff of 19. In 1985 there were three physics professors, one associate professor and four readers out of 17. Physics was not alone in this (although it might have been slightly ahead): across the science faculty as a whole, 35% of academic staff in 1983 were readers, associate professors or professors, compared with 24% for the university as a whole. It was this, as much as the number of professors per se, that incurred the disapproval of the University Grants Committee. Expansionist and competitive recruitment policies followed by a period of steady or falling enrolments, at a time of retrenchment in university science departments worldwide, created a bottleneck at the senior lecturer/reader rung of the professional ladder. It also contributed to the science departments continuing to enjoy the most favourable staff:student ratios in the university. Nor was it lost on some that the university was determinedly pursuing the ‘think big’ Cotton building project at a time when the spectacular postwar growth of science had slowed down. It was recognised by the end of the 1980s that some parts of the science faculty were ‘over-resourced’. Still, it could not be denied that Physics' move out of its original home in the Hunter building in 1984 was long due.
Watson-Munro's address on the peacetime uses of atomic energy had looked to the development of thermonuclear energy resources. Victoria's nuclear physicists were doing other things with atoms and ions in the 1970s and 1980s: researching ion implantation to harden metals, for example, with funding from the Development Finance Corporation, and the potential use of nuclear fusion in cancer therapy, assisted by the Cancer Society. The department's 16-year-old van de Graaff accelerator was upgraded when it moved into the Laby building in 1983. Predicting solar eclipses and observing the phenomenon of moon drift diverted three staff members, including its two Americans, with an astrophysical interest. (As early as 1948, in fact, the faculty had hoped for the appointment of an astronomer.) It was superconductors, however, that generated the real excitement in physics in the 1980s. Research in this area began at Victoria (and also at Canterbury) in the mid– 1970s under David Beaglehole. In 1987 a Victoria team led by Joe Trodhal, with a DSIR colleague, succeeded in producing a superconducting ceramic material only months after this had first been achieved in the United States.
Without dispute, though, Victoria's special contribution in science has been at the intersection of physics and geology: in geophysics, and the wider field of earth science. A chair of geophysics was tentatively suggested by the science faculty in 1951 (only if it would not impair the development of the rest of the faculty), but was not to be established for another 15 years. In the meantime, geology, geophysics and geochemistry were areas of rapid growth in New Zealand science, and of government investment: a special grant, established in 1965, was distributed by a mineral resources committee of the University Grants Committee. At Victoria, Walker had fostered geophysics in his department, as had Clark in Geology, where page 169 DSIR geophysicists were brought in as honorary lecturers and research supervisors; and a lectureship in geophysics was created in 1965. Frank Evison joined both departments as New Zealand's first professor of geophysics in 1967. A Victoria physics and mathematics graduate, he had begun working in geophysics with a postwar PhD at London, and subsequently at the DSIR, becoming head of its geophysics division. He became internationally known for his work on earthquake prediction (while in scientific circles his name has been attached more importantly to a ‘seminal’ discovery during his early research on coal mines, the ‘Evison wave’).
Harold Wellman, geologist. M.D. King photo
Geology attracted the university's first personal chair, in 1969. This honour went to Harold Wellman, whose distinguished contribution to geological knowledge was in the then controversial field of plate tectonics, as the ‘discoverer’ of New Zealand's alpine fault – a decisive moment in the development of the theory of continental drift. Wellman had an unconventional academic career. Arriving in New Zealand from Britain as a teenager, he began his working life as a surveyor before the depression and a period of gold panning on the West Coast intervened. He was recruited by Ernest Marsden to the New Zealand Geological Survey, where he also studied for his MSc and made his ground-breaking observations of the movement of mountains in the Southern Alps, and worked as chief geologist for the oil company BP before accepting a senior lectureship at Victoria in 1958. He was a researcher rather than a teacher, known for his blunt expression of opinion and as an intrepid fieldworker: measuring the temperatures of Antarctic lakes, crossing from India to southern Russia by caravan to observe the geological structure of the Middle East, or making the first descent into the crater lake of Ngauruhoe. As the debate over plate tectonics went on in the 1950s and 1960s, Wellman's presence made Victoria's Geology Department an exciting place to be. It put itself in the vanguard of international scientific thinking, while the government scientific establishment – the DSIR – toed the conservative line.
It is unsurprising that earthquakes and volcanoes should be a focus of interest for geologists in New Zealand, situated on the Pacific ‘rim of fire’, and Victoria's Geology Department has also maintained a strong line in volcanology. This was the main research interest of Bob Clark, who succeeded Cotton as professor in 1954. He had an MSc from Auckland and a PhD from Edinburgh, and was lecturing at Edinburgh when he applied for the Victoria chair (this was the conventional career). Clark led a long-running research programme which began in 1967, monitoring the volcanic activity of White Island. His larger reputation, however, page 171 was less as a scholar than as an astute political operator: he was the most flamboyant of a triumvirate of scientists – with Walker of Physics and Slater of Chemistry – who were a powerful presence on the Professorial Board in the 1950s and 1960s during science's expansionist phase. (He was, in other words, quite the opposite of his predecessor.) Among his achievements can be counted the completion of the first stage of the Cotton building for Geology. His practical interest in his students, News VUW observed on his retirement, was matched only by the ‘crusading vigour’ with which he defended the independence of the geology library, the only part (then) of the university library allowed to live somewhere else.37 Pre-eminently, he was the organising power behind the university's long-running and successful Antarctic research programme.
Victoria's expeditions to Antarctica began, audaciously, in 1957: International Geophysical Year, and the first year that New Zealand established a permanent presence in the Ross Dependency. This was the very start of modern scientific exploration of Antarctica. Two geology students, Peter Webb and Barrie McKelvey, aided and abetted by Clark, ‘effectively hitch-hiked’ to Scott Base aboard HMNZS Endeavour, kitted out in Clark's Second World War battledress, arriving ‘uninvited, unheralded and unwanted’.38 Nevertheless, Victoria parties have been going to the ice every summer since. By 1990 some 100 students and 25 staff had been. Their research had generated over 200 papers, eight PhDs, seven masters and 17 honours theses, some important scientific advances; and a good deal of positive publicity for the university.
Continuing the work of Webb and McKelvey, early expeditions undertook geological, topographical and biological surveying of the Dry Valleys around McMurdo Sound, the largest ice-free area in Antarctica, which Victoria made its own. They named the valley where the two students had first ventured Victoria, and other geographical features in the way of explorers – with names like Lake Porkchop, Dismal Ridge, Chancellor Lake and Williams Peak. In 1959 the Professorial Board established an Antarctic Research Committee, with Clark its convenor. Funding came from the university Council, the University of New Zealand's research committee and the DSIR. The Americans provided transport; local businesses contributed clothing and stores. (Provisions taken in 1960–61, for example, included 36 jars of peanut butter, 36 jars of Marmite, 52 pounds of chocolate and 144 packets of jelly. They came back that year with 600 pounds of rocks for the Admiral Byrd memorial on Wellington's Mt Victoria.) The expeditions were family affairs, including geologists, geographers, zoologists, physicists and chemists. The first to be led by a student (who was made a junior lecturer for the occasion) went in 1962–63. Student members each received a grant-in-aid of £100 from the university Council. Those learning their final results at Scott Base were considered to be ‘commissioned in the field’.
Peter Webb and Barrie McKelvey, Victoria's Antarctic pioneers
In the 1970s the Antarctic programme became more geologically focused, in part reflecting renewed scientific interest in continental drift and Gondwanaland, in part because of an institutional change. The university's Antarctic Research Centre was established, in 1972, at a time when extra-departmental forms of academic organisation (like the Institute of Geophysics) were in vogue. It was prompted, however, by more opportunistic motives than keeping up with institutional fashions. Clark, in proposing an Antarctic Research Unit in 1970, wanted to keep at Victoria a post-doctoral research fellow in geology, Peter Barrett, an Auckland graduate who had studied at the leading Polar Research Institute in Ohio (the director of which, Colin Bull, had led Victoria's first ‘official’ expedition in 1958–59). The vice-chancellor agreed with Clark that Barrett was ‘the right man in the right place at the right time’, but could not promise funding in the current fiscal climate. Clark was persuasive.44 Barrett was appointed director of the Centre, which was attached to the Geology Department, and a senior lecturer. His own speciality was the Gondwana stratigraphy of East Antarctica. Volcanology (of Mt Erebus) was also a major interest in the 1970s and 1980s, while, from 1973, Antarctic investigation moved into a new gear with the beginning of deep-sea drilling. (Victoria participated in the scientific work of the two international drilling projects launched that year.)
For Webb and McKelvey's pioneering adventure Clark had found £100; the 1989–90 programme cost $110,000. By the 1980s the context of Antarctic research was changing, and not only in its technical and economic scale. Initially, Victoria had the field to itself. Canterbury University began a programme of biological research in 1961, but Victoria had been the first New Zealand university there and maintained the most substantial ongoing programme for many years. Now there was competition: five other universities were seeking funding for major expeditions by the end of the 1980s. In the 1984–85 season Victoria's was one of 46 research projects undertaken by the New Zealand Antarctic programme, in collaboration with scientists from overseas. Antarctic exploration had always been an international business, if not always happily. There Victoria scientists enjoyed the company of the best in their field. In the 1980s, however, it also became increasingly politicised as concerns rose over the exploitation of the continent's mineral resources. Enhancing New Zealand's political presence in the field was a new rationale for the university's involvement in an increasingly expensive enterprise, in addition to those already accepted: Victoria's pioneering role; the science; public relations; and – to some the most important – its character-forming value for the students involved (teaching them ‘a sense of responsibility, resourcefulness, leadership and patience’).45
Biological science, although perhaps lacking the glamour of Antarctica, has also had a comparatively high profile among Victoria's sciences – notably zoology. Botany is traditionally the quieter, more conservative of the two, and this was also the character of the professor, Hugh Gordon (his quiet wit and good sense a foil to the more flamboyant zoologists). The second professor in this department, J.K. Heyes, appointed from Edinburgh in 1970, had been one of Gordon's first students in the 1940s. Botany was also smaller. Its permanent academic staff increased from five to nine between 1950 and 1985, while Zoology's grew from six to 17.
The Botany Department acquired its own field station in the same year as the Island Bay Marine Laboratory, but this was to be a less successful venture in the long term. It was the initiative of a senior lecturer, J.G. Gibbs, who, learning in February 1963 that the Pokaka Timber Company was looking to dispose of its settlement at Taurewa on the volcanic plateau, persuaded the university to buy it: a 40-year-old cookhouse and hall, a large store and a score of cottages in poor repair, on leased government land. A resident caretaker was appointed and Gibbs became the field officer, a position he continued to hold after his retirement from the department in 1970. In its new life as a field station Taurewa was used mainly by Gibbs' own ecology classes and by other Botany staff, occasionally by the Geology Department (which also had its own field stations, in Golden Bay and Marlborough), page 175 by other universities, teachers' colleges and school parties.46 It also provided a cheap winter holiday base for university staff, their families and friends, and for miscellaneous social and youth groups – though not without occasional qualms about whether the university should be involved in leasing its property on a commercial basis. (The principle of renting the facility to non-university users was established early, when a request from Travelana Tourist Services of Auckland in 1964 hastened the village's upgrading by a year.) In 1974 Taurewa was taken over by the university Extension Department, with ambitious plans to rejuvenate and upgrade it as both a recreational and research facility; but two years later the university decided to sell it rather than pay $10,000 for repairs.
In the move against Richardson there had been some desire to redress the balance of the department's postgraduate work away from marine to terrestrial zoology. Nevertheless, fish, in various sizes and habitats, have remained a prominent part of the department's research interests. Richardson's boats were sold, and a Golden Kiwi lottery grant (a small but significant source of university research funding from 1964) financed their replacement in 1964 by a purpose-built research vessel, the Tirohia. Although successive plans to expand the Marine Laboratory into a fully fledged ‘research institute’ failed to come to fruition – for a variety of reasons including the usual, money48 – it had by 1981 supported 38 postgraduate theses and 90 research papers. The Tirohia was used by other science departments, and by the Wellington Harbour Board when not in university use (it was involved in the Wahine rescue in 1968), although rising fuel costs had by the 1980s restricted its operations to the inner harbour.49
Jack Garrick, who had been a student of Richardson and was appointed in 1971 to a personal chair, went further afield in his 20-year study (funded in its initial stages by the United States Atomic Energy Commission) of the taxonomy of the whaler shark Carcharhinus: his definitive study of this shark genus was published in the United States in 1983.50 Salmon was succeeded in 1975 by John Wells, a specialist in the taxonomy of microscopic sand organisms, meiofauna. Marine zoology was also the interest of Patricia Ralph, who had enrolled at the college in 1936, became a junior lecturer in 1945, and in 1967 Victoria's first woman reader in science: there is a hydroid named after her.
Others looked at the larger picture. Excitement and international attention were generated in the late 1970s by a group of graduate students who challenged the orthodoxy in promoting the neglected field of panbiogeography – the analysis of broad patterns of animal and plant distribution across the globe – and provoked fierce international debate. They were championing a theory that had first been developed in the 1950s, and was later given support by plate tectonics, in which Victoria has also made its mark.
In its submission on new developments to the University of New Zealand in page 179 1948, Victoria had listed microbiology and biochemistry as ‘urgent’ requirements for its science programme. A department of microbiology was, it seems, an unrealistic ambition for a university without a medical school. In the 1960s the science faculty urged its introduction as an integral part of modern biology (not just of medicine). But when a chair was finally approved, both applicants turned it down because the government would not commit itself to Victoria's plan to establish the country's third medical school in Wellington. A professor of physiology was appointed, however, in 1971.
Biochemistry began, it can be argued, with Easterfield's work on tutin, the toxin in the native tutu berry. But it was in the late 1950s that biochemistry teaching was introduced in the Chemistry Department, under a senior lecturer, Richard Truscoe, a London-born Pole, 58 when appointed and still possessed of ‘quite remarkable … physical and intellectual vigour’ when he reached retiring age in 1962.55 At this time, Victoria and Otago were the only universities in New Zealand teaching biochemistry. A chair was established at Victoria in 1964 (to which J.N. Smith was appointed from the University of London, while Truscoe remained for a protracted period of semi-retirement); and in 1969 a separate Department of Biochemistry. It was an expanding professional and academic field in the 1960s and a popular subject, with twice as many applications as places in the stage-two entry course. Smith's early plan for the DSIR and Victoria to set up a Pesticide Detoxication Unit at the university under his direction did not eventuate ($83,500 was requested). But he established toxicology as the department's main area of work, and its research and postgraduate strength: Biochemistry had 14 postgraduate and 33 undergraduate students in 1968.56 He complained, as professors are wont, about lack of money: Victoria was lucky, he observed, that Wellington Hospital and the government's Wallaceville research station were prepared to give it animals free of charge. After his retirement at the end of 1984 the chair of biochemistry was not filled. However, with the appointment the following year of a molecular biologist (from Harvard), the department moved into the new and cutting-edge field of DNA fingerprinting.
The reconfiguration of the departments of Zoology, Botany and Biochemistry into a School of Biological Sciences in the 1980s may be seen as a return to Kirk's single Department of Biology, or a realisation of Salmon's ideal of teaching biology ‘on a co-ordinated and unitary basis’.57 It also followed (a little belatedly) the international trend of the discipline, and one of the most significant advances of twentieth-century science. With the development of genetics and molecular biology, the disciplinary division between animal and vegetable (zoology and botany) has become smaller. Victoria's two departments first integrated their genetics teaching in 1975.
Another impetus behind the restructuring in the 1980s was quite practical, however. Moving the Department of Biochemistry and the planned new molecular biology laboratory from Easterfield (with Chemistry) to New Kirk (with Botany page 180 and Zoology) was a more economical use of space and facilities. From this followed further-reaching discussions about co-ordinating the departments' work, the appointment of a review committee, and finally the creation in July 1988 of the new school, organised around six research units – biochemistry and genetics; cell and developmental biology; animal physiology; terrestrial and marine ecology; systematics and biogeography; and applied biology. There was some restructuring of undergraduate courses, but it was decided to retain the basic shape and nomenclature of the degree, with majors in the four recognised subject areas of zoology, botany, physiology and biochemistry (‘Bitter experience tells us that names matter a great deal,’ commented the first chair of the school, John Wells).58 The timidity or wisdom of this decision, and the potential for conflict between research and teaching structures, remained in debate. But in the experience of those in the school, and as judged from outside, the experiment, an innovation for university biology in this country, was a success.
It followed the creation in 1985 of a Research School of Earth Sciences. This was an Axford initiative to build on the university's international repute in the area, especially in geophysics, and further enhance its interdisciplinary nature. The school brought together 25 academic staff and more than 60 graduate students in its first year, four boards of studies (geology, geochemistry, geophysics and physical geography), the Antarctic Research Centre and the Joint Mineral Sciences Research Laboratory. It was a less radical makeover than that of biological sciences, in leaving undergraduate teaching the responsibility of the old departments (for the time being at least). It was also more complex, in bringing together departments (and institutes and centres) whose relative commitments to graduate and undergraduate work differed widely. The longer-term vision of a fully integrated graduate and undergraduate school was endorsed by a review in 1989, but the potential problems – of divided loyalties, allocation of resources, lines of responsibility – remained unresolved. Victoria's international standing in this field, however, continued. A measure of that was the election in 1991 of Richard Walcott, professor of geology from 1983 (succeeding Clark, from whose department he had graduated 20 years earlier), as a fellow of the Royal Society – a rare distinction in New Zealand science – for his work in plate tectonics.
Consideration was also being given at the end of the 1980s to a similar integration of Chemistry and Physics. The creation of a School of Chemical and Physical Sciences did not come about, however, until the late 1990s, imposed from above in the context of a wholesale review of the university's academic and administrative structures. That Physics and Chemistry resisted, or ignored, the restructuring trend (until it became an imperative) reflected at least in part a lack of confidence and sense of common purpose in these two departments – especially in Chemistry.
Like Physics, Chemistry experienced its boom in the 1950s and '60s. In the 1950s it had the largest student numbers of the laboratory sciences, ahead of Physics. The department grew more quickly than Physics, trebling its staff between 1950 and 1965 (with 22 in 1965 to Physics' 16). The dean's 1955 report on applied science had observed ‘the essentially creative nature of chemistry as a discipline, page 181 forward-looking rather than directed towards the maintenance of an established order’, and saw Chemistry taking the lead in the establishment of research institutes (a disappointed plan).59 An ‘explosion’ of interest in graduate work since the move into the Easterfield building was observed in 1960: MSc and PhD enrolments had increased from eight in 1958 to 14 in 1960, and 26 were anticipated in 1962. In 1988, Chemistry had about 7% of science faculty enrolments and a permanent staff establishment of 11, and had made no new appointments since 1975.
The post–1970 downturn in chemistry was a general condition, but Victoria's chemists have seen themselves as the poor relation of the country's university chemistry departments, in both size and support. Chemistry has also suffered from two particular kinds of depletion. One is the curious phenomenon – although not one exclusive to Victoria – of chemistry professors abandoning their labs and lecture theatres for administration (here Slater, Dasent, Harvey and Tomlinson). It has also lost whole sub-disciplines: biochemistry to the biological sciences; geochemistry, a subject of revived student interest in the early 1980s and one which attracted considerable external funding, to earth sciences.
The department's second chair, established in 1962, was dedicated to theoretical and inorganic chemistry. James Duncan, appointed to it from the University of Melbourne, succeeded Slater as head of department in 1968. He was a radiochemist, and in this field introduced at Victoria, and to New Zealand, the new technique of Mossbauer spectroscopy, with an $80,000 grant from the United States Air Force Office of Scientific Research (the subject of some student protest).60 In the course of eight years nearly 30 graduate students and research assistants, and several postdoctoral fellows, did their work in this field. Outside his own subject he fostered solid state chemistry (to complement the university's strength in geochemistry) and industrial chemistry, directing a number of students into ceramic and dental research. An applied interest of longer standing, meanwhile, was ironsands research, beginning with the appointment of a research fellow, W.R.B. Martin, in 1955. Martin had left the DSIR for the university to pursue what became a personal crusade: the extraction of iron and titanium from Taranaki ironsands and South Island ilmenite sands. He played a prominent, but not in the end the decisive, part in a century-long effort to establish a New Zealand steel industry.61
Duncan was also instrumental in establishing the faculty Analytical Facility in 1971, an interdisciplinary collection of spectrometers of several varieties, managed and housed by the Chemistry Department (although used more by Geology). John Tomlinson, appointed to a new chair of physical chemistry in 1967, had charge of the Joint Mineral Sciences Research Laboratory. Chemistry has, however, been a department characterised by individual achievement rather than corporate strength (and by a stronger commitment to research than teaching). Of most note perhaps is Neil Curtis' work on macrocycles, which earned him a Marsden Medal and the department a $1 million scholarship fund – and other spectacular results (‘there are various tales told of explosions in his lab causing a certain amount of damage and leading to dire warnings from the university’).62 In fact, if its public profile has been low compared with the earth and biological sciences (the ‘field sciences’, which by their nature more easily find an indigenous niche), when the scale of fellowship of the Royal Society of New Zealand is taken as a measure of standing in the local scientific community, the Chemistry Department has scored well: it has had seven fellows on its staff to date.63
On the wider university scene Duncan was also an energetic propagandist for progressive (or unorthodox) approaches. He argued for Victoria to pursue business opportunities; increase its teaching, research and economic links with industry; and redress ‘the emphasis on non-science subjects at this university’.64 But he was disappointed. His (unsolicited) 1968 policy paper for the Professorial Board, in page 183 which he proposed car parking and motel investments, management studies courses and a graduate research foundation, was met with polite uninterest. His colleagues carried more influence in the regular channels of university government. The disestablishment, following Harvey's defection to the registry in 1978, of one of the department's diminishing positions in organic chemistry prompted Duncan's resignation from the chairmanship and an increased involvement with his second, more public career in ‘futures thinking’: he was appointed to chair the National government's new Commission for the Future in 1976, and after its demise in 1982 formed the New Zealand Futures Trust. A considerable number of the Chemistry Department's occasional research papers series were in fact on ‘future science’.
Axford had turned his reforming attention firstly to Mathematics, which was thus subjected to the first external review of a university department in 1985. Predictably, the review committee recommended the creation of a School of Mathematical Science, but this was not immediately pursued, despite – or perhaps because of – mathematics' intrinsically interdisciplinary nature. In the opinion of the new chairman of the department, Rob Goldblatt (its professor of pure mathematics), they were working happily enough as they were. This was why Axford chose it.
Maths' cross-disciplinary character is exemplified in Victoria's first professor, Maclaurin: an applied mathematician, or mathematical physicist, who also excelled in philosophy and law. In the field of logic, maths is allied with philosophy and the arts; applied mathematics sits with, or in, the sciences. New Zealand universities have followed the British (as opposed to the American) tradition of developing applied mathematics within their maths rather than science or technology departments. At Victoria the Department of Mathematics has been part of the faculties of both arts and science, but with a stronger orientation towards the latter. The 1960s saw the growth of applied maths, and the advent of computers. A new demand came in the late 1960s from the biological and social sciences, economics, accountancy and business administration for courses teaching basic skills in statistics and probability (subjects accorded little priority by the physical scientists), in response to which a new first-year general mathematics course was developed. Maths' distinctive service function would increase further with the rapid development of computing in the 1980s.
The 1985 review observed (critically) Victoria's Maths Department's traditional focus on teaching.65 This came pre-eminently from J.T. Campbell, one of the university's first associate professors, who succeeded Miles in the chair in 1952. He was an enthusiastic teacher of algebra and calculus, and one of the ‘founding fathers’ of mathematical statistics in New Zealand,66 whose reputation as a dedicated teacher includes his encouragement of women students, at a time and in a faculty (science) where this was not conspicuously the case. This department was to demonstrate the familiar postwar pattern of growth: from an establishment of four in the early 1950s to 21 in the early 1970s, then settling into the ‘steady state’. Its page 184 second professor, of applied mathematics, was appointed with some difficulty. A specialist in fluid dynamics from St Andrews came in 1962, but was lured away in two years by an unsolicited and irresistible offer of a research professorship at an American university; the next incumbent – a fellow of the Royal Society from Oxford – stayed only a year (he was welcomed and farewelled at the same Professorial Board meeting). Finally the chair went to the associate professor, C.J. Seelye (who had been on the staff since 1947). Two more professorial appointments were made after he became head of department on Campbell's retirement in 1968, one to a new chair of pure mathematics in 1972. Here too the first incumbent, a young American, did not remain long (retiring to Waiheke Island to practise as a sexologist). One of the strengths of this department, however, has been its ability to retain top graduate students on its staff. And it is fitting, in view of its longstanding reputation as a teaching department, that in the 1980s it should also develop mathematics education with notable success under associate professor Megan Clark.
It had been through Campbell's initiative that Victoria entered in the late 1950s into a long-term and fruitful relationship with the Applied Mathematics Division of the DSIR, one which has contributed to its productive research output in this field. It was purely a marriage of convenience. There was no formal organisational, teaching or research relationship. The Applied Maths Division shared the university's space (moving into the Rankine Brown building from an attic in Courtenay Place in 1966); the university shared the DSIR's Elliott 503 computer.67
Computers were a new toy. There were 19 in New Zealand at the end of 1964, reported a newly appointed lecturer in computing mathematics, and likely to be more than twice that number by the end of 1965. The other universities had acquired IBMs (Canterbury first in 1962), which were less powerful than the Elliott. Victoria also acquired a small IBM for administrative use and hired another, larger one in 1970 for research work, but this was seven or eight times slower than the DSIR's. Victoria was planning the rapid development of computing, its 1968 quinquennial submission reported, but would first await a report to the government on university computer needs nationally. In the wake of this report, $3.5 million was committed to computer hardware and the University Grants Committee accepted a tender from the American company Burroughs (though the government would have preferred British)68 to provide medium-sized computers for five campuses. Victoria's Burroughs 6700 was installed in September 1973; a special function was held in its honour. An American, Bob Gordon, was appointed head of a new Computing Services Centre (he went back to southern California after just three years, however, with plans to open a restaurant specialising in fruit soups). With the Elliott and its Burroughs, Victoria could for a time claim to be at the forefront of the new technology; and the Computing Services Centre also serviced government departments and businesses, until the private sector caught up. When another special grant was given for replacing the now outdated university system in 1980, and each university was allowed to go its own way, the Burroughs was replaced by an IBM mainframe and the Computing Services Centre's VAX network was enhanced.page 185
Computer science as an academic study developed unusually at Victoria, in association with statistics and operations research within a new Department of Information Science which was established in 1967. This was an expanded version of an earlier proposal for a chair of operations research – a subject seen as ‘particularly appropriate in the context of the present range of studies in this University, and its location in the capital city’69 – which had met with little enthusiasm from the several departments involved. A specialist in operations research from the Applied Maths Division (Tony Vignaux) was appointed professor of information science, and the computing mathematics lecturer transferred to the new department. Its lecturing staff was boosted from one to three after the Burroughs arrived. An Institute of Statistics and Operations Research was also fashioned, in 1974–75, as an ‘umbrella’ for the several staff around the university interested in such things. They were found mostly in Economics (seven) and Maths (four). A diploma was introduced in 1975, jointly taught by the departments of Mathematics and Information Science.
At beginning of the 1980s the Department of Information Science had seven permanent staff, three (including its professor) in operations research and four in computer science. This concerned the Academic Development Committee which examined the university's computing establishment in 1981–82. In computer science, it concluded, Victoria was seriously underpowered: its four staff compared with between six and nine at other New Zealand universities. As a result of this review, the Department of Information Science was renamed in 1983 the Department of Computer Science; a professor was appointed (another American); page 186 and the staff was boosted by four plus a new Unix system. The ‘rump’ of the old Information Science Department became the responsibility of Mathematics for undergraduate teaching, and the Institute of Statistics and Operations Research in postgraduate work. (Eventually, in the 1990s they would all come back together again, in a School of Mathematical and Computing Sciences.) It is in its association with mathematics – and earth science – that the somewhat amorphous ‘discipline’ of statistics and operations research has gained prestige, in the work of David Vere-Jones, a Victoria graduate and Rhodes scholar, professor of statistical mathematics and an international authority in mathematical seismology (the application of mathematical models to the behaviour of seismic waves).
Computer use as well as computer science grew rapidly in the 1980s: enrolments in computer science courses nearly doubled between 1981 and 1982; the VAX network was being used by 12 departments and 2000 students in 36 courses by 1985. The Computer Science Department performed two teaching roles: training computer professionals, and providing basic courses in computer literacy for a number of disciplines. In the latter, ‘service’ area, the traditional demand was from maths and the physical sciences, but now came too from the biological scientists (computer use by botany students, for example, increased tenfold in 1981). There was a ‘spectacular’ demand in commerce and administration, where some departments were already moving to develop their own courses. (Whether numerical and computing skills should be taught to non-science – especially commerce – students in their own departments or by Maths was an ongoing debate.) Arts and social sciences would quickly catch up with the late twentieth-century imperative to be ‘computer literate’. (So would the university library, which joined the New Zealand Bibliographical Network in 1984.) The university's computer hardware was given a major overhaul at the end of the 1980s: the two mainframes were upgraded; the Computer Science Department got a new system 100 times faster than its old when it moved into Cotton 3; and a fibre-optic cable electronic network was installed, in preparation for the proliferation of desktop computers across the campus. Less exciting aspects of the rapid development of computing both in and outside the university were a high staff turnover in the Computer Science Department and a staff:student ratio almost half the University Grants Committee average.
The story of maths at Victoria is not only about number-crunching, however, and nor is it only about science. Two new appointments in the wake of the 1985 review purposely strengthened its pure maths group. Here, its most important work has been in logic, its leading thinker Rob Goldblatt, a Victoria graduate (1971) who was appointed to a personal chair in 1981 after the publication of Topoi: the categorical analysis of logic (1980). One of the distinctions of mathematics at Victoria is in its creative connection with philosophy: where it meets the arts.