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The Spike: or, Victoria College Review, 1939

Professor James Adamson

page 13

Professor James Adamson

Students and friends of Victoria University College were pleased to read in the "Spike" of October 1908 of the arrival of a most distinguished occupant for the Chair of Law. The College was then in its early and uncertain infancy, at a stage when men and events could well make or mar its future; and in a land where higher learning was but little esteemed it was courageously opening the petals of its promise of future blooms to the vicissitudes of public approval and support. Students, past and present, are agreed that the College owes its success and indeed its continued existence to the efforts of a few men who in its early days, bravely turned their backs upon the comfort, the security, and the rewards which the Old World would undoubtedly have accorded their talents, and embarked upon a University. Amongst these men we must number the man who succeeded to the Chair of Law in 1908—Professor James Adamson.

Early student of the College will recall the arrival of the new Professor in the full pride of his youth and strength, fresh from his triumphs in the Faculties of Art and Law at the University of Edinburgh. Now, 31 years later, it falls to a representative of a different generation of students to express the regret of all student, past and present, at his relinquishment of his Chair, and to attempt to estimate what he has stood for in the life of the College.

Many of his students have felt that Professor Adamson was an inveterate opponent of the somewhat haphazard education provided by a part-time law course a University. Sound and profound scholar himself, he had a distinct aversion to the hurried and superficial methods of study so prevalent amongst law students. He stood for the highest in everything, and woe betide the student who attempted to attain his degree in the shortest possible time and with the minimum of effort! His methods, although at times apparently a little severe, have borne fruit; he never allowed himself to be distracted from his objective by the chatter of the market-place; and to-day Victoria College can justly claim pride of place amongst the Law School of the University of New Zealand.

Certain characteristics the Professor in his classroom. His speech was the "King's Scotch" as distinct from the "King's English," and several lectures would pass before new students became acclimatised to his unfamiliar pronunciation. It was a tradition that each year his Law lectures were commenced with the preface, "Now the subject is divided into two parts; consists of the text-book "Buckland"; this is not a good book. You will wonder why I do not use a better. The reason is very simple—there is no better book. The second part consists of the Institutes of Justinian." Old stagers would inform new students of this unfailing introduction, and glee was difficult to suppress as each year the self-same formula was repeated to an expectant class. The Professor's method of teaching was to set a chapter of the text-book for home reading, and the lecture period would be spent by the Professor in class-examining members of the class upon the work set. Members of the class were seated alphabetically, and the approved technique for the student who had not prepared the work was to arrive purposely late and sit at the back, where with his open text-book concealed behind the back of the man in front, he might with this artificial aid to memory, avoid the more flagrant forms of guessing. Competition for back seats was at times intense.

Humour was not wanting in the Professor's make-up. The writer clearly remembers a Roman Law class which was discussing the ownership under Roman Law of substances and liquids added to or mixed with one another. For such processes the terms accessio and specificatio were appropriate "Mr. G—," said the Professor, "If I mix wine belonging to A with whisky belonging to B, what is that?" "A cocktail, sir," was the prompt reply, and the Professor's futile attempt to hid the twinkle in his eye and adopt a stern mien towards this impudent answer was a source of joy to that class.

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And now Professor Adamson's familiar figure will be seen no more in the classroom of Victoria College. For some years past he has been sorely tried in the fire of ill-health. His spirit responded gallantly to the challenge, and with failing eyesight and a painful affliction of the chest he has bravely carried on with his daily tasks, never sparing himself in what he regarded as his duty to the College and to his students. This year, however, the burden has become insupportable, and with health gravely impaired he has been compelled to tender his resignation.

Professor Adamson may well look back with pardonable pride upon his services to University education. Throughout the country his students are scattered; Supreme Court Judges, leading barristers, and hosts of practitioners. And he will realise that the affection and respect with which all his students past and present join in lighting his evening path is a fitting measure of the services he has rendered.

Professor Adamson now lives in retirement—a transplanted Scotsman, and Earl Baldwin once recounted how a relative of his on a trip through New Zealand asked an old Scottish farmer how long the traditions brought by the Scottish people from their homes lasted in a new country, and received the reply, "The porridge and the heather and the Psalms of David last of the third generation as a sustenance for body and spirit." May they sustain the Professor for many years to come, and may he be restored to health and strength to reap from the leisure of his retirement the enjoyment that his record of service has so richly merited!

—R. W. E.

Since the foregoing was written and just as "Spike" was going to press, the College was shocked to hear of the sudden death of Professor Adamson in her bereavement, the College extends its sincere sympathy. For months past she has devotedly nursed Professor Adamson, and we realise her husband's health and strength. Professor Adamson's services to legal education in this country will stand the test of time, and we trust that a knowledge of the recognition of these services, and of the respect which the Professor was accorded, will be a source of comfort to Mrs. Adamson.