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The Spike Golden Jubilee Number May 1949

A Foundation Professor Writes of the Early Years

page 19

A Foundation Professor Writes of the Early Years


"Your old men shall dream dreams (of the past?)

And your young men shall see visions" (of the future?)

"Where there is no vision the people perish."

Though an old man who is well past the dreaded age of three score years and ten, and, alas, the only survivor of the four foundation professors who came out from Great Britain in February, 1899, it seems almost a duty to this generation to deal with the early years of our beloved University College. Would that my old colleagues were with us to give their recollections and to check my statements. The Editor of the Evening Post has kindly provided typed copies (1) of the Post report on the meeting held on April 12th, 1899, to commemorate the opening of the College and to welcome the professors, (2) of the reports on the inaugural lectures delivered by the professors in the following week. Sir Robert Stout's bound copy of the lectures can be consulted in the Victoria University College Library.

Should this statement of recollection appear egotistical, I claim indulgence for recording personal experiences in a personal manner. It is often difficult to suppress the use of the first person singular in a personal narrative.

At the beginning of September, 1898, an advertisement appeared in a London paper calling applications for four professorships at Victoria College, Wellington, New Zealand. The subjects mentioned were Classics, English, Mathematics, and Chemistry with one branch of Physical Science. Testimonials were at once collected from my old teachers and colleagues, any which savoured of faint praise carefully rejected, and a nicely printed application dated October 30th, 1898, with the evidence as to the suitability of the candidate persuasively displayed, was forwarded to the Agent General for New Zealand, the Hon. W. Pember Reeves. I think that only one testimonial earlier than 1898 was included. It had been issued on the occasion of an application for a position elsewhere but carried such strong recommendation that it had to be included. It was from Sir T. Clifford Albutt, M.D., F.R.S., the celebrated physician, and must have been tempting bait indeed to Dr James who had been appointed by the Government to represent the Professorial Board on the first Council until the arrival of the professors.

In due course, candidates who had got as far as the short list were called to the Agent General's Office to be interviewed by a committee of some half-dozen educational experts, one of whom, a Cambridge don, was known to me personally. One question remains in my mind. It was asked by one of the committee who was certainly not a scientist: "Is there a good chemical laboratory in Cambridge? "The reply" Yes! the one in which I have the honour to demonstrate cost £40,000." The committee chuckled, and became in a very happy frame of mind. They seemed pleased that I asked the High Commissioner about the finance of Victoria College. The information supplied, like the finance, was decidedly meagre.

In the middle of January, 1899, the successful candidates were notified of their appointment and asked to get into touch with one another, if possible, and to sail by the earliest boat, which was to leave in three weeks' time; also to call at the Agent General's office and sign the five years' contract of service. Maclaurin, himself a New Zealand graduate and a star man in Cambridge, kindly called on me to see if he could be useful, and gave the alarming information that he did not intend to stay in New Zealand beyond the five years. However, he married an exceptionally charming Auckland lady and stayed until 1907, when he was offered the chair of Mathematical Physics at Columbia University. Two years later, he was offered the position of President of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which he completely re-organised with phenomenal success. Intellectually, I always regarded him of much higher calibre than the rest of us; and probably he recognized that there was little scope for men of his exceptional ability in Wellington, where I believe he had only three Honours students during the time he remained in that city. When the contract for five years' service was submitted to me, I at once objected that it was not in terms of the advertisement for a Professor of Chemistry and one branch of Physical Science, but had been changed to "Professor of Chemistry and Physics." The Agent General said that they had no doubt arranged for teaching other branches of Physics in Wellington, and advised that the contract should be signed. (On arrival in Wellington I learned that the advertisement had been due to some misunderstanding, and that there was no provision for any assistance. Later it was suggested that I should teach Geology also. This was turned down.) He also made the alarming statement that the physical apparatus the professor would need had been ordered in London on the advice of a professor in New Zealand and asked me to see it before I sailed. On application to the firm supplying the goods, I was informed that the apparatus page 20 was already forwarded. When it arrived in Wellington the most expensive item, a standard barometer, was broken. There was also a bottle of peas and a tin pannikin with which to show a child's experiment on inertia! Needless to say, they arrived undamaged, but were never used. I think the total grant for apparatus for chemistry and physics was £50—though it may have been £100—increased after protest by £25. Fortunately, my Cambridge colleagues had presented me with a very high class chemical balance which is still in excellent working order. I spent a small further sum on goods which I knew could be obtained on better terms than through the Agent General's office, feeling sure that the sum would be made good to me by the Victoria University College Council. This confidence was justified.

The Voyage to New Zealand

John Rankine Brown, Hugh Mackenzie and T. H. Easterfield sailed from Plymouth on the evening of February 11th, 1899, in the foulest of weather, together with their wives and children. Mackenzie had joined the S.S. Kaikoura in London. The Brown and Easterfield families were taken out by tender, and were in a bedraggled and collapsed condition when they reached the ship in Plymouth Sound. When the Kaikoura put out to sea things were even worse, for she drove into a first class gale which lasted three days and destroyed a large part of the captain's bridge. However, things had become quiescent and pleasant by the time we reached Teneriffe, and before we arrived at the Cape the three professors had learned something of one another's idiosyncrasies.

Rankine Brown and Mackenzie made it clear that they regarded their subjects as on a far higher plane educationally than mathematics or science. Easterfield considered that culture could be derived from almost any subject if it were sufficiently well taught. He suggested that ideals for the new College should be discussed forthwith, whereas they considered that it would be wisest to copy such colleges as were already established in New Zealand. He also said that as the professors were carefully selected because of their wide experience of English, Scottish and Continental universities, the Victoria College Council would expect them to be leaders in the community and implant a definite and independent Victoria College spirit. Such an independent spirit has on many occasions been shown by the College Council, the Professorial Board, and the University College students. That there have been extremists amongst them is in accord with the history of universities from time immemorial. Does not Cicero's Universitas signify a whole that is a Universe, and are we not to expect that in a Universe of thought new ideas will constantly emerge so that these will be a mixture of the conservative and the extremely new? Without such a mixture, residence in the university will be a poor training for postgraduate life.

Arrival in Wellington

The Kaikoura arrived in Wellington in the late afternoon of Saturday, April 1st, 1899, in perfect autumn weather and was met by members of the College Council and the College Registrar, Mr C. P. Powles. Mackenzie was quickly taken away to stay with relatives. One councillor tactfully stated that he had voted for me because there was no candidate from Scotland on the short list for the chair of chemistry. Another gentleman, not on the Council, though I thought he was at the time, told us that if the professors came out strongly for the Seddon Government they would obtain all they wanted for the College—otherwise they would get very little. Alas! He spoke the truth.

Mr Powles kindly shepherded us to a hotel on the site of the present Midland, and on the following day callers arrived; the first of them was Lady Stout. They did all in their power to make us feel that we were not strangers in a strange land.

Inauguration of the College

On April 12th, a very large and enthusiastic meeting was held in the Education Board's building to celebrate the opening of the College and to welcome the foundation professors. The Chair was taken by the Mayor, Mr J. R. Blair, as chief citizen. He was also Chairman of the Victoria University College Council and of the boys' and girls' colleges. There were also present the Minister of Education, the Hon. W. C. Walker, M.A.; the Chancellor of the University of New Zealand, Sir James Hector, M.D., F.R.S.; the Registrar of the University, J. W. Joynt; the Bishop of Wellington, Dr Wallis; Archbishop Redwood; Ministers of at least four other religious denominations; members of Parliament and of the Legislative Council; Mr J. P. Firth, Principal of Wellington College and members of his staff. The report of this meeting is well worthy of study at the present day.

Sir James Hector remarked that this might be regarded as the end of the thirty years' war, for the proposal for a University College in Wellington could be traced back to 1868. The Bishop of Wellington stated that Mount Cook (a large area at that time) was the best site in Wellington but referred to the building on it (an enormous prison) as a foul excrescence, which ought to be removed. The Minister of Education also doubted if the building was suitable. Had the early Wellingtonians had vision the Mount Cook site might well have become a great cultural centre. It is some consolation that the Dominion Museum and Art Gallery, the Technical College and the Carillon page 21 are on this site. At the request of his colleagues, Professor Easterfield expressed thanks for the warm welcome which had been given both at this meeting and on their arrival in Wellington. He stated that the University College could expect no permanent success unless it took a firm place in the hearts and affections of the Wellington citizens. His colleagues were enthusiastic, but they needed enthusiastic students who valued education for its own sake; they also needed a first class reference library, not merely text books. Laboratories would also be required. Above all they needed the sympathy of everyone in the city, for with this their other requirements would soon be supplied.

The Inaugural Lectures

In the week following the public welcome to the professors each delivered an inaugural lecture. As Sir Robert Stout's bound copy of these lectures can be consulted in the Victoria University College Library only a short reference can be made to them. J. Rankine Brown produced an excellent case for the study of Latin and Greek, particularly Latin, as subjects calculated to lead to accuracy of expression in speech and writing and to prevent slipshod phraseology.

Mackenzie was equally emphatic on the study of classical forms as the basis of literary training. Unfortunately, to many the address was hard to follow owing to his strong Scottish accent. Maclaurin was most interesting in dealing with Mathematics, surprising many by the statement that it was now accepted that Euclid's axioms were no longer necessary for geometry except as near approximations to the truth. Next he spoke of wireless telegraphy, explaining that wireless waves were predicted on purely theoretical grounds by the great Cambridge mathmetician, J. Clerk Maxwell, who translated Faraday's brilliant experimental work into mathematical language, and indicated how the wireless waves should be capable of detection; but Maxwell failed in the actual experiment. Hertz, Professor of Mathematics and later of Physics at Karlsruhe after a long series of experiments succeeded in finding a ready means of producing and detecting the waves, and the properties of the waves were exactly as predicted by Maxwell; later the discoveries were put on a commercial basis by Marconi.

Maclaurin then proceeded to show that many biological studies derived from the theory of Evolution were capable of mathematical treatment. The lecture was a masterly popular treatment of a most difficult subject.

Easterfield's lecture was entitled "Research as the prime factor in a Scientific Education." The lecture was delivered without reference to notes and contains several howlers. The main points may be stated in this way (1) That it is equally the duty of a scientific teacher to make new knowledge as to teach that which is already known, (2) That every science student should be regarded as potentially a research student if given the opportunity and encouragement, (3) That research is a great educator in itself, (4) That research habits carried into practice are of fundamental value to the human race. The lecture was well received but next morning I was told that it ough not to have been delivered as it might cause offence in other colleges. It was therefore of no little satisfaction to find that the Evening Post gave a leader headed "A laboratory for Wellington"; also a very appreciative critique of the lecture.

Two days later the Council of the Pharmaceutical Association came as a deputation to ask for help in improving the education of young pharmacists. This was followed by a visit from a man who asked me to assist him in a research on making gold from sawdust in which he claimed to have been very successful already.

The Battle of the Sites

It has already been stated that the Mount Cook site had been suggested as the best for a University College but in a few days news came that the ministerial residence in Tinakori Road had been offered. Mr Blair, the Chairman of the Council, asked me to go and see it as he was doubtful of the advisability of taking a building which would so quickly become outgrown. I reported against it for I knew that a chemical laboratory in the building would be an intolerable nuisance to my colleagues. It had been stated by the Agent General that the number of students was not likely to exceed fifty for several years. Actually 115 took lectures in the first year and there is no doubt that the number would have been far greater if they could have been brought together in a convenient building.

The next suggestion was that Victoria University College should have the use of the Girls' College after the girls left the building and on Saturday mornings, and two good rooms for chemistry and physics were lent by the Education Board in Victoria Street at least a mile away from the Girls' College. Neither gas nor water were laid on and there was no drainage. Also there was no money available for construction of laboratory benches and furniture. So boards on trestles had to be used and heating had to be done by spirit lamps. The goods ordered in England had not arrived, but Mr G. W. Wilton had a sufficient stock for me to supply immediate needs for chemistry. When asked to submit his account, it came already receipted, and, when asked to explain, he said it was the least he could do after the courteous reception given to the pharmaceutical association. For practical physics a sextant and a theodolite were borrowed and there was much home-made apparatus. I do not think it was ever known to the College Council that I called on the Minister of Education and had a heart to heart talk about page 22 the absurdity of the position and he promised to see what could be done. To everyone's surprise the Council received an intimation that a sum of £1,000 would be provided to be earmarked for chemistry and physics, and, during the first long vacation, a nicely equipped chemical laboratory was provided of which a photograph taken from a water colour painting by Sybil Johnson (the late Mrs Hanna) hangs in Victoria College.

Various suggestions were made as to where the permanent home of Victoria University College should be. So far as I can remember it was seriously proposed by Mr Seddon that it should be placed on Wellington College cricket ground. Kelburn Park, at that time a barren waste, was then suggested and the proposal found much support. Finally the present site was agreed to.

When it was decided to build on Salamanca Road, all members of the Professorial Board, which by this time had grown very considerably, were asked to state what their requirements would be. A prize of £100 was to be given for the best design for the building for which, I think, £20,000 had been promised (subsequently increased to £30,000 to provide a third storey) and the condi-tions were duly published. Three architects proposing to compete approached Mr C. P. Powles and asked him to explain an apparent inconsistency in the conditions and he referred the competitors to me. I furnished each with a ground plan showing my ideas and insisted that the science buildings must occupy a separate block with physics and metallurgy on the ground floor, chemistry on the second floor, and biology above and indicated the very special provision which must be made in order that the chemical department should not become a nuisance. The report of the adjudicator, who was the government architect in Melbourne, was illuminating. It was to the effect that three of the plans were remarkably alike and were the only ones which could be considered. In particular, the science block left nothing to be desired. However, only one of the designs could be built for the sum provided and therefore it must receive the prize. He would have awarded it to the most expensive but for the limit placed upon the expenditure.

On the occasion of the opening of the College by the Governor General in 1906, I was roundly abused by a choleric member of the Council for having suggested such large science buildings which he regarded as a waste of money. Had he lived a few years longer he would have seen a great increase in accommodation in Physics for Professor Laby, a new biology block which cost far more than the original science buildings, and a separate building for Geology.

Probably it was in 1904 that I was asked by the late J. G. W. Aitken, Mayor of Wellington, to accompany him in a round of calls upon citizens who were well known to him, with the object of raising funds on behalf of the College for which I suppose the plan was already approved. Our first call was upon Mr Jacob Joseph who appeared to be nearly blind but thanked us for calling. He was emphatic that he would give nothing for buildings but would help the College in the matter of scholarships. He died in 1905 and was found to have left £3,000 for these scholarships, the first of which, in the same year, was awarded to P. W. Robertson the present holder of the Chair of Chemistry. Our second call was made on Mr William Weir who to Mr Aitken's disappointment did not seem interested but intimated that he might do something later. On his death in 1926 he left something over £70,000 for the building of hostels. It is not improbable that he consulted Sir Robert Stout in the matter for it has always been said that it was owing to Stout's advocacy that the benefaction was received. A third citizen met us with insulting rudeness but we subsequently learnt that he had submitted a sub-tender for a supply of builders' sundries and had been very badly beaten. It looked as if the work we had set out for had not given any immediate result. My wife then suggested that I should try Mrs Sarah Ann Rhodes who lived on the Highland Park Estate, Wadestown. Mrs Rhodes was not interested in College buildings but gave a cheque for £25 for the Chemistry and Physics Department and stated that she hoped to do something on a larger scale at some future date. In 1915 she left a sum of approximately £10,000 for the Education of women. Incidentally it is of interest that William Barnard Rhodes, her deceased husband, was a distant relative of Thomas Cawthron, the founder of the Cawthron Institute.

Why did I leave Victoria College which I loved so deeply and the members of the Professorial Board for whom I had such a high regard, never having had a serious difference with any one of them? I had the feeling that my period of usefulness at Victoria was coming to an end and that a younger man was required for the work. There was also a sensation of war weariness and frustration. I had for some time been concerned with the need for more intense agricultural research work in New Zealand and had twice, at the request of Sir James Wilson, President of the Board of Agriculture, addressed the Annual Meeting of the New Zealand Farmers' Union on this subject. There was a humorous sequel to the address to the Farmers' Union in 1912. On that day Lord Islington arrived in Wellington as Governor General, and the next day the private secretary rang up to say that His Excellency had seen the account of the address in the Post and would appreciate a few notes which he could make use of at the forthcoming Victoria University College capping ceremony at which he had been asked to speak. The notes were at once supplied and appeared practically verbatim in the speech. The Post commented on His Excellency's perspicacity in putting his finger on such an important need page 23 for the Dominion practically as soon as he set foot in New Zealand.

Discussion had for some time taken place as to whether Wellington would be a suitable place for the establishment of a Chair of Agriculture so that science students might qualify for positions as teachers of Agriculture. The discussion ceased for the time being when a highly placed officer in the Education Department stated that "teachers of agriculture had no need for high falutin science." The Buchanan endowment for a Chair of Agriculture was not given till some years later.

In 1916 the Trustees of the late Thomas Cawthron set up a private commission of six scientific men under the Chairmanship of Sir James Wilson to take evidence in Nelson and advise as to the best procedure for giving effect to Thomas Cawthron's wishes. In 1917 the Trustees asked me to deliver the first annual Cawthron Lecture and to explain to the audience the report of the Commission and the great benefits which were likely to accrue to Nelson and the Dominion if these recommendations were adopted. The lecture was entitled " The Aims and Ideals of the Cawthron Institute."

In 1919 the Trustees invited me to become Director of the Institute and to nominate a staff, and I naturally accepted. It was, however, with deep regret that I said goodbye to Victoria College and my many friends in Wellington.

May the alumni ever remain true to the excellent motto of Victoria University College—Sapientia auro magis desideranda. Still stands the ancient proverb "Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom and with all they getting get understanding."

Sir Thomas Easterfield, K.B.E., M.A., Ph.D., F.R.I.C.

Since going to press we have learned with deep regret, of the death of Sir Thomas Easterfield.

"Long is the way Of the Seven Stages, slow the going, And few, indeed, as faithful to the end."

adapted from Auden