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New Zealanders and Science

8 — The Early Professors

page 80

The Early Professors

New Zealand had been singularly fortunate in the calibre of the pioneer scientists attracted to her shores in the early days, and she owed much in observational science to men like Haast, Hector, and Hutton. Now that the expanding field of scientific work in this country called for more detailed and specialised study, New Zealand was to be as fortunate in the professors who were appointed to diffuse a knowledge of science among young New Zealanders. For by 1875 a new impetus was required if science was to progress. The preliminary surveys, observations, and explorations were virtually completed. What was wanted was the training of a band of young New Zealanders to digest, correlate, and classify more minutely the information that these great men and their followers had gathered. This entailed the adoption of a new scientific outlook. The fostering of that outlook was a task which had become too vast for the few pioneer scientists to accomplish unaided. Men were now needed whose principal occupation was to page 81teach science. New Zealand was exceedingly fortunate in the calibre and character of the men selected for this purpose.

The council of the newly-established university in Otago, as we have seen, desired to ensure that university growth in New Zealand should proceed along the lines they considered essential for the needs of a new country. Great pains were taken to acquire a competent professoriate, as is shown by the following statement of the requirements, sent to the provincial agent in England: 'The religious denominations and nationality of the professors are matters of comparative indifference; but it is of the utmost importance that they should be catholic in spirit, and of irreproachable moral character. It is also highly desirable that they should be men of generous instincts, and of amiable and attractive dispositions, so as to attach to themselves and to the University a large number of the youth of the Province and the Colony. It is also necessary that the professors should be gentlemen in all respects,—in appearance, in manner and in feeling—so that they may beneficially affect, and prove examples of good to, the young men who will successively come under the sphere of their influence. They should be earnest men, inspired with a large measure of enthusiasm, and certain to throw their whole heart and soul into their work. They should also be gentlemen of proved industry and energy, who would not rest satisfied with a merely page 82perfunctory performance of their official duty, but who should labour heartily and unweariedly in extending the usefulness of the University, and in advancing the cause of education and learning throughout the Province and Colony. It is scarcely necessary to state that in addition to very high scholastic attainments, candidates should produce evidence of their being possessed of "aptness to teach", and of their having been eminently successful in work of a similar nature to that which they would be called upon to perform as professors in the University of Otago. Although it is very far from the intention of the Council that the professors should act as mere schoolmasters, yet in all probability it will be found necessary to give a place to some extent to the tutorial element. As so much of the success of the institution will depend on the start given to it by its first professors, it is the more necessary that these gentlemen should be possessed of original minds, large views, and great practical sagacity. They should rather be comparatively young men, who have been highly successful in similar, though perhaps humbler, spheres of exertion, and who have given undoubted proofs of the possession of such qualities as to lead to the conviction that they will zealously and successfully co-operate in carrying out the high objects which the promoters of the University have in view'.

The three professors appointed to Otago in 1870 page 83satisfied every clause of these requirements. The success of the university was so pronounced and immediate that there could be no question three years later, when Canterbury College was being established, but that the example of Otago should be followed to the letter. The salaries were fixed on the same liberal scale to ensure the appointment of able men. Science was made equal with classics in all ways. The standard of the syllabus was made approximately equal to that of the universities elsewhere and all tendency for the university to assume the status of a technical college or night school was sternly resisted, although non-matriculated students were not entirely debarred from attendance at lectures.

The excellent work achieved by Professor Sale in classics and by Professor Macgregor in philosophy lies outside the scope of this book. It is sufficient to state that the University of Otago was equally fortunate in its choice of professors for arts and science. The professor of mathematics and natural science, John Shand, was born in Elgin, Scotland, in 1834. He graduated M.A. from the University of Aberdeen in 1854. He was twelve years a teacher of mathematics before coming out to New Zealand in 1871 to take over the foundation chair of mathematics and natural science. When in 1886 his department was divided into two chairs, he chose physics, and until 1913, that is for forty-two years and until he was nearly eighty years of age, he lectured in that subject. His course page 84of lectures was a model of orderly sequence and thoroughness. He had mastered the art of imparting knowledge. It was always recognised that a student who had properly digested a full copy of Shand's lectures was sure of examination success. Not that Shand himself revered the examination system—indeed he devoted much of his time to attempts at its reformation. It was the teacher who was wanted in New Zealand a great deal more than the examiner, wrote Shand in 1877. He preferred institutions where examinations were not looked upon as an end in themselves, but were regarded as subordinate and subservient to teaching. It was his extraordinary-capacity for university business and his flair for shaping the course and conduct of educational affairs generally that made Dr Shand the invaluable member of the educational community that he proved himself. He was known through New Zealand as an authority on educational questions. He has been described as the honoured father of the university senate and of the Otago professorial board. He was three times chairman of the Otago education board, and for ten years a member of the board of governors of the Otago High Schools. Few members of the University of New Zealand have exercised a more commanding influence on its progress, or played a more important part in the growth and regulation of higher education in general.

James Gow Black, the 'Herd Laddie', another page 85foundation professor of the University of Otago, stalked through the province for forty years, a figure of romance, a challenge to the imagination, and a perpetual joy to his students. He was born at Drumtochty in 1835, the son of a humble Scottish farmer, and he had to provide as best he could for his own education. It was a laborious struggle, but his powerful frame, remarkable powers of endurance, and his unquenchable enthusiasm enabled him to persevere so that he graduated M.A. at Edinburgh University in 1864, gained his B.Sc. degree in 1866, and finally became the first doctor of science in chemistry at Edinburgh University, and the first professor of chemistry in New Zealand. Lord Lyon Playfair, once professor of chemistry at Edinburgh, in a speech in the House of Commons, referred to Black as an illustration of the power and glory of Scottish education, with these words: 'A few weeks ago, it was my duty as University examiner, to recommend a student for the high degree of D.Sc. This graduate was the son of a poor Highland Crofter, and, when a boy, went out to herd cattle during the summer from March to October. His wages for seven months were only twenty-five shillings; but they were enough to pay his fees at the parish school during the winter. The school was six miles from his father's hut; but a walk of twelve miles to and fro, over a bleak moorland, does not deter a promising Scotch boy from going to school. It did deter, however, some of page 86the farmers' sons of the neighbourhood. So, at fourteen, my young friend took up a little "adventure school" to teach these less hardy lads; and, in course of time, he made enough to carry him to the Borough School at Perth. Still working, still teaching, still saving, he fought his way step by step by bursaries and scholarships, till he became a certificated teacher of the first class under the Privy Council, then M.A., then B.Sc., and finally D.Sc.'

This young Highlander with the splendid physique, who had striven so hard for his education, soon became a striking figure in the Scottish settlement of Otago and provided an excellent advertisement for the new college. All he did was surrounded with the halo of romance—his lectures, his experiments, his public appearances. This extended even to his assistant, and no one has really felt the need to use Dominie Sampson's favourite ejaculation 'prodeegious' who has not seen Wully Gudlet wipe the chalk from the blackboard at the end of some triumphant demonstration. Black had a wide acquaintance with the many branches of science, and lectured in a spirited and able fashion on chemistry, mineralogy, geology, and metallurgy. His lectures were not confined to the university, and those conducted by him in the mining centres earned him considerable popularity. But Dr Black had one human weakness—a love for 'futball'. All members of the university fifteen ran and passed and kicked with one thought page 87in their mind: no one must let the Doctor down. Success in the game was not unrelated to success in classes, so it was said. 'Hay—Wull Hay is a gude futballer, Wully, put him down for seventy-two.' Can anyone doubt that it was this stirring and dramatic figure that attracted young Joe Mellor, the artisan in the Dunedin boot factory in 1890, and that led him on to a career rivalling Black's in endurance and enthusiasm until he outstripped his old professor in his encyclopaedic knowledge of chemical science?

Nor when the Canterbury professors commenced their duties in 1875, were they any less adapted for their pioneering task. Bickerton was the first science professor at the college established in Christchurch under the auspices of the classical culture represented by Tancred, Rolleston, and Bowen. Born in Hampshire in 1842, he was trained as an engineer, but after a few years in railway survey work he withdrew in 1864 to the Cotswold Hills to establish a factory to develop certain wood-working processes he had invented. In 1867 he was teaching a technical class in Birmingham. There he won a Royal Exhibition at the School of Mines, London. In London, aided by Sir Charles Dilke, he conducted classes in which he experimented with new methods of teaching science. Three years later he was appointed to organise the science work at Hartley Institute, Southampton. He taught at Winchester College, and held the post of county analyst. His teaching work and the thesis page 88which he published as a result of his researches on the correlation of heat and electricity made his name and led to his being offered the choice of five university chairs in 1873. He selected Canterbury and was professor of physics and chemistry there for over thirty years. He had a gift for public demonstration that was invaluable in those early days, and an almost divine enthusiasm for science that at times carried him to excess. His lectures were hopelessly unmethodical but were interspersed with fragments of scientific enthusiasm and forecasting that approached the sublime. His great theory of partial impact is now taking its rightful place in science.* Many American astronomers, who apparently have never heard of Bickerton, are now publishing speculations that pass for original contributions of great value, but are really very incomplete compared with the theory enunciated by Professor Bickerton. His defects were the defects of his qualities, and his qualities were invaluable assets for a new and groping college.

The first Canterbury professor of mathematics and natural philosophy was Charles Henry Herbert Cook. He was born in London in 1844, and went to Australia at an early age. After graduating at Melbourne University he returned to England to study at Cambridge whence he emerged as sixth wrangler in the mathematical tripos of 1872. He was reading for the Bar, but within a year of being called he decided page 89to accept the position of professor at Canterbury College. Soon after his arrival in Christchurch in 1875, he was despatched to Wellington as the representative of Canterbury College to confer with the New Zealand University Senate about redrafting the constitution of the university. He was given a seat on the University Royal Commission of 1879. He was a keen advocate of university reform, and worked hard and well as a member of the senate from 1884 until he retired in 1908. He was interested in the proposed school of engineering, the establishment of which devolved mainly upon him. He was one of the most loved of all the professors. He was 'solid, serious, dignified, greatly esteemed, a very corner stone of strength and stability', and withal he was eminently kind and helpful. He was respected for his sound scholarship, and Rutherford himself acknowledged the debt he owed to the thorough training he had received from his old professor. For many years the list of university successes achieved by his pupils was an inspiring tribute to his work. His sane and cautious criticism was a wonderful offset to the exuberant genius of Bickerton and the brilliance of Macmillan Brown.

I remember an episode that could have occurred only in New Zealand. The scene was outside Springfield railway station in the days when the train journey ended there and the traveller went on by a four-horse coach to Jacksons. Cook, who was on his way to the West Coast, was an urbane, dignified figure with page 90kindly eyes behind his scholar's glasses, discussing a knotty problem in optics with M. C. Keane. The question was one from the paper in mathematics for which Keane had sat a day or two previously. The blackboard was the dusty road. Keane that day was a lanky, gawky, unshaven youth in ragged trousers, and free from coat, collar, tie, and shoes. The professor, trim and neat, drew a figure gingerly with the ferrule of his closely furled expensive umbrella, while Keane amended it with the stubby business end of his big toe. The dust seethed round them in the summer noon as the coach horses pawed restlessly beside them, but the two were engrossed, and coach and passengers had to wait till the discussion was ended. Cook surmised that Keane had added to the long list of senior scholarships in mathematics and mathematical physics carried off by Canterbury College students. From his seat beside the driver, the professor waved farewell to us, dignified and urbane, but more happy and cherubic than ever in spite of a forgotten lunch, while Keane, Fanning, and the other of the audience shambled across for a celebration and the beer we had been waiting for. The professor had not erred, for Keane duly gained his scholarship and first-class honours.

Such incidents as this endeared the professor to his students. His popularity was not due only to the thoroughness of his teaching. He was a man of varied interests and especially loved church and choral music page 91on which he was an authority. He was also an enthusiastic supporter of cricket and athletics. In many ways he helped establish the traditions of a university which holds a proud place in the educational life of New Zealand.

There is no doubt that these southern professors were more than mere members of a teaching staff, that they were 'a national asset' of great value. The value of their work lay not only in the able exposition of their subject, but also in the intellectual influence exerted by their personalities on the students. They gave of themselves. The religious denominations and nationalities of these men were matters of comparative indifference, for they were men of catholicity of spirit, broad views, and great practical sagacity, and so were able to promote that open-mindedness and love of knowledge for its own sake which should characterise a university education.

The wisdom of those who shaped and controlled the destinies of the young University of New Zealand was to be borne out amply in the period which succeeded that of the pioneer scientists and professors. Two young New Zealanders, Rutherford and Mellor, after graduating, were to go abroad and finally bring to fruition in the world of science the training they had received in one of its remotest outposts. It was New Zealand's good fortune that a third graduate, Cotton, was able to discover his life work, happily still in progress, within its own confines. To this page 92triumvirate of scientists, who laboured with such conspicuous success in the period from the nineties onwards, must be added a fourth, Cockayne. Though not himself a graduate of New Zealand, his scientific labours owed a great deal to the help he received from a school of botanists, exalted by his example and direct inspiration, but ready to his hand because they had been trained in the university colleges of New Zealand. The tribute paid in the following pages to these men must therefore be regarded also as a tribute to the University of New Zealand—to its founders, teachers, and administrators.

* For a brief exposition of this theory see pp. 131-2.