The Spike or Victoria University College Review Silver Jubilee 1924
The Development of Science at Victoria College
The Development of Science at Victoria College
In January 1899, I received a letter announcing my appointment as Professor of Chemistry and Physics together with the intimation that the professor would be expected to sail for New Zealand before the middle of February, and that an order for £100 worth of scientific apparatus had been placed with certain London firms by the College Council. Enquiry showed that the apparatus ordered was for the teaching of physics only, and that much of it was unsuitable for any scheme for the teaching of physics which was likely to be adopted. Permission was however obtained for the spending of another hundred pounds, and as credit was good, orders to the extent of about £150 were placed. On arriving in Wellington a gift of £25 worth of laboratory glassware was made by Mr. G. W. Wilton, and with this equipment the work of the science departments began.
The Agent-General for New Zealand had, no doubt unintentionally, conveyed the idea that upon arrival in New Zealand the professors would find that all arrangements had been made for buildings suitable for beginning the work of the college. Fortunately this was not the case, as it was evident from the outset that there would be a diversity of opinion. The feeling of many members of the College Council was that the present Premier's residence in Tinakori Road, at that time a boarding house, would not only be suitable for present needs, but that the site would be large enough for the future extensions of the College. The Government having no immediate use for the building, was willing to hand it over to the College Council.
On the building being taken over by the Chairman of the Council (the late Mr. J. R. Blair, of whose sympathy I cannot speak too highly), I made it clear that the science departments would at once require the whole of the ground floor, and as this involved that the other subjects would have to be taught in the bedrooms, the scheme fell through. Eventually the arrangement was made that the Arts Students should use the Wellington Girls' College after school hours and that chemistry and physics should be accommodated in the Technical School in Victoria Street. The present chemical laboratory in Victoria Street is one of the rooms in which work began in 1899. The physical laboratory was also the lecture room, but each student as he left the room removed his chair and collapsible table, to the no small annoyance of those who made use of the rooms below. As the arrangement with the Technical School authorities was only just completed when the term began there was no time to instal laboratory benches and fittings. The chemical laboratory was therefore equipped with tables made of boards on trestles. The water was brought in large jugs from the kitchen, one or two buckets received all the waste liquids and all heating was effected by means of spirit lamps. A chemical balance, still in use in the physical laboratory, stood on a packing case in the cornerpage break
and served a small but enthusiastic class in the practice of quantitative analysis. There was no laboratory attendant and the students fetched the water and emptied the slop buckets as required. On one occasion they forgot this emptying and the corrosive liquid ate through the bucket, ran through the ceiling and made an unwelcome mess in the director's office.
The class in practical physics had to put up with at least as great inconvenience as the class in practical chemistry, but it is questionable whether the students really suffered. Most of the apparatus was home-made, treacle tins made excellent calorimeters and long stretched wives served for quantitative experiments on linear expansion. There was no spectrometer, but with a small photographic replica of a Rowland's grating, a telescope at the far end of the laboratory, and a carefully measured base line, the students obtained fair values for the wave length of sodium light. After all, the equipment was probably as good as that with which Isaac Newton made some of his fundamental discoveries.
It was at once apparent that this makeshift arrangement could only be of a temporary nature, and would break down with any considerable increase in the size of the classes. It was therefore suggested to the Council that they should apply to the Government for a grant of £3,000 for equipment of science laboratories. Cabinet granted the request, and when the students returned in April, 1900, they were surprised to find the rooms fitted up in a manner which must have seemed palatial by comparison. The fund was most carefully husbanded so that after a good working equipment had been secured and maintained, there was still a small balance available for the permanent laboratories in 1905.
The old chemical laboratory was a hive of industry, and during the five years it was in use a number of investigations were carried out. Workers in that laboratory whose chemical researches sooner or later reached the stage of publication were B. C. Aston1, G. Bagley2, James Bee3, Douglas Hector4, F. R. Lankshear5, J. C. McDowall6, P. W. Robertson7, R, E. Rudman8, Miss A. I. Slowey and Miss Clara M. Taylor9. Of these Robertson was the outstanding investigator, publishing no less than ten papers during his student days;—this is probably a record amongst New Zealand chemists.
The energy of some of the students in the early days of the College was remarkable. A few misguided ones attended a chemistry class at the Technical School at five, bicycled up to the Girls' College for English at 6.10, and back again to the Technical School for physics at 7.15. Query, when did the poor fellows get a meal?
1 B. C. Aston, Chief Chemist, Department of Agriculture.
2 G. Bagley, Works Manager, Young's Chemical Co.
3 James Bee, Head Master, Scots' College, Rose Bay, Sydney, N.S.W.
4 Douglas Hector (deceased).
5 F. R. Lankshear, Managing-Director, Lankshear, Wicksteed & Co., Chemical Manufacturers, Stockport, near Manchester.
6 J. C. McDowall, Instructor in Agricultural Chemistry, Technical School, Stratford.
7 P. W. Robertson, Professor of Chemistry, Victoria University College.
8 R. E. Rudman, Head Master, Intermediate School, Auckland.
9 Clara M. Taylor, Head Mistress, Northampton School for Girls, England.
The Laboratory and workers in it were a constant source of curiosity to the lady students taking the Art course at the Technical School, and at the request of the late Mr. James Nairn, a few of them attempted to reproduce the laboratory as a colour sketch; most of them were quite unsuccessful, but Miss Sybil Johnson, now Mrs. Hannah, produced a delightful water colour picture with a fascinating colour scheme which is amongst my most treasured possessions.
In 1901 a lecturer in Geology was temporarily appointed, and ill 1903 a Chair of Biology was established with Professor Kirk as the first professor. In 1909 the Chairs of Physics and Chemistry were separated and geology added as a permanent subject. In 1917, at the request of the science faculty, a conference was held with the Government Departments of Agriculture and Education with the object of adding a course in Agriculture to the activities of the College. No action, however, followed the conference. It was, therefore, with added satisfaction that news was received in 1923 of Sir Walter Buchanan's magnificent offer to establish a Chair of Agriculture.
When in 1904 the Council advertised for competitive designs for a permanent College building, the instructions were rather vague and the architects were in some difficulty. As I was at that time Chairman of the Professorial Board, I received the request from several of the competing architects for my opinion on the College Buildings, and in order to be fair, I showed to each enquirer a sketch plan embodying my ideas of the most suitable general arrangement of the buildings, and was not a little surprised to find later, that the arrangement, clothed in different styles, had been adopted by three of the architects. The adjudicator in Melbourne, to whom the plans were referred, picked out the plans elaborated on this arrangement as the most suitable, and remarked on their similarity in general type. In particular he commented on the suitability of the arrangement, of the science buildings in each case.
When the buildings were opened in 1906, there was a general impression that the science buildings were too large, and that the space could never be properly utilized; it was therefore considered wise not to announce the fact that the design contemplated the removal of physics to a separate building within a few years, and the absorption of the physical laboratories by the chemical department, an arrangement which has already been adopted. It is true that a portion of the old physical workshop is to be converted to a men's common room, but this can only be a temporary arrangement. The space is sure to be required in the near future for the special study of organic chemistry, if the chemical department. is to keep pace with modern University requirements. It is also clear that additional room must be provided for biology and for agriculture.
1 Hon. J. P. Campbell, M.L.C.
2 Hon. T. W. Hislop, M.L.C.
3 R. J. Rolleston. H.M. Trade Commission, 1908-11.
Men and women trained in the Science Departments of Victoria College are now scattered all over the civilised world and in a recent visit to Australia I found these old students in many positions of great responsibility. In three large manufacturing concerns the control was in the hands of men who had studied with us. New Zealanders have established a good name as workers and thinkers in the old country and it is pleasant to find that in London, in Oxford, in Cambridge, and in Manchester, Victoria College science graduates are welcomed on account of their training and their capacity for work.
This incomplete sketch may well close with a reference to the spirit which has existed in the science departments from their inception. The impression received in 1899 was that there was a general tendency in New Zealand to place a higher value on the possession of a degree than upon a sound intellectual training. Accordingly, in opposition to the advice of some colleagues, I chose as the subject of my inaugural address "Research as the Prime Factor in a Scientific Training." The address was well received and the editor of the "Evening Post" showed his sympathy by writing an article entitled "A Laboratory for Wellington." One effect of the attitude taken up was that those who regarded it as a professor's duty to subordinate scholarship to the preparation for University examinations, avoided the science course. It is a matter for congratulation that, as the science school developed, there arrived a succession of professors strongly imbued with the research spirit. In the hands of such men, and of the students they are sure to stimulate, the vigorous expansion of scientific investigation may be awaited with confidence. May intellectual ideals always dominate not only the science departments but all the activities of Victoria University College.
T. H. Easterfield,
Director of the Cawthron Institute, Nelson, and
Emeritus Professor of Chemistry in Victoria College