The Spike Golden Jubilee Number May 1949
"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.