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The Spike Golden Jubilee Number May 1949

Science at Victoria College

Science at Victoria College

The past half-century, from the foundation of Victoria College to the present day, has seen a remarkable period of scientific development, which has been stimulated rather than retarded by two world wars. This has duly influenced the growth of the different scientific departments, whose needs in equipment and staff have increasingly expanded. The functions of a university in the teaching of science are various: in the first place it is necessary to provide a general initial knowledge of science, and a training in scientific method, for those preparing for such professional courses as medicine, dentistry, agriculture, and engineering; again a more extensive training is required for those who wish to become scientists by profession, physicists, chemists, botanists, zoologists and geologists; then finally facilities must be given for research by those who have the special temperament, ability, and enthusiasm, for this type of work. The reproach may be made that university teaching in science is too theoretical and academic, but it is found for the most part that a well-trained university student will quickly adapt himself to deal with technical and industrial problems.

A brief account will now be given of the growth and development of the different scientific departments of Victoria College. Geology began under the lectureship of Dr. C. A. Cotton, who is now professor in this subject and head of the department, which has in recent times considerably expanded. Always cramped for space, having at first a basement in the Physics wing, the Geology department now finds inadequate accommodation in the hutments on Kelburn Park. A new building to the south of the Biology Block is projected for Chemistry and Geology, and has priority in the developmental schemes of the College. Professor Cotton is a distinguished geologist with a European reputation, and well-known in America, where recently he was invited by one of its universities to be guest-lecturer. The environment of Wellington is not especially rich geologically, but it shows exciting possibilities from the point of view of structure, as indicated for example by the raised beaches on our coasts. Professor Cotton's studies on these and kindred matters are contained in his book, "The Geomorphology of New Zealand." The themes developed there are extended in his later works, namely "Landscapes," and "Climatic Accidents in Landscape-making," and the further title "Volcanoes as Landscape Forms" is of especial interest to us in this country. Students of Professor Cotton have extended this type of investigation, not only in New Zealand, but also in other countries, and among them may be mentioned Professor L. C. King, at present in South Africa, and Professor I. H. Sticht, who is in California.

Biology at Victoria College will always be associated with the name of the late Professor H. B. Kirk, whose friendly personality is remembered by many generations of students. Beginning in the early stages of our history in a borrowed class-room of a Wellington school, this department later occupied the top floor of the Chemistry Wing of Victoria College. The dream of Professor Kirk was realised with the construction of the Biology Block, which is immediately to the south of the main College building. At about this same time, Biology was separated into two departments, Professor L. R. Richardson being the present professor of Zoology, and Professor H. D. Gordon the head of the Botany Department, the combined staffs now numbering eleven. The botanists and geologists trained at Victoria College are in many ways active in the community; some have remained in academic posts or proceeded to museums, whilst others have become attached to important research institutions, that explore the application of scientific knowledge to economic problems, such as the Cawthron Institute, the Plant Diseases Division, the Soils Survey, and the Grasslands Division. At the same time pure research has not been neglected, and a wide range of subjects is now under active study, including such varied topics as the microscopic animals of fresh waters, the blood parasites of mammals, corals and seaurchins. One of the schemes projected by Professor Kirk was the establishment of a Marine Station to be under the control of Victoria College; page 27 certain funds have been collected for this purpose and it is hoped that its realization may not be too long deferred. Of the distinguished biologists, initially trained at Victoria College, reference is made to the late Dr J. G. Myers, who has carried out important investigations on the tse-tse fly in Africa.

The Physics department was founded by Professor T. H. Laby in 1909 and occupied originally the ground floor of the present Chemistry Wing. On the departure of Professor Laby in 1915 to the University of Melbourne, Professor E. Marsden became head of the department, and supervised the construction of the present Physics laboratories, which form the southern wing of the main Arts Building. Dr Marsden became later the head of the Department of Industrial and Scientific Research, and was succeeded by Professor D. C. H. Florance. In the course of the years, many competent physicists have been trained at Victoria College, and occupy positions in the Department of Industrial and Scientific Research, Meteorology, Post and Telegraph, and Railways. During the recent war, the special branch of Radiophysics was introduced in order to meet the urgent demands of the Services for skilled radio experts. Among the distinguished physicists that have received their education at Victoria College may be mentioned the names of Professor P. W. Burbidge, Auckland; Professor E. O. Hercus, Melbourne, and Dr F. W. G. White, formerly professor at Canterbury University College, and now physicist to the Australian Council of Scientific Research, In more recent times, Dr C. N. Watson-Munro has given valuable services in the Radio-development Laboratory and supervised the building of the first atomic pile in England. In addition to the technical training that is provided by the Physics department, pure research is also encouraged. Dr B. M. Cwilong, a senior lecturer, formerly at the universities of Warsaw and Oxford, is continuing his investigations on low temperatures, and a special laboratory has been constructed for this purpose.

Professor T. H. Easterfield, one of our foundation professors, was the first head of the chemistry department, which began with a single laboratory in the old Technical School. When Victoria College was built the chemistry department occupied the first floor of the Chemistry wing, and on the construction of the Physics building then expanded to include the ground floor also. That accommodation has remained unchanged in spite of the large increases in the number of chemistry students and also of the staff, and the space now available is quite inadequate for teaching and research. A new chemistry building has been designed and is a priority in the College building plans. On the appointment of Professor Easterfield, in 1919, to the directorship of the Cawthron Institute, the development of which he successfully organized with his characteristic enthusiasm, Professor P. W. Robertson was invited by the College Council to fill the vacant position. The inadequate additional staff of a part-time demonstrator has been expanded in the course of the years, to include two senior lecturers, three junior lecturers and a demonstrator. Old chemistry students occupy academic and technical positions in different parts of the world. Among these may be mentioned Sir Theodore Rigg, who has succeeded Professor Easterfield as Director of the Cawthron Institute; Dr H. L. Richardson, who until recently was adviser in soil-conservation to the Chinese government; Dr G. M. Richardson, who has carried out important work in the chemistry of bacterial processes, and is now attached to the Medical School in Dunedin; Dr F. B. Shorland, head of the fats-research division of the New Zealand Industrial and Scientific Research, who is responsible for the establishment of the new industry of extracting vitamin-rich fish-oils. During the last fifteen years the chief chemical research work at Victoria College has been academic rather than technical, being studies in chemical kineties; the results of these investigations have appeared in a series of papers in the Journal of the English Chemical Society. The success of such team work is due in no small measure to the enthusiasm and loyalty of the collaborators, and of these special reference may be made to Dr P. B. D. de la Mare, at present lecturer at the University College, London, for whom a distinguished career in chemistry is confidently predicted. It may be noted in passing that at present aid is being liberally given and encouragement offered by the University for re-search in all the sciences, and it is fitting here to pay a tribute to Sir David Smith, the Chancellor of the University, for his continued interest in such matters.

The preceding brief review reveals that Victoria College in the last fifty years has duly fulfilled its obligations to the community in providing for the teaching of science and the encouragement of research. In my own science, chemistry, my association with the College covers most of this period, first as a student, then after a period of sixteen years abroad, as a teacher. In those early days there was a single course of lectures in the subject, and the text-books available were not of great merit; now students receive lectures over four years, and there are text-books of outstanding merit in every branch of the subject. The progress of chemistry in this time has been truly remarkable; looking back I can report that chemistry fifty years ago was a fairly simple department of human knowledge, about which a single individual without undue arrogance might claim an adequate comprehension, whilst now the subject has become so complex and highly specialized that accurate knowledge must be restricted to special fields. The possibilities of development in even such a page 28 brief period as the next fifty years become, in the light of present advances, simply bewildering. And this is true for the other sciences also. Even so, we believe that the centennial reviewer of the development of science at Victoria College, on regarding the past, will consider that our progress in these first fifty years has not been altogether unworthy.

P. W. Robertson, Professor of Chemistry from 1919