Accessibility Skip to Global Navigation Skip to Local Navigation Skip to Content Skip to Search Skip to Site Map Menu



  • Founding of the University
  • The Reverend Thomas Burns appointed Chancellor
  • Arts, medicine, law, and music degrees available


On 3 June 1869, only 21 years after a group of mainly Scottish emigrants founded the colonial settlement of Otago and began to build the city of Dunedin, the University of Otago was established – on paper at least – by ordinance of the Provincial Council.

The new University – New Zealand’s first – was given 100,000 acres of pastoral land as an endowment and authorised to grant degrees in arts, medicine, law and music. It was to be an egalitarian institution that would produce students who were not mere bookworms, but men and women of the world.

Its motto was (and is today) Sapere Aude – Dare to be Wise. The Reverend Thomas Burns was appointed Chancellor, but it was to be two more years before the University opened its doors…


  • Official opening of the University


On 5 July 1871 the University of Otago was officially opened amid much public jubilation. Shops closed for the afternoon, people thronged the streets and filled a large hall for the first lectures.

There were initially three professors: one to teach classics and English language and literature; another teaching mathematics and natural philosophy; and a third to cover mental and moral philosophy and political economy.

The following year a professor of natural science joined the staff. Law was introduced in 1873, and accountancy and commerce in 1912. Lectures in mining were given from 1872, and a School of Mines was established in 1878.


  • Lectures in mining begin


  • Law is introduced


  • The first degree, a Bachelor of Arts, is awarded to Alexander Williamson
  • The University becomes an affiliated college of the University of New Zealand


In 1874 the University of Otago conferred its first degree – a Bachelor of Arts (BA) on Mr Alexander Watt Williamson. However, Otago then became an affiliated college of the University of New Zealand.

In 1961 the University of New Zealand was disestablished, and the power to confer degrees was restored to the University of Otago by the University of Otago Amendment Act 1961.


  • Otago Medical School opens


The Otago Medical School was opened in 1875, originally offering a two-year course that required students to travel abroad to compete their medical qualifications. The right to award the Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery (MB ChB) medical degree was granted in 1877. William Ledington Christie was the first student to complete the first four-year course at Otago, graduating in 1887. The Faculty of Medicine was established in 1891.

There were 155 students at the School when Professor Lindo Fergusson was appointed Dean in 1914. This led an era of expansion and modernisation that included the construction of the Scott Building (1916) and the Lindo Fergusson Building (1926), which remain integral to the Medical School today.


  • The School of Mines opens


  • The University moves to its present-day site


The University originally operated from buildings in the Dunedin Exchange area, but in 1879, it moved to its present site in North Dunedin, on the banks of the Water of Leith. The gothic-style Clocktower building was designed by Maxwell Bury and constructed in bluestone with Oamaru stone facings. It was built in two stages: the first was completed in 1879 and the second in 1914 after the widow of the former Cabinet Minister, the Hon. Richard Oliver, gave £2,000 to the University.

In this year, the University’s roll exceeded 100 for the first time.


  • The Otago University Rugby Football Club is established


The Otago University Rugby Football Club was established in May 1884 at a meeting held in the room of Professor of Natural Science James Gow Black, one of the University’s first four professors. Professor of Classics George Samuel Sale was elected the first club president.

The Otago University Rugby Football Club has a proud tradition as a dominating force in Dunedin club rugby and, with more than 65 of its members donning the coveted black jersey, it is one of the leading suppliers of All Blacks in the country.


  • Caroline Freeman, the first woman graduate, receives her Bachelor of Arts


From the outset, the University of Otago admitted women to its classes – one of the first Universities in the British Empire to do so. Otago’s first woman graduate, Caroline Freeman, received her Bachelor of Arts (BA) degree on 27 August 1885, an event that was widely regarded as a celebration of new educational opportunities for women.


  • The Department of Preventive and Social Medicine is established


Established in 1886, the Department of Preventive and Social Medicine has grown from being a one-man entity to the University’s largest department. From its original, relatively narrow, emphasis on environmental sanitation it is today a large, multidisciplinary department with a broad public-health outlook and is a major centre for public health research.

The Department also houses the National Poisons Centre, established in 1964.

The Centre provides an emergency information source for both health professionals and the general public in cases of poisoning. Its freephone number provides 24-hour advice and support, receiving more than 35,000 enquiries each year. Its poisons database, TOXINZ, is now an internationally-regarded resource that has been commercialised by Otago Innovation Ltd.


  • Otago University Students’ Association (OUSA) forms


On 30 May 1890 the Otago University Students’ Association (OUSA) was formed. Its objectives were to run the students’ room, organise activities at Capping, approach the University with student concerns, and to arrange social activities. Its membership was open to all students and graduates on the payment of an annual subscription of one shilling. By 1892 there were 198 members of the association out of a total student body of 213. In response to the University, OUSA’s motto became Audeamus – Let us Dare.

Today OUSA continues to offer similar services, but on a much grander scale, with student welfare and advocacy an ongoing focus. The association also operates its own radio station, Radio One; publishes a weekly student magazine, Critic; and runs an extensive recreation programme.


  • The Faculty of Medicine is established


  • The first residential college, Selwyn College, opens


The first residential college, Selwyn College, was opened on 15 January 1893. It was named after George Augustus Selwyn, the first Bishop of New Zealand. Based on the model of an English university college, it included (male) students of all subjects. Women were admitted for the first time in 1983 and now comprise around half of the college’s residents.

Knox College was opened in 1909, also originally to provide residential accommodation for male students and to house a seminary for Presbyterian ministers. It also accepted female students for the first time in 1983.


  • Emily Siedeberg becomes New Zealand’s first female medical graduate


In 1896 Emily Siedeberg became Otago’s – and New Zealand's – first female medical graduate. A year later, Ethel Benjamin became the first woman to graduate with a Bachelor of Laws (LLB). She went on to become the first woman in the British Empire to appear as counsel in court and the second woman in the Empire to be admitted as a barrister and solicitor.


  • Ethel Benjamin is the first female to graduate with a Bachelor of Laws


  • Te Rangi Hiroa is the University’s first Māori graduate


Te Rangi Hiroa (Ngāti Mutunga and Ngāti Tama) – later Sir Peter Buck – became the University of Otago’s first Māori graduate. He gained the medical degrees MB ChB in 1904 and MD in 1910, becoming New Zealand’s first New Zealand-trained Māori doctor. He went on to pursue a distinguished career as a Member of Parliament and anthropologist of world renown.

Also in 1904, geology graduate James Allan Thomson became the first Otago student – and first New Zealander – to gain a prestigious Rhodes Scholarship.


  • The Dental Hospital opens
  • The four year Bachelor of Dental Surgery is introduced


On 1 July 1907 the Dental Hospital opened on the University of Otago campus, and was soon besieged by patients. The introduction of the four-year Bachelor of Dental Surgery (BDS) degree was a welcome change from dental work being carried out by barbers, pharmacists, blacksmiths, and doctors.

The Faculty of Dentistry’s status as one of the University’s research centres was underscored in recent years by the establishment of a research theme in Oral Microbiology and Dental Health. Another significant recent initiative has been the establishment of the Sir John Walsh Research Institute, which provides a research base for the dentistry profession in New Zealand.


  • The Hocken Libary opens


On 23 March 1910 the Hocken Library (now known as the Hocken Collections) was officially opened, three years after Dr Thomas Morland Hocken signed a deed giving his extensive personal collection to the University to manage, in trust for the people of New Zealand.

Born in England, Dr Hocken settled in Dunedin in 1862 where he practised as a doctor and was coroner for 22 years. His collection comprised books, newspapers, maps, pamphlets, photographs, pictures, and artifacts relating to New Zealand, the Pacific, and early Australia. He donated 6,000 books; today there are more than 200,000, as well as more than 14,000 artworks, 16,000 posters and plans, 10,000 maps and newspapers, and 2 million photographs. The Hocken is now one of the foremost research libraries in the country.


  • The School of Home Science opens


Committed to social progress and convinced of the need for education opportunities for women in the domestic sciences, Lieutenant-Colonel John Studholme offered the University of Otago an annual donation of £200 to fund a chair.

As a result, the School of Home Science was opened in 1911, offering young women an unprecedented breadth of education. In addition to classes in cooking, clothing and household economics, they were also able to attend chemistry, anatomy, and physics lectures alongside medical and mining students.

This legacy continues today with an interdisciplinary applied sciences programme designed to meet the changing needs of society.


  • Accountancy and Commerce subjects are introduced
  • The University Sextet is founded


Since 1912, the University Sextet has entertained Otago Capping Concert audiences with risqué and satirical lyrics set to well-known tunes. In the process, they have become an Otago institution and are today the only University-based group of their kind in the Southern Hemisphere. The Sextet comprises two tenors, two baritones, and two basses, singing a cappella in up to six-part arrangements.


  • St Margaret’s College moves to its current location


Originally located in the former Presbyterian manse in Leith Street, St Margaret’s College moved to its present site in 1915. As Otago was the first university in New Zealand – or anywhere in the British Empire – to allow women to attend all lectures, it had a high proportion of female students. St Margaret’s College was the first to be designated specifically as a women’s college anywhere in Oceania. In 1981 the college opened its doors to male residents for the first time.


  • The Selwyn Ballet trips across the stage for the first time at the Capping Show


The Selwyn Ballet – then known at the Selwyn College Sunbeams – tripped across the stage for the first time during the 1928 Capping Show. Initially taking-off popular musicals of the time, the cross-dressing troupe from Selwyn College performed its first ballet spoof in 1930 and today enjoys the distinction of being New Zealand’s oldest ballet company.

A regular of Capping Shows, the tutu-wearing Selwyn Ballet has also performed at high-profile rugby games in Dunedin.


  • Jack Lovelock, future World Mile Record Holder (1932, 1933) and Olympian (1936), begins his medical studies


  • The clock is installed in the Clocktower


The University had failed to make its intention to transfer the clock to its new building clear in the sale contract of its Princes Street building, and the building’s new owner insisted on keeping it. The University could not afford to purchase another, so its new Clocktower Building had no clock until 1931 – when one donated by the chancellor, Thomas Sidey, was installed. It was a fitting gift by ‘Summertime Sidey’, the politician who introduced daylight saving time to New Zealand.


  • Carrington College opens, the first co-ed student residence in Australasia


In February 1945 Carrington College was opened. It was the first co-educational student residence in Australasia. The other residential colleges are: Abbey College (New Zealand’s first postgraduate residential college, opened in 2008), Arana College, Aquinas College, City College, Cumberland College, Hayward College, Knox College, Salmond College, Selwyn College, St Margaret’s College, Studholme College, Te Rangi Hiroa College, Toroa College, and University College.


  • The Faculty of Theology opens its doors


  • The School of Physical Education opens


  • The University’s coat of arms is granted


The University’s coat of arms was granted by the Lord Lyon King of Arms (Scotland’s premier officer of arms) on 21 January 1948.

The shield is blue, with a gold saltire (Saint Andrew's cross) between four gold six-pointed stars. On the centre of the saltire there is a closed red book, gilt-edged and with a red book-marker protruding, bearing another gold six-pointed star on its cover.


  • The Robert Burns Fellowship is established


The Robert Burns Fellowship was established in 1958 by “a group of citizens who wished to remain anonymous” to commemorate the bicentenary of the birth of the Scottish Bard, Robert Burns, and to perpetuate the community’s appreciation of the part played by his related Dunedin family in the early settlement of Otago.

The fellowship aims to encourage and promote imaginative New Zealand literature. Ian Cross was the inaugural fellow in 1959. Others have included such literary greats as Janet Frame, Hone Tuwhare, Witi Ihimaera, Ruth Dallas, Michael King, Keri Hulme, Maurice Gee, James K Baxter, and Roger Hall.

The University’s commitment to the arts continued with the establishment of four further fellowships: the Frances Hodgkins Fellowship in 1962 (visual arts), the Mozart Fellowship in 1969 (music), the Caroline Plummer Dance Fellowship in 2004, and the University of Otago College of Education / Creative New Zealand Children’s Writer in Residence in 2007 following the University’s merger with the Dunedin College of Education.


  • The University roll exceeds 2,500


After decades of slow, but steady growth, the University roll exceeded 2,500 by the early 1960s and stood at around 6,500 by 1980. However, recent decades have seen enormous growth in student numbers. By the early 1990s there were 12,000 students and today there are more than 21,000.


  • The University of Otago Amendment Act is passed


  • The School of Surveying opens


The School of Surveying was established in 1963, when a three-year diploma course was launched to replace the cadetship scheme under which surveyors learned on the job. The School originally occupied a converted bakery on the corner of Union and Great King Streets, until 1993 when it moved to Castle Street.


  • The National Poisons Centre is established


  • The Foreign Policy School holds its first workshop


Since its inception in 1965, the University of Otago Foreign Policy School has developed into an internationally-recognised annual event.

Originally established as a workshop on foreign affairs issues, the school soon attracted the attention of New Zealand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, which recognised its value as a weekend retreat for officials.

Representatives from other government bodies such as the Prime Minister's Office and the Ministry of Defence, as well as academics, students, diplomats, and interested members of the public also participate regularly to discuss issues of global significance.


  • The Christchurch campus opens


The University of Otago, Christchurch (UOC) was formally established in 1972 as part of the Faculty of Medicine, to provide training across all three clinical years of the Otago medical degree.

Over the years, UOC has developed a reputation for the quality of its undergraduate training. It now offering a wide range of postgraduate programmes.


  • The Wellington campus is established
  • Archway Lecture Theatres completed


  • The University of Otago, Wellington becomes a clinical school


The University’s Wellington Campus was established in 1974 to provide the range of patients and facilities required to meet modern teaching standards for an expanded intake of medical students.

The Wellington branch faculty became a clinical school in 1977, the forerunner to today’s University of Otago, Wellington.


  • The University roll increases to 6,500 students


  • The University roll grows to 12,000 students


  • The St David Lecture Theatre complex opens


The opening of the St David Lecture Theatre complex in 2000 marked the beginning of an extensive building programme on the Dunedin campus. Other new buildings included: The award-winning Information Services Building (2001); the Centre for Innovation (2001); Te Tumu — the School of Māori, Pacific and Indigenous Studies (2006), the Hunter Centre (2008); the Robertson Library (2010); the William James Building – designed and constructed according to sustainable building practices (2010); and the University Plaza Building, which adjoins the west wall of Forsyth Barr Stadium (2011).


  • The award-winning Information Services Building and the Centre for Innovation open


  • Te Tumu – the School of Māori, Pacific and Indigenous Studies’ building opens
  • Dunedin College of Education merges with the University
  • The University’s Māori Strategic Framework is launched


Effective from 1 January 2007, the Dunedin College of Education merged with the University to become the University of Otago College of Education, a professional school within the Division of Humanities. It offers a range of programmes in teacher education and education studies.

Also in 2007, the University adopted a Māori Strategic Framework to provide a cohesive approach to Māori strategy across all its campuses. The University has a responsibility to contribute to Māori aspirations and has signed memoranda of understanding with Ngāi Tahu, Ngāti Whatua Waikato-Tainui and Ngāti Toa Rangititira, as well as a number of Māori health providers across the country. A Pacific Strategic Framework was adopted in 2012.


  • The University appoints its first female Vice-Chancellor, Professor Harlene Hayne


In 2011 the University’s first female Vice-Chancellor was appointed. American-born, Professor Harlene Hayne is a distinguished psychologist, a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand and has been awarded the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to scientific and medical research.


  • The Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study celebrates 40 years of recording more than 1,000 Dunedin babies. It is one of the world’s longest running and most successful longitudinal studies, and is still going in its 5th decade.


  • The University embarks on a NZ$650 million, 15-year, Priority Development Plan of the Dunedin campus


The projects (in order of priority):

  • A new Dental School for New Zealand to replace ageing facilities.
  • A major upgrade of research project facilities mainly for Health Sciences in Dunedin.
  • The construction of teaching, learning, and research space at the Portobello aquarium as a medium-term replacement for space lost due to the closure of an earthquake-prone building at that facility.
  • A new Arts Building, replacing the older multi-storey concrete building in Albany Street. Related to this is the replacement of the Property Services building in Albany Street to free the site for the Humanities Precinct.
  • A new Biomedical Research building, concentrating research that is currently spread throughout the Dunedin campus in the one development in the south campus area.
  • A new Marine Science teaching facility and aquarium, preferably in the harbour basin area.
  • A new Music facility, including a new Centre of Performing Arts.
  • New facilities and additional space for the Department of Botany.
  • A new research facility in the Christchurch Health Precinct for the University of Otago, Christchurch.
  • A new student and academic services hub to be built in the area of the Union Lawn, in the heart of the Dunedin campus. The plan is to concentrate services and provide an opportunity for student-related retail development and social spaces in this important area.
  • A number of landscaping projects are detailed on the Plan.
  • Improvements to access and safety in the Commerce Building.
  • The completion of the refurbishment of the University of Otago, Wellington, facilities, and some further seismic strengthening.
  • A continuation of the seismic strengthening work and improvements to fire safety resulting from building seismic assessments completed over the last two years.
  • The Plan also includes reference to a number of major maintenance projects, such as refurbishment of buildings in the historic precinct, including the Clocktower.


  • The University takes ownership of City College, renaming it Caroline Freeman College, in honour of our first woman graduate


  • Join us as we celebrate our 150th Anniversary