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History of Otago Medical School’s Dunedin Campus

Tāhūhū kōrero – Te Kura Whaiora o Ōtepoti

1875–1914: A faraway British outpost

The Otago Medical School, New Zealand's first, opened in 1875 – just six years after the University of Otago was formally established.

In its first eight years the School offered a single two-year course, so students went abroad to complete their medical degree – usually to London or Edinburgh.

The right to award Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery (MB ChB) degrees was approved in 1877. This was four years before the Otago Medical School was formally established.

From 1885 onwards, a “full curriculum” followed the recommendations of the General Medical Council of the United Kingdom. The first Otago student to complete this four-year course, William Ledingham Christie, graduated in 1887.

By 1904, a further 89 students had graduated with MB ChB degrees.

Professors were appointed for the first time in 1910, initially in part-time roles.

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1914–1937: Expansion and modernisation

There were 155 students at the School when Professor Lindo Ferguson was appointed Dean in 1914.

Professor Ferguson led an era of expansion and modernisation that included the construction of the Scott Building in 1916 and the Lindo Ferguson Building in 1926. (Almost a century later, these buildings remain an attractive and integral part of Dunedin's health sciences precinct.)

Under Professor Ferguson's guidance the School strengthened its contact with American and British institutions, giving it a broader and more cosmopolitan outlook.

In 1920, the medical course was finally extended to six years. Soon afterwards, sixth-year medical students were attached to hospitals in Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch for the first time.

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1937–1958: The new focus on research

Under Dean Charles Hercus, the School developed a strong focus on all-encompassing research: from disease to health and development, and environmental factors.

Following a decade of successful student placements in Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch, in 1938 Dean Hercus established branch faculties in the three centres. By now there were approximately 400 undergraduates in the medical course.

In response to increasing student numbers, and with the increasing pressure on staff and facilities, limitations on student admissions into second year were introduced in 1940.

However despite these limitations, the School continued to expand. In 1948 the substantial Hercus Building, on the corner of Great King and Hanover Streets, was opened. (It is now home to the School's Department of Pathology.)

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1958–1991: A dynamic environment

In the 1960s, high teacher-student ratios and restricted clinical facilities created a crisis which led to an external review in 1968.

Outcomes included:

  • The School’s involvement in the rebuilding of the Dunedin Hospital, with comprehensive integration of clinical academic and service departments
  • The provision of additional staffing and expanded facilities for pre-clinical teaching
  • The opening of clinical schools in Christchurch (1973), and Wellington (1977)

Meanwhile the Auckland Branch Faculty was disbanded, after the Auckland School of Medicine admitted its first students in 1968.

The Dunedin School of Medicine continued to grow throughout the 1970s, during which time the Sayers Building (housing the Medical Library) and the Adams Building (now housing the Department of Preventive and Social Medicine) were constructed.

The School expanded again when Dunedin Hospital’s ten-storey ward block was opened in 1980, integrating educational and clinical resources.

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1991–present: A rich diversity

In the early 1990s, the Dunedin School of Medicine received funding for 170 students. Excess capacity meant that the School was able to accept full-fee-paying students from other countries for the first time.

The first Malaysian students graduated in 1998, and the first Saudi Arabian students in 2006. Along with increasing numbers of Māori students, this significantly increased the diversity of our student population.

In 1995, Otago Medical School was restructured to comprise the School of Biomedical Sciences (Anatomy, Biochemistry, Microbiology and Immunology, Pharmacology and Toxicology, and Physiology), and the Dunedin, Christchurch, and Wellington Schools of Medicine.

The Christchurch and Wellington Schools of Medicine were later renamed University of Otago, Christchurch; and Univeristy of Otago, Wellington.

In 2020, Otago Medical School was again restructured – this time, with the School of Biomedical Sciences leaving Otago Medical School to become a separate School within the Division of Health Sciences. Responsibility for the Dunedin campus shifted to the Dean of Otago Medical School. (Previously, there had been a separate Dean for the Dunedin School of Medicine.)

As part of this change, the Dunedin School of Medicine was renamed Otago Medical School – Dunedin Campus – one of three campuses within Otago Medical School (the others being University of Otago, Christchurch; and University of Otago, Wellington).

Otago Medical School’s Dunedin Campus now comprises eight academic departments:

  • Bioethics Centre
  • General Practice and Rural Health
  • Medicine
  • Pathology
  • Preventive and Social Medicine
  • Psychological Medicine
  • Surgical Sciences
  • Women’s and Children’s Health

Today, Otago Medical School’s Dunedin Campus has approximately 900 EFTS medical and postgraduate students, and approximately 500 academic, research, and general staff spread throughout Dunedin Hospital and adjacent buildings.

Structure of the Otago Medical School’s Dunedin Campus

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Previous deans of Otago Medical School

  • J H Scott (1891–1914)
  • Sir H Lindo Ferguson (1914–1936)
  • Sir C E Hercus (1937–1958)
  • Sir E G Sayers (1959–1967)
  • W E Adams (1968–1973)
  • J D Hunter (1974–1977)
  • G L Brinkman (1978–1985)
  • J D Hunter (1986–1990)
  • R D H Stewart (1991–1995)
  • A J Campbell (1995–2004)
  • L J Holloway (2005–2006)
  • D M Roberton (2006–2011)
  • Professor Peter Crampton (2011–2018)
  • Professor Barry Taylor (2018–2020)
  • Professor Rathan Subramaniam (2020–present)
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Previous deans of the Dunedin School of Medicine

  • J G Mortimer (1996–1997)
  • W J Gillespie (1998–2002)
  • J B Adams (2003–2013)
  • Professor Barry Taylor (2014–2020)

The Dunedin School of Medicine was established in 1995, following restructuring of Otago Medical School. In 2020, it was renamed the Otago Medical School – Dunedin Campus. Now, the Otago Medical School dean has responsiblity for the Dunedin Campus.

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Further reading

Much of the above information was sourced from the 2008 book Anatomy of a Medical School: A History of Medicine at the University of Otago 1875–2000 by Dorothy Page, published by Otago University Press.

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