Dr Ali Clarke’s Otago: 150 Years of New Zealand’s First University is full of anecdotes and observations from former Otago students. Alumni have continued to share their stories, some of which we have published here. Others can be found on the University’s Facebook page.
I had not performed well at school academically so going to Otago was not associated with much expectation. However, such is the unique academic and living environment that two years later I had been invited to join an honours programme. The overall environment was conducive to success; it was clear that the academic staff were all determined to do whatever they could to assist you to achieve. I remember on one occasion needing clarification on one aspect of a lecture in criminal law. The lecturer had said to us that if we ever needed help, his door would be open. Rather nervously I went to his office and gingerly knocked on the door. I was welcomed. My issue was sorted in five minutes, but for the next 25 minutes we discussed the constitutional crisis then developing in South Africa. I was amazed that this well respected, busy lecturer could bother with me as an insignificant undergraduate and even spend time debating matters extraneous to my law paper. He was not unique, but rather typical of the commitment and human qualities of those who taught us. I have no doubt that I owe my career to Otago; it absolutely changed my life, gave me confidence in my own ability and friendships which endure today.
BDS (1960) MDS (1971)
John Burton recalls the then Prime Minister, the Rt Hon. Sir Keith Holyoake, laying the foundation stone for the Dental School’s Walsh Building on 6 October 1957. His photographs show a brass band of gowned dental students accompanying his car from the Dunedin Railway Station and the Prime Minister addressing the crowd.
BCom(Hons) (1976) MBA (1982)
It will surprise many of you to know that UniCol was the location of one of the great salons of the late 20th century, very much in the tradition of those august establishments in Paris and other European capitals where great minds collided debating the vital issues of the day pushing forward the Enlightenment. Specifically, it was the fourth-floor (in those days male) common room at UniCol. Throwing 20-plus young people from widely diverse backgrounds and life experiences together in close proximity for an academic year has a long tradition at Otago. This for the very good reason it creates a fertile field where young minds are stimulated to engage in vigorous debate, discourse, disagreement and persuasion.
Our gatherings traversed all the pressing subjects of the time. The Vietnam war was raging, the domino theory prevailed while Tim Shadbolt, James K. Baxter and others promoted their versions of Nirvana. The common room arguments, while intellectually presented, were fierce; they were always underpinned by our passionately held beliefs, but generally delivered with good humour. On many Fridays the salon members repaired to the dappled afternoon sunlight and timber furnishings of the Gardens pub. Here liquid refreshment would soften the conversation and discussion would turn from world affairs and the meaning of life to rugby. Out of this social jousting, beliefs were tested, occasionally new perspectives gained, but mostly old biases were re-enforced. It was always highly energising and great fun. And as with most, it is my experience that many of the friendships formed at Otago have endured.
Selwyn Ballet, All Saints Church Hall, Castle St, Dunedin, 1994. Nigel Yates photograph, P2017-032-054. Hocken Collections – Uare Taoka o Hākena
Susanna (Susi) Williams (Lemchen)
MB ChB (1957)
In 1952 I did medical intermediate at Victoria University in Wellington. To my great joy I was granted a place at Otago Medical School. A shy young woman with a keen desire to do well, I walked into the first anatomy lecture with an acquaintance (male). We sat about halfway up the lecture theatre. The professor arrived and fixed me with a beady eye. “In my classes women sit in the front row,” he said. I stood up and shakily went down to the front row where I then noticed the other women were sitting. I didn’t hear a word of the lecture.
I loved my time at Otago. I grew from a shy young woman into a competent well-trained doctor, very proud to know that when I presented my credentials overseas there was much respect for the degree. I made lifelong friends and still enjoy going to our class reunions. As I had not expected to get a place at Medical School on my first try I had made no arrangements to stay in a hostel so, for the first two years, I was in private board. The next two years I was flatting with other women. We could not afford to drink or smoke, but we had a lot of fun, very innocent in those days of poor contraception. I played basketball in the University F team where I met students from other disciplines, swam at dawn at St Clair Beach, passed all my exams on the first try but without spectacular marks, made time to go to the Town Hall dances, and became a good all-rounder. Flatting meant I learned to budget.
Although I now know my experiences were shared by other women and other races at that time, we never confronted the prejudice. This was sometimes subtle but often overt, but we did not officially complain about it. Years later others did. I think today’s young women (or young men) would speak out. I hope so.
BCom LLB (1976)
At our first criminal law lecture at Otago University in February 1973, I was standing at the foot of the stairs outside the lecture hall where a number of young students were congregated. At 27 years old, I was easily identified as a "mature student". As we chatted, I quickly determined that these were my future classmates. We were approached by a young woman pushing a wheelchair occupied by a very small and quite frail young man. When I determined that she was assisting her brother, Gordon, who was to attend our lecture, I offered to help her lift the wheel chair (and Gordon ) up the formidable flight of stairs, an offer she gratefully accepted. As she bent at her brother's feet to lift his chair, I proclaimed loudly, "What do you think you're doing?" She looked up at me in a questioning way, whereupon I turned to my new classmates and said in my most firm manner, "This is Gordon BEGLEY and he's going to need our help from now on, so who's going to start?" Never again did I ever need to make such a request. You wouldn't believe how proficient one becomes at balancing one's weight on the back of a wheelchair while "skateboarding" through a crowd.
Gordon cemented the camaraderie of our class. When we discovered that he'd obtained a van equipped with a wheel chair ramp, we immediately appointed him as our designated driver to undertake pub tours, including a memorable six pub visit in Port Chalmers. We would conduct study sessions at the Cook which accomplished limited academic achievement, but I came to realise that these were remarkable experiences of collegiality that Gordon would not be able to ever again experience, as he succumbed to his illness before he was able to graduate. His sister called to tell of his passing and to express her and her family's profound gratitude to our classmates, as she said that we'd been part of one of Gordon's most exciting and enriching lifetime experiences and, accordingly, I do so too.
Professor Alastair Goss
BDS (1966) DDSc (1979)
My life changed forever on a day in early 1963 when, as an immature 18 year old, I attended the first lecture for second-year dentistry at the University of Otago Dental School. We were welcomed by Sir John Walsh, the legendary Dean. I was shocked when he told us half of what we were about to be taught was true, the other half rubbish and at his stage he was not sure which was which! Revolutionary stuff in those days of authoritarian education and discipline. I decided then I was going to model my professional life on Sir John. We both ended up as professors of oral and maxillofacial surgery, both Doctors of Dental Science, teachers, researchers and both needed to cross the ditch to achieve our goals…
On that first day, I also made some lifelong friends. The class of ’66 bonded together at numerous parties. Sixty-six of us started and 48 graduated. In those days, assessment was rigorous and, if you failed, you moved on. Members of the class of ‘66 have had a major impact on dentistry in New Zealand and internationally. We had our first reunion 21 years after graduation and thereafter every five years or so. Although we might not have seen each other in the interim, conversations on life resume without a missed beat.
I am still teaching: the emphasis is the same as Sir John’s – a broad emphasis on the medical sciences and only the best will do.
They were the very best of times and we were honoured to have an inspirational teacher.
MB ChB (1969)
Capping May 1966 was celebrated by Peter Miller and his Clyde Street flatmates by building a float for the procession with an anti-Vietnam war theme. They are (from front left): Al Gillies, nephrologist, Newcastle, Australia; Russell Poole, Emeritus Professor of English, University of Western Ontario; Graeme Bydder, Professor of Radiology, UC San Diego, USA. Top: Bill Sutton, retired scientist and former Labour MP. Centre: Peter Miller, forensic psychiatrist, Christchurch.
Dr Joe Williams QSO QSM
MB ChB (1960)
The most significant event that happened to me at Otago was on my first day at Medical School in 1956. That event began to lay the solid foundation for my future career and I shall never forget it.
I had returned from Christmas holidays from my home in Aitutaki two weeks late. My first class was anatomy. I was led into the anatomy room and saw, for the first time, dead bodies (they were called bods) lying on tables and each surrounded by students in white coats. (I was also wearing a white coat.) It was a gruesome sight and I felt dizzy and sick and a little faint. I turned around and walked towards the door. A firm deep voice stopped me at the door. “Williams, where are you going?” It was Anatomy Professor William Adams. I turned around, looked at him and said “I’m going home sir. I feel sick”. He led me to an office and motioned for me to sit down.
He said, “You may not know it, you are the only person from your country in this Medical School and the whole of the University of Otago. You’re giving up before you even started! How would your people and your father and mother feel? You’re here at this University for an education which is the key to your future. We’re here at the Medical School to prepare you for your life ahead as a doctor, so that you can return home and serve your people. Walking out today would be a tragedy for you, your family and your country. Do not give up now or ever.” He led me back into the anatomy room.
I entered Otago as a raw and immature Pacific Islander and came out a mature, disciplined and more determined person with a great deal of self-confidence.
Dr Gemma Irvine
BSc (1998) MSc (2000) PhD (2004)
In my role as head of policy and strategic planning at the Higher Education Authority in Ireland, I apply what I learnt at the University of Otago every day. Big issues such as interdisciplinary research, open science, gender equality, researcher mobility and internationalisation are all things I took for granted at Otago.
I didn’t realise I was doing “interdisciplinary research” at the time: molecular biology and psychology were just fundamental parts of trying to figure out how the brain worked in my neuroscience degree. The Psychology Department tearoom was filled with both staff and students who were always up for a chat and I benefited greatly from the openness of everyone willing to discuss their work and mine … and I didn’t realise that this openness wasn’t always a standard feature of academia internationally.
When I’m asked by people in Europe “Where is Otago?”, I say “It’s about as far away as you can go, before you start coming back again”. But, although it is physically far from many countries, the diverse array of people who were studying and working at Otago meant that I was surrounded by people from America, Asia, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Denmark, Ireland and the constant stream of Italian students in our department who shaped and greatly influenced my global perspective. Internationalisation was alive and well…
The “work hard, play harder” mentality at Otago also meant that a healthy work-life balance was almost a given, and we were spoilt for choice in extracurricular activities: surfing, kayaking or sailing in the morning; hiking, mountain-biking or horse riding in the afternoon. Not to mention snowboarding and skiing only hours away in Central Otago at the weekends. Great music, film festivals, museums and art abound, or just hanging out with friends at the Cook or Gardies. Yes, I’ve definitely got rose-tinted glasses for my time as a Scarfie at the University of Otago.
A village fete was held by students on the University Union lawn during Orientation Week 1979. A novel method of turning spit-roasted pigs was devised by students (from left) Julian Satchell, Linus Turner, Jonathan Brown, Bede Beaumont and Chris Duncan. A washing machine wringer and a length of rope provided the motive power for the rotating spit. Photo: Otago Daily Times.