Red X iconGreen tick iconYellow tick icon

History, events and people of the School

Written for the School's 50th Reunion 1948 to 1998 by Dr Rex Thomson

The idea of a university course in physical education was formally raised in 1943 by the Professorial Board at the University of Otago, the original advocate of such a course being Dr Charles Hercus, the Dean of the Medical School. After discussions with Sir Thomas Hunter, Chairman of the New Zealand University Senate, it was decided that a Diploma course should be instituted and the University began planning the syllabus during 1945 and 1946.

Philip Ashton Smithells (PAS), who had been appointed Superintendent of Physical Education in the Department of Education in 1939, was appointed first Director of the School of Physical Education, and took up his position in October 1947. Smithells, who was 29 when he first arrived in New Zealand, had a M.A. from Cambridge, and private training in physical education with Reginald Roper and some course work from Loughborough College. He had also taught physical education at both secondary school level and at Exeter University and had a sound knowledge of European physical education, so he was well equipped for his new position (Stothart, 1974, pp. 30-31).

The School of Physical Education opened its doors to the first intake of 30 students in March 1948. In addition to Smithells (affectionately known from his initials as 'PAS'), the lecturing staff were Peter Robertson and gymnastics teacher Emilie (Emmy) Bellwood.

The early curriculum of the 3-year Diploma included chemistry, physics, the theory and practice of physical education, practical work, practice teaching, preparatory anatomy (taken at the School), and tests and measurements in the first year of study.

In year two, the subjects required were anatomy (taken at the Medical School), physiology, pedagogy, gymnastic theory and practice, games and athletics, recreation, aquatics, folk dance, and tests and measurements.

In the final year, the curriculum included principles of both physical and health education, principles of recreation, music and dance, organisation and administration, practical work, practice teaching and a special study, along with work in the Departments of Physiology and Education (including Education 1 as for the BA degree) and food values for health teaching (in the School of Home Science).

The School was housed in the old Training College building at 655 Cumberland Street (now 665 Cumberland Street)'near the university', and also had 'a clean, light and airy gymnasium' (an old gymnasium next to the main building which was built around the turn of the century and which is still part of the current facilities), along with changing rooms 'with hot and cold showers', lecture rooms, a student common room, the 'Clinic for Individual Physical Education', and a posture recording room.

The School's comprehensive library contained around 1,000 books and pamphlets, and more than 20 different overseas periodicals. The School also had equipment for all types of physical activity, as well as 'a talkie projector, gramophone amplifier, tape recorder and photographic equipment'.

Outdoor activities made use of the spacious 'University grounds' at Logan Park while camping was also an important feature of the School's programme. At the beginning of 1949, 22 students from the first intake (the 'Guinea Pigs') accompanied by PAS and Peter Robertson went on the School's first camp, catching the train from Dunedin to Cromwell and from there transporting by truck to the Matukituki Valley, near Wanaka.

By 1950 a permanent site for an annual School camp had been found by PAS and student, Don Riesterer, in an area suggested by another of the students, Peter Macpherson. Established in the Horse Ranges near Palmerston, the Trotters Gorge hut was built by the students, and this hut also became available as a training and recreational centre for the whole university. It was the second intake of students who in 1950 had the first all-canvas camp and the first to be held at Trotters Gorge:

During the long vacation … a camp for all second-year students is held. This camp, under canvas, gives an opportunity for training in campcraft, bushcraft, compass work, and general techniques of living out-of-doors. Lectures are also given on First Aid, Map Work, Camp Hygiene and discussions are held around the camp-fire on youth movements, youth hostelling, education camps overseas and New Zealand's particular camping problems (from the 1951 School Handbook).

Māori games and rhythmical activities were also taught at camp.

PAS had been joined on the staff in the 1950s by Joe Wallace, DipPhysEd (Scottish School of Physical Education), Miss Winsome Bach, DipPhysEd (London), and Peter Cameron, BA (Otago), along with Peter's wife Margaret (BA Otago) as an assistance lecturer. Peter was to serve the School ably for many years before moving to the Department of Education at the University.

The students were quick to form their own Physical Education Students' Association, and were involved from the very early years in the production of a dance for the Capping Concert and the provision of 'clowns' for the Capping Procession, both of these traditions lasting for many years. The Phys Ed Ball was also a prominent affair, but the venue had to be frequently moved as the students often outstayed their welcome.

Most first year students were accommodated in the university hostels, including St Helens, the Home Science Hostel in Regent Road, while prominent flats in the fifties included the 'Chookery' (for female students) in George Street (now the site of Farrys Motel) and the 'Jam Factory' in Filleul Street.

By the end of its first full decade, the School was still taking an annual intake of between thirty and forty students, 'selected for general all-round ability, leadership, personality, intelligence and cultural development as well as, preferably, more than average ability in physical activities'.

The curriculum had been repackaged, with educational theory, sciences, practical work, and teaching practice being taken in each year of the course, along with applied sciences (now including kinesiology, corrective work and health education) in years two and three. Special requirements included first aid and lifesaving, and for teaching purposes the three years of the Diploma course were now divided into six semesters of 18 weeks each (predating the introduction of the University's semester system by about forty years).

Smithells (now an Associate Professor), Cameron and Wallace had new colleagues on the staff in Annette Golding (an outstanding dance teacher) and Janet Barker, and by the early sixties they had been joined by Lindsay 'Doc' Carter (the first staff member to have gained a PhD, he was also the first student from the School to obtain this qualification, along with Stanley Brown at Illinois), Audrey Southgate (trained at Bedford College), and former students Janet Davidson, Joy McConachie-Smith, and Malcolm Marshall.

The growth in the profession had been considerable, and Smithells was able to claim a tenfold expansion in 'the last twenty years … In 1939, the highest paid position was £380; in 1961, there are at least three on £2,000 a year or more' (1961 Handbook).

Graduates from the School were working in mental homes as recreation officers, as child welfare officers in homes and special schools, in YMCA's, YWCA's, in youth club work, as health education officers under the Health Department, as commissioned officers in the forces, along with those who held positions in the teaching profession including secondary school heads of departments, lecturers in Training Colleges, senior organisers of physical education, and physical education officers in charge of student recreation at various New Zealand universities.

Graduates were also making their mark overseas, with five students gaining Fulbright scholarships to study at American universities, while others held faculty positions at the University of California at Los Angeles (Dr Gerald Gardner), the University of British Columbia (Dr Stanley Brown) and the University of Saskatchewan (Marigold Edwards) in Canada, and Nasinu Training College (Rex Wilkinson) in Suva, Fiji.

Curriculum changes in the early sixties saw the introduction of kinesiology (taught by Dr Carter) to the first year of the course, and there was specific mention of motor learning and exercise physiology in the third year kinesiology course.

New members of the staff during the sixties included popular recreation lecturer, William (Bill) Landreth (later the School's only Deputy-Director), biomechanist Dr James Hay (a former student who had taken his doctorate at the University of Iowa), Frances Cruickshank, a Scot trained at Dunfermline and a long-serving dance and corrective work teacher and beloved 'grandma' to generations of students at the School, Gerald Redmond (later Professor in the history of sport at the University of Alberta), and another historian and long-serving staff member, J.S. (Stan) Mair.

Another staff member from this period and one of the School's most notable modern dancers was John Casserley (one of a number of students who had taken postgraduate study in modern dance in America and later an Associate Professor in Modern Dance at the University of the Pacific in California), and two further former students and long-serving staff members, Gouke (Bob) Leek, initially in charge of staff/student recreations and a man who made such a tremendous contribution to the School's outdoor education programme, and exercise physiologist Bruce Ross.

Beverley Ross, Joyce Allen, John Masters and May Laws also joined the staff, along with 'technician' Agnus Howie (a man who could do everything from creating sophisticated electronic equipment for kinesiology research and laboratories to playing the piano for dance classes) and the inimitable Lillian Taggart from Ireland as Smithells' and the School's secretary.

Student social functions at this time included a compulsory dance concert put on by first year students for the pleasure of their elders and betters, while graduating students held the 'Third Year Men's Dinner' in the sixties and early seventies, and the Grad's Farewell which remains a popular function to this day.

By the time of the University's centenary in 1969, the School had produced some 400 graduates, with at least seven of these having obtained PhD degrees in the USA (Alan Levett at Michigan, Donald Miller at Wisconsin, and Edward Wright at Southern California having joined Carter, Brown, Gardner and Hay), and another 30 obtaining Masters degrees in New Zealand, the USA and Canada. In addition to this, 15 students had obtained Bachelor's degrees in other subjects.

The course, which was about two-fifths practical and three-fifths theoretical, had undergone little major change, and was accepting up to eighty students per year by the end of the sixties. By its twenty-fifth year, the School was making its mark, both within New Zealand and overseas:
Half the secondary school physical education positions are now held by graduates. Others work in Teachers' Colleges in New Zealand and elsewhere, some work in Student Recreation, others work in Child Welfare, some in Health Education. About twenty-five are on the staff of North American universities (and) one is a Senior Lecturer in a specialist college in England (Stothart, 1974, p. 57).

The first two female graduates to obtain their PhD's, Dr Marigold Edwards and Dr Kathryn Carlsson were also teaching overseas, Edwards at the University of Pittsburgh and Carlsson at the Uppsala University, Sweden. The School's staff at Otago were also making their mark in research, as the annual research issue of the NZAHPER Journal at this time clearly indicated.

By the early seventies PAS was now a full Professor, and some changes had been made in the curriculum. Biomechanics had been added as a specialist subject, and was followed in the mid-seventies by the sociology of sport and leisure. New facilities included the Smithells Gymnasium (a fine building unfortunately separated from its changing facilities in the main building across the road by State Highway 1, a criticism raised in Parliament by local Labour MP, Ethel McMillan).

New staff at this time included a number of former students – Heather Montgomery, Noela Wilson, Brian Maunsell (a New Zealand Olympic representative in hockey, and coach of the successful men's hockey team at the Montreal Games), David East, Alison East, Marion Snowden and Roger Riddell. Dr Les Williams also returned to the School after completing his PhD under Franklin Henry at the University of California at Berkeley.

"Eros", a satirical student newsletter inspired by the American student Ken Bacon, made its short-lived appearance in the early 1970s, and staff had every reason to fear the publication as Bacon, a gifted cartoonist, was not one to spare their feelings. The first camp at 'Paradise' was held in 1973, and this popular site was to be used as a permanent camp for physical education students for more than twenty years.

The major development of the seventies decade was the introduction of a four-year Bachelor of Physical Education (BPhEd) degree in 1975. This coincided with a change in the leadership of the School, PAS having finally retired after 28 years at the helm, his replacement being Professor Peter McIntosh, a noted physical educator, sport philosopher and sociologist from England. The new degree had a heavy science orientation and was initially limited to fifteen students (although only nine were admitted to the first year in 1975). Under McIntosh, however, a number of staff with backgrounds in the social sciences were appointed to the School, including historian Scott Crawford, and sociologists Rex Thomson and Shona Thompson. Changes to the degree structure in the early eighties reflected this strengthening of the social sciences.

Other new staff appointed in the early seventies included Robert (Bob) Marshall in biomechanics, Hillary Evison in health education, Warren Dukes in motor learning, Helen Oldfield and later Joan Laage in dance, Devon Cooke and Diane and Dennis Fedoruk.

McIntosh made a fine contribution to the School but his tenure was unfortunately not a long one. He returned to England at the end of 1978, but had stayed long enough to oversee the introduction of the Master of Physical Education (MPhEd) degree which boosted graduate study in the School when it was introduced in 1979.
The School (under the Acting Directorship of Bruce Ross) was without a Professor for two years before the appointment in 1981 of Professor David Russell. Russell was to become the School's first Dean in 1983 when the School was elevated to Faculty status.

In 1983, the School made major changes in the structure of the BPhEd degree. The compulsory science papers were no longer required of all students, and those with a background in the social sciences were encouraged to apply. The degree course at this time offered two options, one in Kinesiology and the other in Physical Education/Sport and Leisure Studies.

The degree course was also opened up to greater numbers of applicants, and it soon became clear that the three-year Diploma was no longer an attractive proposition and no new students were admitted to the Diploma in Physical Education (DipPhEd) after 1984.

The School continued to grow in the 1980s, and by the end of the decade the annual intake had been raised to 120 students. The growth in students was paralleled by a growth in staff, thus allowing further specialisations to be added to the degree programme. Bevan Grant took up a position in pedagogy in 1980. The School graduated its first doctoral students Bruce Abernethy in 1986 and Susan O'Neill (née McDivitt) gained her PhD in 1988 under the supervision of Associate Professor Williams.

When Angus Howie retired after twenty years' service in 1982, he was replaced by a Senior Scientific Officers, Alan Walmsley, and the School's first Computer Programmer, John Neiman, was appointed in 1984. Long-time technical staff member Stuart Reid was elevated to Technical Officer in 1985.

In 1985, a new laboratory annexe costing $0.75 million was built on the former car park area, corner of Cumberland Street and Union Street, next to the old main building. This new building received a highly significant equipment grant of $1.5 million, and it was this funding which enabled the School to bring its computing and laboratory facilities to a standard which had previously seemed unachievable. Acting Dean Les Williams was promoted to a personal chair in 1985, the same year that Dr Greg Anson returned to the School to lecture in motor disorders.

Additional kinesiology staff in biomechanics (Dr Barry Wilson), and in exercise physiology (former graduate Dr Duncan Macfarlane), were appointed in 1986, and the School's first sport psychologist and yet another former student, Dr Ken Hodge, took up his position in 1987. In the same year, Dr Noela Wilson rejoined the staff as a Research Fellow.
In 1988 Jon Doig was appointed President of the Otago University Students' Association, the first and still the only physical education student to hold this office, although a number of students have served on the OUSA Executive.

In 1988 distance teaching courses were added to the School's programme: the Diploma in Sports Studies and the Certificate in Fitness Management which enrolled about 120 students.

Further expansion continued in the nineties, with Dr Steven Jackson taking up a second position in sociology of sport. The annual intake of students was raised to its present level of 200 in 1992 and with former Student Health Director Dr David Gerrard's appointment, papers in sports injuries were added to the curriculum.

With the return of three more former students, exercise prescription (Dr Phil Handcock), pedagogy (Dr Lisette Burrows) and sport and exercise psychology (Dr Alex McKenzie) were strengthened, as was sociology with the appointment of Professor John Loy in 1993, an internationally renowned scholar and widely published author in the sociology of sport.

Other initiatives during this decade were the development of papers in sports coaching and sports management.

In 1994, a new building with excellent computing, teaching and research equipment was opened. The new complex built adjacent to the laboratory annexe at 55 Union Street West cost $5 million with a further $1.5 million for equipment and an additional sum of $1.5 was raised for the aquatic flume. This new world-class building had state-of-the-art biomechanics, exercise physiology and motor control laboratories as well as a unique aquatic and controlled environmental facility.

In 1998, the School had a staff of 61; the full-time academic staff of 28 included three full professors. Professor Les Williams, who joined the staff in 1971, was Dean of the School since 1992. Professor David Russell, the former Dean, was the Director of the former LINZ Activity and Health Research Unit and was assisted by Senior Research Fellow, Dr Noela Wilson. The Unit was established by a grant from the University to maintain and service the Life in New Zealand (LINZ) survey database. LINZ conduced contract research for physical activity and health related organisations such as the Hillary Commission, the Ministry of Health and ACC and was involved in major projects such as the National Nutrition Survey in 1997 attracting funding of $3.45 million.

New staff in the nineties added a considerable international flavour to the School. Dr Douglas Booth (sports history) and Ralph Buck (dance) were from Australia, Dr Nancy Rehrer (exercise metabolism) was from the USA via the Netherlands, Drs Motohide Miyahara (motor development and adaptive physical activity) and Toshimasa Yanai (biomechanics) hailed from Japan, the late Dr Gordon Sleivert (exercise physiology) was a Canadian, the late Dr Richard Batty (sports management) was from the United Kingdom and New Zealand Dr Mike Boyes (outdoor education) from the Dunedin College of Education. The three senior teaching fellows Debbie Sherburn (practicals), John Maxted (outdoor education) and Alison East (dance) were all former students.

In the 1990s four majors were introduced into the BPhEd degree.

  • Exercise and Sport Sciences (including biomechanics, exercise physiology and motor learning and control);
  • Exercise Prescription and Management (including exercise testing and prescription, motor development and disorders, and sports injuries);
  • Professional Studies (including curriculum, dance, outdoor education, and pedagogy);
  • Sport and Leisure Studies (history, sociology and social policy, leisure studies, sport management, sport psychology, and sports coaching).

In the late nineties there were approximately 950 students enrolled in all courses offered by the School. These included the distance teaching courses (DipSpSt and CertFitMgt), the undergraduate degree (BPhEd), the honours degree (BPhEd Hons), a postgraduate Diploma (PGDipPE), a Masters degree (MPhEd), and 19 students enrolled in the doctoral programme (PhD).

In addition to its academic programme, the School contributed its knowledge and skills to the wider community through education, exercise and sport, and through lifestyle activities, recreation and leisure. The structure of the professional preparation programmes carried these themes from undergraduate through to postgraduate level.
(Source: '50 Years On' - Dr Rex Thomson (1998) - unpublished work prepared for the School of Physical Education's 50th Anniversary).


In 2015 the School changed its name to School Of Physical Education, Sport and Exercise Sciences to better reflect the curriculum offerings.

Back to top