The University of Adelaide was founded with a noble goal: to prepare for South Australia young leaders shaped by education rather than by birth or wealth.
“ I can picture to myself, an aristocracy springing from the cultivation of the mind ” Governor Sir William Jervois, upon laying the foundation stone.
Perhaps a grandiose ambition for a provincial town of just 30,000, but Adelaide was already urbane in 1874. Pastoralists and copper had brought it refinement and prosperity, and now a university would reflect the values of South Australia itself—the distinctively progressive and democratic way of life. By the turn of the century, South Australia had become the first place in Australia with universal franchise: men and women, Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike.
And so in this forward thinking state of South Australia—the first state in Australia to provide voting rights to women, the University of Adelaide was the first university in Australia, and only the second in the world, to grant degrees to women. This was forty years before Oxford. And many ‘firsts’ followed including graduate Helen Mayo (MBBS, 1902) becoming the first woman elected to a University Council in Australia and graduate Dame Roma Mitchell LLB (1934) maintained a distinguished career with the following achievements: Australia's first woman judge, Queens Council, University Chancellor, and Governor of an Australian state.
Over the course of its history, the University has also been a pioneer in many disciplines, specifically, in the teaching of science. The institution was the first in Australia to develop a science degree. This leadership in science continues today as the University’s research outputs are considered world leading in many scientific fields.
And the University has also had a history of leadership in the arts and humanities. This began with the Bachelor of Arts; the first degree offered by the University over 136 years ago. Adelaide then became the first university in Australia to establish a Chair of Music, and the Elder Conservatorium of Music was the first Australian tertiary based music school.
More recently, the University created the first Australian Chair in Creative Writing and in 2010, Rebecca Richards, anthropology graduate became Australia’s first Indigenous Rhodes Scholar.
Augustus Short served as the University’s Vice-Chancellor until 1876, and then as Chancellor until his death in 1883. His contribution to the University of Adelaide was pivotal.
Dr Augustus Short (1802-1883)
(James Thomson, 1849)
A spirit of free inquiry was the dream of the University’s first Vice-Chancellor, one of Adelaide’s pioneers, Dr Augustus Short.
Scholarly, hardworking and modest, Short had studied and taught at Christ Church Oxford; one of his pupils had been future British Prime Minister William Gladstone. But instead of Oxford’s narrow classics curriculum, Short wanted a university open to investigation of new fields—the sciences, modern literature, art and moral philosophy among them. Also unlike Oxford, where religious tests had prevailed, the university would be secular: there would not be church-owned residential colleges on campus, as at the universities at Sydney and Melbourne. Adelaide’s spirit would be of liberty and discovery, immune from intolerance or external influence.
“ Whatever tends to make this City the abode not merely of material wealth, and order, and respectability, but of mental culture, science, and art will add greatly also to its material prosperity and the enjoyments of its inhabitants ” Augustus Short
The initial funds for chairs came from donors, and in the face of limited government patronage, Short sought public supporters by demonstrating the University’s work to the community. Open days were held, forums convened, and evening public lectures were given.
A strong argument for the University’s importance to the community was made: “Whatever tends to make this City the abode not merely of material wealth, and order, and respectability, but of mental culture, science, and art,” said Short, “will add greatly also to its material prosperity and the enjoyments of its inhabitants”.
Thus were formed Adelaide’s distinctive features: a student body of democratic breadth, a staff of international distinction, a spirit of freedom to investigate new fields, a sense of importance to the community, and a goal to prepare educated leaders.