Lumen - The University of Adelaide Magazine The University of Adelaide Australia
Lumen Winter 2014 Issue
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1870s to 1890s: Fledgling university aims high


New Roseworthy building, 1885

New Roseworthy building, 1885


Sir Walter Watson Hughes

Sir Walter Watson Hughes


Lacrosse team, 1896

Lacrosse team, 1896


Edith Emily Dornwell

Edith Emily Dornwell

The ambitions of the University of Adelaide's founders were nothing if not grand. With a population scarcely a quarter of New South Wales or Victoria, the University's first Commencement Ceremony in 1876 had a distinctly international flavour. It included the admission of more than 70 graduates of overseas universities who were awarded courtesy degrees ad eundem gradum. This distinguished company formed the first Senate of the University, and served as an inspiration to the best and brightest of the developing colony to seek a higher education.

These were the years of firsts: the first graduates in all the disciplines, the first endowed scholarships, the first Australian university to admit women to degrees, and the appointment of internationally recognised academics, among them a future Nobel prize winner, to a staff of international distinction. In spite of the small numbers, with fewer than a dozen graduates in the early years, the University enjoyed the unstinting support of the local community.

The future was assured thanks to some extraordinary gifts from people such as Sir Walter Watson Hughes, Sir Thomas Elder, John Howard Angas, Robert Barr Smith, and many others.

Generosity and vision of our early benefactors

The founding of the University of Adelaide in 1874 - just the third university in Australia - was made possible by a gift of 20,000 by Sir Walter Watson Hughes. It was an enormous amount at the time and is equivalent to more than $21 million today. Sir Walter's contribution is today marked by the Hughes Building and two sculptures of Hughes--a marble bust in the Bonython Hall foyer and, most notably, a classical bronze sculpture in front of the Mitchell Building by Francis John Williamson (1833-1920).

Also renowned for his philanthropy was Sir Thomas Elder, a wealthy businessman and pastoralist who left 65,000 to the University upon his death in 1897, including 20,000 which was devoted to music. The University of Adelaide was the largest beneficiary of Elder's estate, enabling the building of Elder Hall opened in 1900, the establishment of the Elder Conservatorium of Music and Elder Professorship of Music.

An initial gift of 20,000 in 1874 was used to endow Chairs of Mathematics and Natural Science. Other generous gifts included 9,000 from Sir Thomas and Robert Barr Smith towards the establishment of the University's library.

Building a sporting heritage

In 1896 the Sports Association was established by the University's first sporting clubs - boating, tennis and lacrosse. Nobel Prize winner Sir William Henry Bragg was instrumental in setting up the Lacrosse club in 1889 and was the association's third Life Member in 1909. Today, Adelaide University Sport has 36 affiliated sporting clubs with a further three awaiting formal affiliation. This will make it the largest university sports association in Australia.

Australia's first female Science graduate

During the University's 1885 Commencement Ceremony, Edith Emily Dornwell made history as the first Bachelor of Science graduate and first female graduate. It was a landmark achievement with Adelaide only the second university after London to grant degrees to women. Edith's academic record was undeniably impressive - she was placed in the first class and consistently performed ahead of her mainly male counterparts. Chancellor Samuel Way expressed enormous pride in her achievements during his Commemoration Day speech:

"In your distinguished undergraduate career, and in the manner in which you have taken that degree, you have not merely done honour to the University, but you have vindicated the right of your sex to compete, and to compete on equal terms, with other undergraduates for the honours and distinctions of the University."



Milestones and achievements

1874 Dr Augustus Short, Bishop of Adelaide, elected Vice-Chancellor

1876 Bachelor of Arts (BA) is the first recognised degree. A Latin lecture on 28 March 1876 marks the first official lecture

1881 The University is the first in Australia, and only the second in the world, to admit women to academic courses nearly 40 years before Oxford

1882 The first University in Australia to receive royal ascent to grant degrees in Science

1883 Roseworthy Agricultural College founded

1884 First University in Australia to establish a Chair of Music

1885 The Faculty of Medicine established

1891 Laura Fowler is the first female graduate in Medicine and Surgery

1895 Adelaide University Union founded

1896 William Henry Bragg, Elder Professor of Mathematics and Experimental Physics, takes the first X-ray images in South Australia and the first in Australia to use X-ray for medical purposes

1897 The Elder Conservatorium of Music is the first music school of its type in Australia

1899 Library named Barr Smith Library Collection

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