To mark the 140th anniversary of the opening of Auckland University College (AUC), Special Collections has taken a closer look at the appointment and careers of the first four professors.
AUC was officially opened with great fanfare on 21 May 1883 at a ceremony in Choral Hall by his Excellency the Governor of New Zealand, Sir William Jervois. Also on the stage were members of the College Council, but only three of the four recently appointed professors.1
Despite the grand opening, however, the new university was a rather humble affair. With an income of £4000 a year, no money for new buildings and only the ramshackle former District Courthouse and Parliament at its disposal, it was possibly not what the new professors, fresh from the hallowed halls of Oxford and Cambridge, had expected.
Careful selection marred by tragedy
Selected by Sir Francis Dillon Bell, the Agent-General for New Zealand in London, the new professors had an impressive array of qualifications and came highly recommended but by today’s standards, were relatively young. Thomas Tucker, Classics and English was just 24, Algernon Thomas, Natural Sciences, and George Walker, Mathematics, were 26, while the eldest, Frederick Brown, Chemistry, was 31.2
They had arrived in New Zealand just weeks before the official opening, but within days of their arrival Walker drowned in a boating accident on the Waitemata; luckily Tucker was rescued from the hull of the upturned craft. Until Walker’s replacement arrived in the country later in the year, Thomas and Brown had to teach mathematics in addition to their own subjects.3
Both Thomas and Brown taught until 1913 and even in retirement were active in College affairs. Thomas attended the Golden Jubilee celebrations in 1933, and the Biological Sciences building named in his honour serves as a lasting reminder of his legacy.
- To learn more about the lives of the first four professors, visit the display outside Special Collections, Level G, General Library | Te Herenga Mātauranga Whānui until Friday 23 June 2023.
Katherine Pawley, Special Collections
1 Auckland University College: formal opening. (22 May 1883). Auckland Star. p.2.
2 The Professors of the Auckland University. (10 April 1883). New Zealand Herald. p.5.
3 Sinclair, K., & McNaughton, T. (1983). A history of the University of Auckland, 1883-1983. Auckland University Press. p.22.
Featured image: Detail of letter from Sir Francis Dillon Bell to Algernon Thomas, 1882. Material relating to academic career, Sir Algernon Thomas papers. MSS. Archives. A-54, folder 1/3