Story: Physics, chemistry and mathematics

Page 2. New Zealand research institutions, 1870s to 2000s

All images & media in this story

The development of a New Zealand university system from the 1870s allowed higher-level teaching of chemistry and mathematics. Despite this, it took almost a century for the universities to become major research centres. In the 20th century government and private institutions were set up as bases for scientific research into problems facing industry and agriculture.

University-based chemistry, physics and mathematics

The University of Otago, New Zealand’s first university, was founded in 1869 and opened in 1871. One of its three original professors was John Shand, who taught mathematics and natural philosophy (which included physics). Shand was soon joined by James Gow Black, New Zealand’s first professor of chemistry. Both Shand and Black concentrated on teaching, with little opportunity to carry out original research.

University of New Zealand Colleges were founded at Canterbury in 1873, Auckland in 1883 and Wellington (Victoria) in 1899. Each had lecturers teaching chemistry, physics and mathematics. Some teachers, such as the mathematicians William Aldis of Auckland and Richard Maclaurin of Victoria, were brilliant practitioners of their subjects. Lecturers were, however, allowed little time for research and few students were interested in postgraduate work.

Treacle-tin chemistry

Professor Thomas Easterfield, who taught chemistry and physics, described the early physics equipment at Victoria. ‘Most of the apparatus was home-made, treacle tins made excellent calorimeters and long stretched wires for quantitative experiments on linear expansion. There was no spectrometer, but with a small photographic replica of a Rowland’s grating, a telescope at the far end of the laboratory, and a carefully measured base line, the students obtained fair values for the wave length of sodium light.’1

University theoretical and research work

Alexander Bickerton, chemistry and physics professor at Canterbury, complained of the difficulty of getting students interested in research. The outstanding exception was his student Ernest Rutherford. Bickerton himself developed a theory that a range of astronomical phenomena, including the birth of stars, was created by the ‘partial impact’ of heavenly bodies. Bickerton continued to promote his theory long after its rejection by the broader scientific community.

Thomas Easterfield, foundation chemistry professor at Victoria, conducted a major study of the chemical properties of native plants. In 1919 Canterbury physics professor Coleridge Farr carried out economically significant research on the failure of porcelain electric insulators. Farr discovered the cause of the problems through experiments conducted in the corner of his physics lab, using a pot of dye and an old compressor. Despite these pioneering efforts, New Zealand universities only became major research centres in the 1960s, with increased emphasis on research-based postgraduate degrees.

Cawthron Institute

The Cawthron Institute, a private scientific research centre based in Nelson, was established in 1921 from the bequest of businessman Thomas Cawthron. The institute’s early focus on agricultural and horticultural problems meant that it employed several chemists, including the first director, Thomas Easterfield, formerly of Victoria University College. The Cawthron researchers concentrated on devising solutions to practical problems, rather than developing abstract scientific theories.

Chance favours the prepared mind

The cause of the sheep disease facial eczema was unknown in the 1950s. In 1958 J. C. Percival, a technician at the Animal Research Station at Ruakura, was mowing the lawns at the Claudelands showground when he noticed a black deposit on the mower blades. Chemical analysis proved this to be a fungus, now called Pithomyces chartarum, which produced the toxin responsible for facial eczema.


The government established the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR) in 1926 to co-ordinate scientific research beneficial to the New Zealand economy. Ernest Marsden, an English physicist and one of Rutherford’s students, was appointed to head the DSIR. The department employed a number of chemists, mostly working on agricultural issues. In 1939 the Department of Agriculture also set up its own Animal Research Division, which employed several chemists.

The role of DSIR physicists gained more attention during the Second World War. Physicists developed New Zealand’s own radar programme, including methods of mounting mobile radar stations on trucks. Eight DSIR physicists and engineers went to the US and Canada to work on the development of the atomic bomb and atomic energy.

The DSIR’s work in chemistry and physics had a very practical focus, but sometimes led to wide-ranging discoveries. For example, in 1954–55 Athol Rafter and Gordon Fergusson carried out studies on atmospheric carbon-14. They concluded that carbon-14 levels were increasing due to large-scale atmospheric nuclear bomb tests. Rafter’s work was also important in refining radiocarbon dating techniques.

In 1992 the DSIR was disestablished, with a range of Crown research institutes (CRIs) set up in its place. The CRIs carry out applied science, answering specific environmental and economic questions. Like their earlier counterparts at the DSIR, CRI scientists have generally worked on direct problem-solving rather than broader theoretical work.

  1. Quoted in J. C. Beaglehole, Victoria University College: an essay towards a history. Wellington: New Zealand University Press, 1949, p. 48. Back
How to cite this page:

Rebecca Priestley, 'Physics, chemistry and mathematics - New Zealand research institutions, 1870s to 2000s', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 8 June 2023)

Story by Rebecca Priestley, published 22 Oct 2014