Early science in Sydney: the labours of Archibald Liversidge
Roy MacLeod, Emeritus Professor of History at Sydney University, has had a distinguished and productive career and is a man of many parts. He studied History, History of Science, and Biochemical Sciences at Harvard, Sociology at the London School of Economics, and History and Philosophy of Science at Cambridge. He joined the new Social Policy Research Unit at Sussex University in 1966 and was later appointed to the foundation chair in Science Education at London University, prior to his appointment to his chair in Australia in 1982. At Sydney University, he taught a wide range of subjects but was, almost as often as not, away on visiting fellowships or consultancies, or teaching at other universities round the world. He has many research papers and has edited or co-edited numerous books, as well as being editor of Minerva. Throughout his time in Sydney, we knew that he was working on a ‘big book’—a biography of Archibald Liversidge (1846–1927), one of the early science professors at Sydney University. But, like the Messiah, the magnum opus never seemed to appear, and in fact, it only did so after Roy’s retirement. But it is a big book and now that it has finally appeared it does not disappoint!
Liversidge’s research publications, though numerous, were fairly humdrum in character and were mostly concerned with routine mineral analyses. So ‘Why on earth write a “big book” on Liversidge?’, more than one colleague was heard to mutter sotto voce.
Well, MacLeod has at long last confounded his critics by writing an outstanding volume about the (or at the very least a) major founder of science education in New South Wales, the early history of Sydney University, and the early development of technical education in the State, not to mention Liversidge’s work for the Royal Society of NSW, the Australian (later Australasian) Association for the Advancement of Science, as well as his contacts with Sydney’s Botanic Gardens and its Museum. He also organised NSW’s contributions to several international exhibitions (including a major one in Sydney in 1879, the magnificent building for which was tragically destroyed by arson, thereby reducing to rubble what would have been one of the city’s major architectural features). Liversidge was also responsible for the construction of science teaching rooms and laboratories, and the establishment of a mining school at the University.
MacLeod traces Liversidge’s career in great detail from his middle-class London background, a successful passage through the courses at the Royal School of Mines and thence in 1870 to Christ’s College, Cambridge, where he was entered for the Natural Science Tripos to read Chemistry. He was troubled by his lack of background in Latin, then deemed essential for a ‘sound’ education and did not finish his science course at Cambridge—not because he tripped over Latin but because he was offered a readership in Geology and Mineralogy at Sydney even before he had finished his Cambridge programme! But by travelling to Sydney in 1874, he missed the opportunity to take full advantage of the burgeoning scientific work that was taking root in the venerable university, and he had no significant research record to take to Australia.
So, in essence, what Liversidge took with him was the ethos of the Royal School of Mines and the techniques and skills that he had acquired there. Thus, he was skilled in the chemical analysis of minerals, and this was in large measure what he sought to teach at Sydney. The University had opened its doors to students (RM’s words) in 1852, with magnificent sandstone buildings designed in the Oxbridge style, and with a curriculum (largely of Classics and Mathematics) that also mimicked Oxbridge (though science subjects were included in the Arts degree). But all was not going well. Few secondary schools taught Latin, and the colony’s population was still small, so there were rather few students. For the science parts of the curriculum, there was little provision for laboratory teaching, and there was insufficient money for the establishment of a good science school. So, for many years, Liversidge had to ‘lobby’ for funds and he and the University were constantly trying to squeeze money from a variety of governments. There must also have been an income stream from student fees, but MacLeod says little about that aspect of things. Also, since there are so many references to government changes, a synoptic table or timeline of ministries would have been useful to readers.
Besides having to chase after money, Liversidge had to do battle with the entrenched Classics professor, Charles Badham, who was resistant to encroachments from the sciences. Initially, there was no separate science curriculum but (as said) Arts students were ‘required’ to do some science courses, which in Liversidge’s day meant, so far as I can judge, doing endless chemical analyses. There appears (so far as MacLeod’s account shows) to have been no ‘philosophical’ chemistry, explaining how and why the atomic theory was arrived at, and how atomic weights, valencies, and formulae could be determined, and how the mysteries of matter were explored. Organic chemistry had a minor place in the menu, and likewise, physical chemistry was ‘thin’, though spectroscopy appeared in the syllabus for 1898–1899 (the only one reproduced by MacLeod). And Liversidge lectured on crystallography. What he was aiming for, and did eventually achieve, was a School of Mines, which was indeed appropriate for a colony where so much of its wealth was (and still is) based on mining. (He did not give corresponding attention to agriculture.) And as the University grew, it acquired chairs for Physics, Geology, Biological Sciences, Medicine, Agriculture, Engineering, etc. Liversidge was soon promoted to a chair in Chemistry and became Dean of Science. But it was many years before a coherent structure was developed for both Arts and Science students, and numerous battles were fought (particularly with Badham!). MacLeod recounts these problems in detail, especially with regard to the political ‘environment’. Liversidge emerges as a tireless and effective administrator and negotiator and an advocate for science and technology in Sydney as a whole, not just at the University.
MacLeod provides a table (Appendix V) that helpfully shows the evolution from 1852 to 1912 of the Arts and Science curriculums (the latter only appearing as such in 1883). They are weird by today’s reckoning! Latin lurked in the Science degree until 1889 and science subjects appeared in the Arts degree through to 1912. (One may suppose, though, that C. P. Snow would have approved.) It would have been helpful, though, if some sample examination papers were reproduced in the book, as they, better than anything else, can indicate course content and standards.
It appears that, although well organised, Liversidge was not a great teacher, hampered as he was by a stammer, and the students in his lectures were often rowdy. He did not really do significant research either, contenting himself with collecting specimens (chiefly minerals, ethnological materials, and tektites/meteorites) and performing endless analyses. His only book was The Minerals of New South Wales (three editions), which was a compilation as much as anything. He did have substantial research interests in the crystalline forms of gold and the analysis of meteorites. The latter could have led to cutting-edge research. But it did not. By contrast, his Physics colleague, Professor Richard Threlfall, did pioneering work in electrical physics and gravimetry. He was somewhat younger than Liversidge and had assimilated the Cambridge research ethos—in part no doubt as a result of working under J. J. Thomson—much more strongly than his older colleague. Liversidge also never did much in the way of geological research per se and was eventually overshadowed in that field by the notable geologist and explorer T. W. Edgeworth David, who was appointed to a chair in Geology in 1891.
Threlfall resigned in 1898 to take up a good position in British industry and acquired a knighthood and an FRS. By contrast, Liversidge (also an FRS) stayed in Sydney until his age of retirement, when he returned to England, perhaps without regret, to a fine home that he purchased in Kingston-upon-Thames, and continued his analytical work in London. He did not marry and his will was chiefly in the form of various benefactions for scientific researchers or bodies. I see Liversidge as a kind of Australian equivalent of Lyon Playfair—a great scientific administrator even if not a notable scientist. But Playfair was, of course, much more overtly political than Liversidge.
So, were MacLeod’s early critics right to disparage him for spending so much time on a scientist such as Liversidge? Certainly, they would be right if he just wrote about his scientific accomplishments. But if we consider, rather, what the book has to say about the history of science education in London, Cambridge, and Sydney, and the social history of colonial (or ‘imperial’) science, it has a great deal to recommend it. It is also a notable addition to our knowledge of Sydney University’s history. It is admirably written, well illustrated, and exceedingly well documented. It is, however, rather awkward to read, in that the notes are at the back of the book, and it is irksome to try to find there what one may be looking for. I should much have preferred footnotes to endnotes, or at the very least, the pages with the endnotes could have indicated the pages of the text to which they referred. But this is the publisher’s deficiency, not Roy MacLeod’s.