From UNSW: A Portrait (1999)

Patrick O’Farrell, the pre-eminent historian of the Irish and the Catholic Church in Australia and New Zealand, was long associated with the University of New South Wales, arriving in 1959 ten years after it had been founded as Sydney’s second university. Originally ‘The New South Wales University of Technology’, it grew out of Sydney Technical College, expanding rapidly in the 1950s and 60s:

The commencement of medicine in 1961 was, of course, a major extension of the university’s persona. But it was not until its actual establishment that the university fully realised how costly it was, particularly in relation to teaching hospitals, and this
in a university already, because of its scientific and technological nature, a high cost academic environment. The initial teaching hospitals were Prince Henry at Little Bay and Prince of Wales at Randwick, with specialised arrangements with some other metropolitan hospitals. For the first time in Australia clinical professors in the university medical school were directors of the clinical departments in the teaching hospitals. At every point in this enterprise there was criticism and contention, professional and public. The queen’s opening of the first building, in 1963, went forward with due pomp and apparent tranquillity, but in fact it was not until 1967 that the university itself felt relatively easy about its medical financing and teaching hospital provision.

Even by 1965 Medicine had gained an attractive reputation amongst those students not constrained by family traditions dictating continuance at the University of Sydney. And it offered advantages in other ways. If you took Maths as an option, and decided doctoring was not for you, you could transfer to Science, even Engineering at the end of first year. University of New South Wales courses were acquiring a superior reputation among informed parents by the 1970s. To a student reminiscing of entering in 1965 (won over by the Open Day comparisons), Sydney seemed entrenched in tradition, behind the scientific times. The University of New South Wales seemed new, with excellent teachers, much better equipment, and much more ‘modern’ in its attitude towards the science of the time. Experience in the medical school confirmed this. And also an atmosphere of happy harmony between students – male and female; impressionistically one-third Jewish, one-third ‘average Australians’, one-third Asian – with a staff significantly Catholic. Or so it was believed, though precise actualities suggest perhaps otherwise. Is it also apocryphal that at the Roundhouse medical ball in 1964 a professor stripped naked and danced around on the table? As in all medical matters, stories abound. As also in matters of students living very hard, experimenting with drugs, magic mushrooms, and the like. What seems to be the case, however, is a certain degree of pro-doctor prejudice among staff, who tended to anticipate in students a medical family background and a private school education. Correctly, by and large, in that many of the students were doctors’ sons who could not get into Sydney.

First Committee of Society of Students (forerunner to Students’ Union), including my father Bob Morgan standing third from left, 1951 [GK Cranny/UNSW Archives Collection]

So what? Medical students at the University of New South Wales were well aware of their superior facilities – for instance, four to a cadaver as against around thirty at Sydney, where facilities were ‘grim’. Those in a position to compare – in microbiology for instance – found a much closer relationship between students and tutors: in practical classes each tutor had ten or twelve students; at Sydney, thirty, with no chance to get to know students. And at the University of New South Wales the emphasis was on modern teaching methods – defining goals and what to know to get there. Set against this was the faculty’s policy for choosing the better students from first year Science at the cost of excluding their own bottom students, a practice which raised some vigorous parental objection. Even among staff there were those who protested, to the point of resignation, against the severity of standards. Indeed they were severe: anatomy and obstetrics held weekly examinations; other subjects demanded large ‘holiday’ tasks, physiology for instance. At the University of New South Wales determination to be equal to the best sometimes took it too far. The government was to intervene to allow more students to progress – leading to staff protest. And internal rumpus – the first professor of Physiology resigning in conflict with the dean, Rundle. Of the 117 who enrolled in the second intake in medicine, 26 reached the finals in December 1967. Over 75 per cent of the Class of 1968 were in specialty positions thirty years later. The student costs at university amounted to fatigue and some feeling of deprivation that there was not sufficient time to grow and enjoy  university life. In fact, in the clinical years the system and requirements of the course meant living in, in a variety of hospitals – little time or opportunity for ‘university life’.

There was some professional resistance to this new wave of intensive training. The 1950s and 1960s were dominated by anecdotal as against evidence-based medicine. Thus, there was some antipathy to academic, science-oriented medicine among general practitioners and hospitals – and it was there that the emphasis of the teaching of medicine at the University of New South Wales lay. However, the faculty had the initial advantage of hard men in charge, first-rate men of great ability and reputation, but, above all, deciders, autocrats with it – master builders of a new, complex, medical edifice. Within the rules of the institution, though. Evolved from public service and Sydney Technical College backgrounds was a rigid teaching hourage requirement: at the top, tutors around sixteen hours a week; graduating down to  professors at four to six hours, with allowance for evening classes. Strict adherence to this was the basic requirement for any argument for
additional staff. Medicine was no exception to this rule. The university’s reputation for hard-working teachers in all faculties sprang in part from youth and commitment but also from this simple measure of coercion.

As to Medicine, a major influence was the relationship (if that is the right word) with Sydney University: dead hostile initially to the University of New South Wales medical school; then anger, resentment, regret, and finally acceptance – though not without using its old boys’ network to secure the new Westmead Hospital in the 1970s, and attempting to outstrip the University of New South Wales in its decision to introduce the five-year degree in 1973-74 (the six-year course came back in 1988). Medical politics tended to be petty, competitive, and nasty: in no area did the University of Sydney-University of New South Wales rivalry last longer, or be as intense, as in medicine. Meanwhile, John Hickey and Doug Tracy were putting St Vincent’s ahead on the medical map. And major developments focussed on Prince of Wales, to make it the major hospital it is today.

Professor Fred Hollows, 1978 [UNSW Archives]

At the University of New South Wales were lateral-thinking, teaching doctors, destined to be leaders in their fields: Penny, Dwyer, HollowsBeveridge, McCloskey, and so on – men who did not wish to stay with the establishment, but to create and mould a new medical world of their own. As human beings. Their attitude to patients – listen, talk – was very different from the superiority affected by Sydney. At that early stage, entry was not determined by an astronomical, competitive Tertiary Entrance Rank (TER) performance, a situation of requirement which many medical staff were to deplore: students offering no people skills, indeed anything beyond being good at getting marks.

-Patrick O’Farrell, New Zealander-Australian, 1933-2003


From The Diaries of Beatrice Webb (1898) – 1

Fabian Society members Sidney and Beatrice Webb visited Australia in 1898. By and large, they were not impressed:

October 5

A long conversation with the intelligent principal shopman in the largest bookstore in Sydney (the proprietor, by the way, a man of 35 or so, was standing at the door at 5 p.m. considerably “in liquor”). The shopman was a refined and rather depressed man of literary tastes. He said there was no sale for anything but cheap novels, supplied from England in Colonial editions at from sixpence to half a crown. The rich people bought little or nothing else, and many purchased nothing more literary than the weekly editions of the newspapers (the Australasian and the Sydney Mail chiefly). A newly enriched man had lately given them an order for £100 of books, all light literature, principally cheap novels. There had been something of a boom in cheap sociology eight years ago, but that had quite died out. But the young Australian writers – Lawson, Paterson, Daley – were now selling well and he still sold about a thousand copies a year of Gordon’s poems, which were known to every bushman. He attributed this popularity to Gordon’s reputation as the best and most fearless rider ever known in Australia, and to his poems dealing with horseracing. There had been a little set of bookbuyers in Melbourne, but this had died out. Australia had one great and wealthy collector – Mr Mitchell of Sydney – who collected every scrap relating to Australia – old newspapers, pamphlets etc. He complained that English newspapers or publishers would not accept Australian MSS – his wife wrote, and he had tried to place both her and others’ MSS in England in vain. The Australian public would not buy Australian productions until these had the English approval; Rolf Boldrewood himself could not sell his works until Bentley had brought out Robbery Under Arms.

The Bulletin, he said, had really been “made” by a dissolute but very clever Frenchman named Argles, who wrote the dramatic criticism, and originated the present characteristic style of the whole paper. But Argles worked through Archibald the principal editor, on whom he had a great influence until his (Argles) death from consumption. Now Archibald had gathered round him a brilliant staff of young Bohemians.

Beatrice Webb, c.1875 (London School of Economics)

Beatrice Webb, c.1875 (London School of Economics)

October 7

Dined at the Women’s College. A refined and intelligent Scotch woman (a graduate of London University) Miss Macdonell [sic] is the Principal, and has gathered from all parts of New South Wales and Queensland, 14 students. Like the rest of the University the Women’s College is depressed; is, in fact, struggling into life in spite of the steady indifference, if not hostility, of Australian Society. “Let the women keep to the kitchen” said a wealthy man who was asked for a subscription; and he fairly represented Australian opinion. And yet the cooking is so bad! As far as one can make out, the Australian girls spend their time in making their own clothes, except when they are wearing them in the company of young men. The clothes are fresh and flashy: powder and paint ruin complexions and the women age rapidly. The women of Australia are not her finest product.

–Beatrice Webb, English, 1858-1943

From Sex and Anarchy — the life and death of the Sydney Push (1996)

In 19th Century Sydney, gangs called ‘pushes’ dominated Sydney’s streets – most notorious of all was the Rocks Push. From the 1940s to the 1970s, the Libertarian intellectuals of the Sydney Push, disciples of Sydney University’s Professor of Philosophy John Anderson, held court at the Royal George Hotel (now the Slip Inn) and cafes like the Lincoln Coffee Lounge, Rowe Street:

There is a phrase ‘Sydney scepticism’ that people talk of sometimes. It suggests there is something in the air Sydneysiders breathe that makes them look side-on at life, wary of idealism. Melbourne is supposed to have a headier, more metaphysical brew that makes Melburnians hatch plans for improving the world or the lot of the poor. If there is a difference between Sydney and Melbourne it goes way back. It has something to do with Sydney’s mix of crims and ratbags and radicals (especially radicals) who were convicts or those who followed them. Sydney was not a civilised place. In Victoria they built Marvellous Melbourne, but Sydney was a rough and tumble world, a place that all manner of people passed through in the first hundred years or so; where high ideals for a new society, dreams of a better life, and the harsh reality of imperial England rubbed shoulders constantly. Not homogenous, not proper, and not even trying to be.

Folk singing, Royal George Hotel, Feb 1964, Robin Smith.  State Library of NSW

Folk singing, Royal George Hotel, Feb 1964, Robin Smith.
(State Library of NSW)

When John Anderson arrived in 1927, Sydney was moving away from that; it was entering its most highly Anglicised phase. The internment of foreign nationals during World War I, the hue and cry over the great strike of 1917, had set up a reaction that made the great bulk of Sydneysiders aspire to be more British than the British. By mid-century it was easy to forget how rich and varied Sydney had once been.

Reading the works of European radicals seemed a bizarre and iconoclastic thing to do in 1950, as if it had never been done before. But it had. Not only was the Push an extension of a long bohemian tradition, but the Libertarians were also continuing an intellectual tradition of sorts; one harder to spot, impossible really to trace, carried along in the battered suitcases of migrant German intellectuals and Irish radicals, seen only occasionally, but there nonetheless. Anarchism was nothing new in Sydney.


John Barry, proprietor (standing at rear) from Lincoln Coffee Lounge & Cafe, Rowe Street, Sydney / photographed by Brian Bird c. 1948-1951. State Library of NSW

John Barry, proprietor (standing at rear) from Lincoln Coffee Lounge & Cafe, Rowe Street, Sydney / photographed by Brian Bird c. 1948-1951.
(State Library of NSW)

The role of the bumptious larrikin, the insurgent, the radical, and the underdog, the victories that can never be won, was legitimised by the Bulletin magazine, whose editor, J. F. Archibald, furthered the mythology of rebellion.

Then Nietzsche was taken up by Sydney intellectuals. Norman Lindsay and his circle latched on to him, partly because he allowed them to see themselves, as artists, as something beyond ordinary men, a mistake the Libertarians would never allow themselves to make. The notion of the artist as a godlike creature would not have found favour among them. Nietzsche had something to offer everyone. But his main impact on Sydney intellectualism was to confirm what the convicts and disaffected Irish rebels already knew: God is dead.

Out of all these elements grew the notion of ‘Sydney scepticism’. In the second quarter of the twentieth century came the Great Depression, another World War and the dropping of the atom bomb. It is no wonder that in the third quarter Sydney scepticism, run through the sieve of Andersonianism, should have expressed itself as the pessimistic anarchism of the Push.

The debate of cause and effect was one that frequently occupied Libertarian theoreticians like Molnar and Baker. Some might see it as an old chicken-and-egg argument, nature versus nurture. Philosophers call it the ‘direction of causality’. And like much that occupied the Libertarians, it went back to Anderson.


If one accepted, as Marx had said, that society was shaped by historical forces, what did it mean for human beings? Was their nature shaped by historical forces or were they the driving impetus behind historical forces? Put another way, could social movements change human nature or were changes in human nature necessary to further social movements?

Anderson did not believe in either. He thought human nature unchangeable. But he did accept that from time to time the social barometer shifted. This he attributed to social movements. Human nature had nothing to do with it. To Anderson, social movements were the fundamental units of society. This led his followers into rocky waters, such as the time when one Andersonian, Harry Eddy, backed into a corner at a conference, was pressured into saying: ‘If there were no people, there would still be social movements.’

‘It was a nonsense,’ George Molnar says, a grossly anti-common-sense view that denied the obvious. The Libertarians were not prepared to leave people out of the picture to that extent. Their idea was that if you changed social structures then people would change. Roelof [Smilde], in particular, believed passionately in this. His old girlfriend Marion Hollwood says: ‘He was a crank about it.’

–Ann Coombs, Australian