Modernising (1900 to 1950)

These web pages provide a brief overview of the history of the University of Sydney and the major figures of our history, including those who studied here and went on to have a major impact after graduating.

A number of authoritative sources provide more detailed information.

National leadership

Painting of Edmund Barton, courtesy of the State Library of New South Wales

As it reached its first half century, the University of Sydney was already fulfilling Wentworth’s desire that it deliver graduates able to shape the destiny of Australia and the wider world.

In 1901, Edmund Barton (MA 1870, see painting, courtesy of the State Library of New South Wales) became Australia's first prime minister in the country's inaugural federal election. Barton had been one of the key drivers behind the federation of the Australian colonies, and as prime minister he played a major role in making the commonwealth a functioning reality.

Barton was the first in a line of leading political figures to have studied at the University of Sydney.

Sydney in the wars

Image of one of the bells of the carillon

The world wars of the first half of the 20th century saw the University actively engaged in supporting the war effort through providing intelligence work, scientific advice, and the testing of war materials.

The research of University staff during World War Two in particular, along with that in Australia's other universities, helped to establish the post-war view that university research could be beneficial to the community – a key driving force behind our work today.

Members of the University community also served on the front line, and many lost their lives. Around 1800 members of the University saw active service in World War One, of whom 197 were killed (the first Australian officer to die, Brian Pockley, was a Sydney graduate). In their memory, a carillon, for which money was raised by public subscription, was installed in the University’s Clocktower.

In World War Two, more than 4000 members of the University community served in the military forces, of whom 250 were killed.

Plaques underneath the University's Clocktower commemorate all those members of the University community who lost their lives during the wars.

World War One

The war years revealed many inspiring stories.

Maud McCarthy, who took the University's senior examination in the 1870s, was the head nurse for Allied forces in Europe – the only head of a department in the British Expeditionary Force who remained in their original post throughout the war.

At the outbreak of World War One, she sailed in the first ship to leave England with members of the British Expeditionary Force. In 1915 she was installed at Abbeville as matron-in-chief of the BEF in France and Flanders, taking charge of the whole area from the Channel to the Mediterranean. By the time of the Armistice she oversaw more than 6000 nurses, who nursed hundreds of thousands of casualties from 1914 to 1918.

Also on the Western Front, the University’s Professor of Geology, Edgeworth David, who had returned to Sydney after his Antarctic exploits with Ernest Shackleton, joined the Australian Mining Corps in 1916, providing geological advice that produced dramatic results for the allies. He guided allied troops on the construction of dugouts, trenches, and tunnels, and advised on the provision of pure drinking water from underground supplies.

Photo of Frank Cotton

World War Two

Several University departments were engaged in war work during World War Two – on medical needs, on camouflage work, on research for optical munitions and radio locations, and on a range of war-time engineering problems.

One of our academics, Professor of Physiology Frank Cotton (pictured), applied his work on respiration and circulation to the problem of fighter pilots 'blacking out' during high-speed manoeuvres.

His research, focused on combating the impact on the body of centrifugal force, led to the development of an aerodynamic anti-gravity suit filled with a series of air sacs that helped regulate body pressure. The suit was used extensively by Allied fighter pilots during the war.

Before the war, Stephen Roberts, Challis Professor of History from 1929 to 1947 (also Vice-Chancellor 1947 to 1967), had repeatedly warned of the dangers of appeasement.

His book The House that Hitler Built (1937), based on his visits to Germany in 1936, brought him fame as a commentator on Nazi Germany. While Roberts initially sought to project the image of an impartial and objective observer of the Nazi regime, from 1936 to 1938 he became increasingly concerned at the extent to which Nazi policies posed a threat to peace in the world.

Changing structures

Painting of Mungo MacCallum, the first Vice-Chancellor of the University

As the wider world experienced pervasive change in the first half of the 20th century, the University of Sydney responded to ensure it could best serve modern society through the breadth of its teaching curriculum and research activities.

The recognition for the need for more vocational degrees saw the launch of new programs, including dentistry, architecture, agriculture, veterinary science and economics.

Undergraduates became more vocal about their rights during this time – leading to the creation of the Students' Representative Council and the provision for student representation on the University's Senate.

Changes to the University's academic and administrative structures were mirrored by major physical changes to the campus, largely due to the inspiration of Leslie Wilkinson, who was appointed university architect in 1919.

Following World War One, a major academic reorganisation saw the creation of six new faculties, to join the existing faculties of Arts, Science, Law and Medicine. This academic restructuring was matched by important administrative changes, including the creation of a permanent chief executive role, the vice-chancellor, from 1924 (the position hitherto known as vice-chancellor became deputy chancellor). The first vice-chancellor was Mungo MacCallum, professor of modern literature from 1887 to 1920 (see painting courtesy of the University Art Collection, reproduced with the kind permission of Mr David Longstaff Caldwell).

Throughout the early part of the 20th century, benefaction continued to play a key role. A large bequest from Samuel McCaughey (1919) enabled the appointment of new professors in Arts, Engineering, Medicine, and Dentistry, and George Henry Bosch (1928) funded new chairs in various fields of medicine.

In fact, by 1930 income from the Challis, McCaughey, and Bosch funds accounted for a quarter of the University's general expenditure.


This website provides a brief overview of the history of the University of Sydney and the major figures of our history, including those who studied here and went on to have a major impact after graduating.

The website of the University's Senate also provides links to interesting information and articles about the University's history.

For a more detailed history, you may find one of the following publications useful:

  • Australia's First: A History of the University of Sydney, Volume I 1850–1939, by C Turney, U Bygott and P Chippendale, and Volume II 1940–1990 by WF Connell, GE Sherington, BH Fletcher, C Turney and U Bygott
  • University of Sydney Architecture by Trevor Howells (introduction by Julia Horne and Trevor Howells)
  • Australian Dictionary of Biography