The Scientific War: Universities and the First World War

27 March 2014

In 1914, at the outbreak of WWI, universities in Britain and Australia immediately threw themselves behind the war campaign. Approximately 35% of university students in Australia enlisted, and it was initially thought that the universities' contribution would be purely by increasing manpower. It was only when chemical gases began to be used on the Western Front in the first part of 1915 that British High Command realized that the war would be a scientific as well as a soldierly one. And Australia was a step ahead to provide the necessary expertise.

A symposium, War and Peace: Universities and the First World War, to be held at The University of Sydney on the 28th March, will delve into Australian universities' contribution to the first global conflict, exploring the role played by academic expertise, and the legacy of the war, including how it was remembered and commemorated.

The symposium is in conjunction with a University research project titled At War: The University of Sydney and the First World War. Through this project, historians Associate Professor Julia Horne and Dr Tamson Pietsch are uncovering the significant contribution that colonial academia made to the war effort, at a time when the government was investing in educational fields that would come to be highly sought after by the Allied Forces.

"Funded by state governments, and responsive to public calls for training that would be useful to industry and the developing colonial economies, Australian universities had since the 1880s established schools of medicine, engineering, and applied science (such as chemistry), mining and agriculture," said Dr Pietsch.

"This was exactly the kind of expertise that was crucial to the war effort."

"Chemists were needed for the production of dyes, explosives, drugs and poison gas; physicists and mathematicians for submarine detection, sound-ranging and aircraft design; geographers for map-making; and bacteriologists for sanitation and the treatment of wounds," said Dr Pietsch.

With so much upheaval during the war, there were of course lasting changes that resulted, both on campus and abroad. One of these changes was the growth in womens' involvement at Australian universities.

"While new educational opportunities for women meant many more were beginning to enrol at university before the war began, after 1915, their presence increased around the university—in lectures, in the library, even on the sporting field—as men went off to war," said Associate Professor Julia Horne.

Some further positive legacies were the increased scholarly connections between Britain and Australia, and a positive shift towards increased research funding.

"The war underlined to government the importance of scientific research," said Dr Pietsch, "creating the incubator for the predecessor of the CSIRO (the Australian Advisory Council of Science and Industry est. Jan 1916) and the beginnings of government support for research."

Event details:

What: War and Peace: Universities and the First World War

When: 9.30am - 7.30pm, Friday 28 March

Where: St Paul's College, University of Sydney

Cost: Registration essential, general $50, students $25

Bookings: here

The keynote speech by Professor Glenda Sluga is a free public Sydney Ideas event. Details here