Chemistry exams - 1907

A hundred years ago, exams in chemistry took place once a year, in the last week of Michaelmas Term, and the exam papers were included in the following year's University Calendar. Three of them are reproduced in the boxes. These are the papers sat by third year chemistry students in December 1907, at the end of Professor Liversidge's final year in charge. The time allowed for each paper was 3 hours.

Liversidge, an inorganic and geochemist, was on home ground with Paper A and, if the question on candle, bunsen and blowpipe flames was vintage, even in 1907, the same can't be said of the question on radioactive elements. Henri Becquerel discovered radioactivity in 1896 and, with the Curies, had won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1903. Marie Curie would be honoured again in 1911, this time with the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, for her work on radium (Ra) and Polonium (Po). There was much speculation in the early 1900s about the occurrence and origin of radioactivity and, in the Chemical Laboratory here at the University of Sydney, Douglas Mawson and Thomas Laby, right at the start of their own distinguished careers, were busy with a Wilson electroscope testing Australian minerals for radioactivity. The paper reporting their observations was read before the Royal Society of NSW in 1904.

1907 Chemistry III exam paper A: inorganic chemistry

1907 Chemistry III exam paper A: inorganic chemistry

The chemistry of carbon compounds was examined in Paper B. By 1907, courses on organic chemistry had been delivered and examined at Sydney University for over 20 years but it was in no way Liversidge's area and proper development of the subject here would not begin until the establishment of an Organic Chair in 1912.

1907 Chemistry III exam paper B: Carbon chemistry

1907 Chemistry III exam paper B: Carbon chemistry

Which leaves Paper C. This examined a course given on the History of Chemical Philosophy and Discovery. From time to time, attempts have been made to introduce the history and philosophy of science (HPS) into the formal chemistry syllabus as a compulsory subject in the third year. After all, knowing about the past should make it easier to understand the present and perhaps point the way to the future. The attempts have been short-lived. Today, HPS courses are offered at this University as separate options at Intermediate, Senior and Honours levels.

1907 Chemistry III paper C: History and Philosophy

1907 Chemistry III paper C: History and Philosophy

Exam papers, however, are only part of the story. You can read what the students themselves thought about exams a hundred years ago on the pages of Hermes, then the magazine of the Undergraduates' Association. Editorials, written in the florid style so popular at that time, regularly railed against the examination system and its defects.

In a 1906 Hermes editorial, the examination system itself was called "the absolute ruin of true education". Scorned was "the book-worm" who "will stifle between his dusty shelves"; and even worse, "the examination fiend … the pot-hunter. For the evils of the modern examination system are often intensified by valuable prizes" which "may become unworthy baits of base desire and ill-digested information".

You may not be surprised to learn that there followed a passionate plea for a more active social life at University. The sporting side of University life passed muster "because it tends, more strongly than any other single interest, to foster social feeling". Also gaining approval (I think) were women students who "so far as Hermes, in the absence of a woman editor, can judge, seem socially active. This is probably due" the editor continued "partly to their comparatively small number, and partly to their feminine nature, which finds satisfaction in entertaining and being entertained". Otherwise "the social pulse" was seen as "feeble and slow".

In the photo below, from the University Archives, master photographer Harold Cazneaux catches an exam in progress in the Great Hall in 1927 and at the same time does justice to that most impressive of venues. My thanks to Reference Archivist Julia Mant for providing it.

An examination in progress in the Great Hall

An examination in progress in the Great Hall

Sources

  • University of Sydney University Calendar, 1908 and the following:
  • D. Mawson and T.H. Laby, Preliminary Observations on Radio-activity and the Occurrence of Radium in Australian Minerals, J. Roy. Soc. NSW, 38 (1904), 382.
  • Hermes editorial, Our Social Life, 12(4) (1906), 39.
  • Ever Reaping Something New. A Science Centenary. Eds. D. Branagan and H.G. Holland, University of Sydney (1985).