Chemistry lectures 100 years ago

Waiting for a chemistry lecture to start – 1903

Waiting for a chemistry lecture to start – 1903

The photo above shows a chemistry class in 1903, waiting for the start of a lecture. Notice the numbers on the seats. Seat numbers were allocated and absent students could be identified by having the lecture attendant record numbers visible from the front. At least that was the student folk-lore.

Some in the photo wear academic gowns and the women in the class are seated together in the front row, placed there, we are told, "out of courtesy". Having them in lectures at all, let alone in mixed classes, had been strongly opposed when the University Senate debated the matter in the early 1880s. But the girls won out, thanks to their own determination and the support of the Chancellor William Manning, the Principal Charles Badham and others, including John Smith and Archibald Liversidge in Chemistry. Manning, in the Chancellor's Address of 1881, assured critics that "there would be no difficulty (with "conjoint instruction", as it was called) providing that the lectures … contain nothing of a nature to shock female delicacy".

"Overheads" were on printed canvas hung behind the bench

"Overheads" were on printed canvas hung behind the bench

We also know what the front of the theatre looked like for chemistry lectures a hundred years ago or anyway, for Liversidge's lectures. This is because, in the University Archives, there is a set of photographs taken before his lectures in the large Chemistry (now Pharmacy) theatre. They, and the class photos, were the work of Edward Hufton, lecture attendant in Chemistry for 36 years. The photo below, from a lecture on Gold, is typical. The front bench is covered by mineral samples, reagent bottles and glassware; and "overheads" are displayed on the wall behind the bench. The display panels were printed on large calico sheets in a prep room off the theatre (photo above). 60 lectures, 60 different displays.

For a lecture on gold, the front bench was covered with samples and reagents

For a lecture on gold, the front bench was covered with samples and reagents

Liversidge had established close links with the mining industry and this connection was reflected in the syllabus. Many of the panels displayed in his lectures illustrate industrial processes. The panels for a lecture on Iron, for example, show the compositions of various iron ores, the design of a blast furnace, how cast-iron is turned into wrought-iron by "puddling" and the use of a Bessemer "converter" in steel making.

The lectures themselves, it was said, were notable for their clarity and the skilful use he made of demonstrations, which were, according to his contemporary, geologist Edgeworth David, "always remarkably successful and impressive". I would like to have been in the audience for his lecture on liquid air. It rated a mention in a newspaper of the day. "The lecturer's explanations were so lucid" the Daily Telegraph of 17 August 1899 reported "that his hearers were able to follow him easily and showed their appreciation of this by frequent applause. Professor Anderson Stuart moved a vote of thanks which was carried amid loud cheers."

Liversidge did lecture experiments for 35 years and, as far as I know, had no serious accidents. That's more of a feat than you might imagine. Some of the demonstrations performed in those days were "really cool". Make that reckless. The literature is littered with accounts of what happened when they went wrong. One of my favourites tells how Justus Liebig, of Liebig condenser fame, was lucky to escape with minor injuries during a lecture in front of a distinguished audience in Munich in the 1850s. Liebig had successfully demonstrated "the strikingly beautiful combustion of carbon bisulfide in nitric oxide" and then made the mistake of going for an encore.

The tradition of doing demonstrations in chemistry lectures continues, although these days safety is paramount. Gone are the "extreme" demonstrations of earlier years and safety rules are stringent. Eventually, lecture experiments may disappear altogether and if that happens it will be a loss. There are always videos, of course, and they have a place. But nothing beats live demonstrations. They intrigue, delight and occasionally surprise. The lecturer, that is. Sometimes the students feel the same way.


  • My thanks to Tim Robinson, Manager of the University's Archives and Record Management Services, Reference Archivist Nyree Morrison and Geoff Barker, Curator of the Macleay Museum's Historic Photograph Collection.
  • T.W. Edgeworth David, Archibald Liversidge, J. Chem. Soc., (1931), 1039.
  • R. Winderlich, Prevention of Accidents When Handling Chemicals, J. Chem. Educ., 27 (1950), 670.
  • R.J.W. Le Fèvre, The Establishment of Chemistry Within Australian Science - Contributions from NSW, Ch.12 in A Century of Scientific Progress - The Centenary Volume of the Royal Society of NSW (1968).
  • Ever Reaping Something New. A Science Centenary, Eds. D. Branagan and H.G. Holland, University of Sydney (1985).
  • C. Turney, U. Bygott and P. Chippendale, Australia's First. A History of the University of Sydney, Vol. 1, 1850-1939, University of Sydney (1991).

Archibald Liversidge

John Collier

John Collier's portrait of Archibald Liversidge hangs in the Great Hall

Liversidge was 25 years of age when he joined the staff of the University of Sydney as a Reader in 1872. London-born and a graduate of the Royal School of Mines and College of Chemistry, he had won an open scholarship to study Natural Science at Cambridge University. There, in 1870, he was appointed Demonstrator in Chemistry, the position he left to come to Sydney.

His appointment here must have been something of a gamble but, if so, it was a gamble that paid off handsomely. He was a man of prodigious energy. Two years after his arrival, he was promoted to the Chair of Geology and Mineralogy and was soon involved, with his colleague John Smith, in the battle for increased funding to expand and update the teaching of Science.

Charles Badham, Principal and Classics Professor, understandably resisted any shift in the existing balance of power, in language that remains marvellously quotable. Writing in 1875, he argued that "a knowledge of the merest elements of these sciences [chemistry, physics and geology] will, in my judgement, be quite enough to satisfy public opinion, and it is only in deference to public opinion that the subjects form any part of University training. They are ornaments of the memory which may be acquired at any time of life".

Liversidge, however, was relentless. In a report submitted to the Government and the University Senate in 1880, he wrote that the University might extend its curriculum, "with great advantage to itself and to this Colony at large", to "afford instruction and laboratory practice in the scientific courses necessary for professional training in engineering, mining, agriculture, forestry, surveying and architecture". The following year, the Government increased the University's endowment and in 1882 the Senate voted to establish three new Faculties (Medicine, Law and Science). At this time, Liversidge's Chair was renamed the Chair of Chemistry and Mineralogy and, when the Faculty of Science was officially recognised, he became its first Dean.

Make a point some time to track down John Collier's portrait of Liversidge (photo above) which hangs in the Great Hall. The subject is seen, appropriately, in a lecturing pose, with pointer in one hand and mineral sample in the other. The signs of lecture experiments are all around him.