History of the school

The School has had a long and distinguished history since its establishment in 1851 with the appointment of Professor John Smith, one of the three foundation professors of the University, to the Chair of Chemistry and Experimental Physics.

Did you know the Chemistry Building is architecturally historic? Want to find out what lectures or practical classes were like here 100 years ago or read the biographies of some of the School's early professors? To read more visit The building of the Chemistry School and The construction of the Chemistry School. In the following articles the late Dr Jim Eckert writes about the history of the School and the University.

To find out more about Dr Jim Eckert please visit here.

The Early Years

What were chemistry lectures like a hundred years ago? Were there lecture demonstrations; and what did lecturers use as "visual aids" before they had overhead and slide projectors? What did the chemistry labs look like? How demanding was the prac? And how safe? And those photos from the 1850s, of gentlemen in stove-pipe hats and of stonemasons carving gargoyles for the Main Building. Who took them and how was it done – when photography was in its infancy?

Professors and third year students in 1881

Professors and third year students, 1881

Gargoyles and Curtain Walls

Chemistry has been at Sydney University from the start, that is, for 160 years, and in that time has had three long-term homes. First, there were rooms at the southern end of the Main Building and then, from 1890, a specially designed building in Science Road. With additions, the Science Road complex served Chemistry for the next 68 years. By early 1959, the present building was ready for occupation and was officially opened at a ceremony held in June the following year.

Among the articles in this collection is an account of the construction of the building, printed here with Frank Hurley's fine aerial photo of the University taken in the late 1940s (below) and, on the inside front cover, a bird's-eye-view map drawn in the early 1950s, not long before planning began on the new building.

Much has changed in the past half-century. Mainly, what was open space then is now largely covered by buildings, reflecting a 5-fold increase in student numbers and a massive expansion of the courses on offer. It has been a challenging time, for staff and students alike – and the challenges continue.

Frank Hurley

Sydney University, photo by Frank Hurley, late 1940s

Toastracks and Air-Raid Shelters

The University's great East Range was built in the 1850s. Yet, when lectures moved there from the City, the total student enrolment was only 50 and there was no guarantee when (or if) the number would get much bigger. The whole enterprise has been called "an audacious act of Victorian optimism" and it was certainly that.

At the bottom of this page, the drawing, of the Main building and Great Hall, is unmistakably the work of Allan Gamble who was on the University's staff for many years, first as a Senior Lecturer in Architecture, later as a member of the Administrative Staff and Director of the War Memorial Art Gallery. More of his evocative sketches are to be found in the first of the articles presented here.
Among the pieces that follow, the students at the University a hundred years ago are recalled and so too the "toastracks" that once carried Sydneysiders around this City. There is an article on the University during two World Wars, a look at three photos from the University Archives that span almost half a Century and a piece on the University in the 1960s, a time of Brutalist architecture and massive anti-war demonstrations. The collection concludes with glimpses of Sydney at the turn of last Century.

Main Building and Great Hall, sketch by Allan Gamble, 1975

Main Building and Great Hall, sketch by Allan Gamble, 1975