9 moments in the University of Sydney’s history you need to know

Edgeworth David, with shouldered pic, and assistant Jack Rourke in 1886, having

Edgeworth David, with shouldered pic, and assistant Jack Rourke in 1886, having uncovered the Greta Coal Seam in Swamp (Deep) Creek near Abermain. Reproduced with permission from the University of Sydney Archives (G3_224_1589).

From the world’s first female radio astronomer to the discovery of neurons that allow us to see in 3D, a new book details highlights from Australia’s first University.

A new book about Australia’s first university, the University of Sydney, celebrates the stories behind 20 world-leading discoveries and advancements in knowledge creation at the University of Sydney.

The Search for Knowledge and Understanding delves into the work of 20 of the University of Sydney’s greatest scholars. The book by Professor Maxwell Bennett who founded the BMRI (now called the Brain and Mind Centre) was launched this week.

Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor Professor Stephen Garton , a historian, first encouraged Professor Bennett, AO, to write the book because of his wide-spanning knowledge and interest - from philosophy to neuroscience - having trained in engineering.

"Many of the best scholars over the years have drawn stimulus from the broad scholarly communities in which they thrive," Professor Garton writes in the foreword.

"... one of Sydney’s remarkable strengths is in its intellectual breadth and depth."

A snapshot of some of the highlights include:

1. Finding coal in NSW, exploring Antarctica

In addition to discovering coal in the Hunter Valley, which brought wealth to the State, Tannatt William Edgeworth David claimed parts of Antarctica for the British Empire as a party of the first-ever expedition to Antarctica, led by Sir Ernest Shackleton, with student and fellow explorer Sir Douglas Mawson.

Edgeworth David is also celebrated for:

  • his ambitious drilling of bores in the coral reef atoll of Funafuti to obtain evidence for Charles Darwin’s theory of the origin of these structures

  • his work finding evidence in Central Australia of Precambrian life - the earliest aeon of the earth’s history.

2. Coming up with the theory underpinning chaos

Biologist Robert May introduced a logistic process, to describe the dynamics of insect populations, which led to chaos theory.

Chaos theory is a branch of mathematics that focuses on the behavioural differences, based on high sensitivity and seemingly random events.

3. Identifying the artists behind 5th Century Greek pottery

Arthur Dale Trendall, classical art historian and original curator of at the University of Sydney’s Nicholson Museum , identified the artists responsible for artwork on 5th Century BC Greek pottery and how this can illuminate the contemporary social mores.

He is recognised as one of the world’s greatest 20th-Century historians of classical art.

4. Discovering the neurons in the brain that let us see in 3D

Professor Peter Bishop’s work mapped the neural pathway responsible  for binocular vision, answering the question of how we see the world in 3D.

An anatomy course while studying Medicine sparked his lifelong dedication to brain research. 

His close friend, fellow undergraduate student Gough Whiltlam, who later became Prime Minister, made a comment that would prove to be prophetic: "...[rather than training to be a GP] he will be happiest in a research job..."

Professor Bishop went on to become a leading contributor to neuroscience.

5. Protecting human rights from commercial pressures

A leading scholar on human rights and the common law, Challis Professor of Jurisprudence (1975 - 2001) and part-time head of the Australian Law Reform Commission (1982-1987), Alice Erh-Soon Tay sought to protect the law from the encroachment of modern society seeking ’quick and efficient’ administrative resolutions.

Her comparative analysis of legal systems was considered within a broader framework of the dangers posed by the development of autocratic systems of law, supported by her rich knowledge of the evolution of communist legal systems.

6. Pioneering radio astronomy

Ruby Payne-Scott helped establish the field of radio astronomy  - using radio waves to detect solar bursts and probe the physics of the sun.

Described as "a physicist’s physicist... of her generation" and the world’s first female radio astronomer, she was forced to resign after she married. 

The University of Sydney established the Payne-Scott Professorial Distinctions in 2017 , a five-year appointment for academic excellence honouring the work of the Sydney alumna’s pioneering research and teaching. 

7. Uncovering the triggers of asthma

Ann Janet Woolcock revealed that together with a genetic predisposition, allergens in the environment trigger asthma.

A global leader in asthma research, Professor Woolcock also introduced the modern individualised asthma plans we know today.

The Woolcock Institute of Medical Research was named in Professor Woolcock’s honour.    

8. Linking sunlight exposure to melanoma

Henry Oliver Lancaster applied his mathematical and statistical skills with great impact.

He is renowned for two key advances for human health: discovering the relationship between exposure to rubella during pregnancy and babies being born deaf, and making the now ’obvious’ link between exposure to sunlight and melanomas. 

9. Showing how photosynthesis works at the atomic/molecular level

Professor Noel Hush detailed the structure of atoms that underpins our understanding of photosynthesis.

His electron-transfer theory has also been used show how devices can be designed at the molecular level - a significant part of the relatively new field of nanotechnology. 

Professor Hush remained an enthusiastic contributor to University of Sydney scholarship until his death at the age of 94 in 2019.


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