An ideal education

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On 23 March 1887, before a large and appreciative audience, the University of Melbourne’s newly-appointed professor of chemistry delivered his inaugural address. David Orme Masson was an energetic young Scot whose skill with language reflected his family’s literary connections. His father was professor of rhetoric and English literature at Edinburgh University, while his mother grew up in a wealthy household, surrounded by poets and writers. In a confident and wide-ranging address, Masson surveyed the relationship between chemistry and industry, reviewed the history of his discipline, and reflected upon the role of the university. He made his ambitions clear. He would not be satisfied with mere technical training, instead he aimed to establish ‘a school of chemistry’, a school that was ‘permeated with the atmosphere of research’. 1 Amongst the audience, a fair-haired law student listened with interest. Littleton Ernest Groom began to ponder the connection between science and society.

Littleton Groom had arrived from Toowoomba in 1886 to study arts and law. 2 It was an exciting time. ‘Marvellous Melbourne’ was in the grip of a land boom, and was reimagining itself as a sophisticated metropolis, a centre of economic and intellectual life. 3 In the parliament and the press, liberals like Alfred Deakin and Charles Pearson were fomenting a tide of social and educational reform. The University, too, was changing. Pearson led a move against the tradition-bound Council, securing the admission of women, and pushing for new chairs in science. After several attempts, he guided a University Reform Bill through parliament in 1881, finally breaking the grip of the conservatives and opening the way for continued evolution. 4

Groom revelled in the feeling of optimism and opportunity. His scholastic attainments were creditable, but it was his contribution to the broader life of the university that drew particular praise. ‘We have never had a student who has shown more public spirit’, the Master of Ormond College wrote glowingly to Groom’s father. 5 Both within the college and as Secretary of the University Union, Groom laboured tirelessly, organising lectures, debates and social occasions, encouraging his fellow students to take an active interest in each other’s work. He was supported by Masson, who drew on his recent experience in Edinburgh to help the students take control of the moribund Melbourne Union. 6

Both Masson and Groom believed that a university should be more than a place of instruction, it should foster a vibrant intellectual life. As Groom argued in a student paper he founded and edited, ‘The University has social functions to perform which are as important as those of book learning’. 7 Groom imagined a community enriched by ideas, interchange and cooperation, a community bound by ‘university sentiment’. 8 It was an image that would echo through his later attempts at nation-building. Australia, like the university, should uphold the value of education and improvement, it should foster cooperation and civility, it should cultivate a national sentiment to unite and inspire its people.

Groom’s real passion was for literature, but true to his own exhortation to imbibe of knowledge in all its forms and flavours, he became increasingly intrigued by the possibilities of science. His arrival at university had coincided not only with the appointment of Masson to the chemistry chair, but also with passing of regulations for the Bachelor of Science degree. 9 Changes were afoot, as the sciences gradually won a more prominent role within the institution. Increased government funding for science and technology, prompted perhaps by Pearson’s persistent advocacy, enabled the construction of new laboratory facilities. 10 Masson’s hopes of encouraging original research were further bolstered by the appointment of two more young and enthusiastic scientists: Walter Baldwin Spencer to the biology chair in 1887, and Thomas Ranken Lyle to natural philosophy in 1889. 11

The Melbourne science professors did much to inculcate a spirit of scientific research within University walls, yet they were also keen to demonstrate its value beyond. Until 1927, the Commonwealth government was headquartered in Melbourne, providing the public-spirited academics with an unprecedented opportunity to exert an influence upon the development of the youthful nation. In 1909, a meeting of the science professors determined to offer their services to the country ‘in connection with some work of investigation of especial Australasian interest’. 12 The Deakin government was in the process of introducing legislation for the Commonwealth takeover of the Northern Territory, with none other than Littleton Groom leading the fight. 13 The scientists suggested they might organise an expedition to gather much needed data about conditions in the north. After some delays and confusion, Baldwin Spencer and the newly-appointed professor of veterinary pathology, JA Gilruth, led a party northwards in a well-publicised attempt to bring the power of science to bear upon the nation’s troublesome frontier. Both Spencer and Gilruth would later take up posts in the Territory’s administration. 14

Masson played a prominent role in Hughes’ plans for a national laboratory, steering the Advisory Committee towards the eventual establishment of the Commonwealth Institute of Science and Industry. When the failing Institute was itself reconstituted in 1926, Masson lent his expertise once more, aiding in the creation of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). 15 Notably, it was Masson’s former student and successor to the chair of chemistry, David Rivett, who was to lead the new organisation upon its successful mission. 16 Highlighting, perhaps, the interconnections between science and politics in early twentieth century Melbourne, Rivett was married to Alfred Deakin’s daughter, Stella.

While at university, Groom helped organise public lectures by the three new professors under the auspices of the Ormond College Literary and Debating Society. Reports of each lecture he dutifully pasted in his cuttings book, along with articles on history, law, education and of course, his great love, poetry. 17 But what of the connections between the disciplines? How did they contribute to the general good? What of truth? An article by John Morley on the study of literature piqued his interest with its description of the different kinds of knowledge necessary for a healthy society. Groom underlined a section on the commercial importance of scientific and technical education, and also a passage on the ‘business’ of literature which, Morley argued, concerned ‘the enlargement of the moral vision’. 18 In another clipping, the Victorian government’s agricultural chemist, AN Pearson, argued that science and poetry, in combination, could reveal the ‘truths of nature’. 19 There was a balance to be made: Groom was attempting to fit together the components of a good life and a good society. Science had an important part to play, but only within a broader realm of learning that included religion, literature, art and law. Together they offered the young, liberal reformer a basis for action that would guide him through life.

Central to the cultivation of knowledge and the improvement of society was the university. In a copy of Masson’s inaugural address, Groom highlighted the professor’s plea: ‘But science must grow—new knowledge must be made; and where shall this growth occur if not in our highest seats of learning—the universities’. 20 Returning home from the hallowed halls, Groom felt Queensland to be suffering ‘an immense loss’ in having no university of its own. 21 In typical style, he threw himself into the cause, becoming one of the main organisers of the Queensland University Movement. 22 But what was required was not a university ‘of the old mould’. Rather he suggested something more along American lines, ‘not merely teaching polite learning and the fine arts, but also to advance scientific instruction’. Universities, Groom argued before the Darling Downs Teachers’ Association in 1906, were ‘elevating and edifying organisations that were calculated to mould men’s souls’. However, modern universities were also ‘now necessities to the well being of… nations’. They were institutions in which ‘agriculture, industry, arts and sciences’ were accepted to be just as important as ‘the absorption of Latin and Greek’. 23

In the course of his lecture, Groom stressed the commercial advantages to be gained from a modern system of scientific and technical instruction, quoting, as was the fashion, the success of Germany in ‘wedding science to manufacture’. 24 However, as evident from his undergraduate days, Groom’s interest in science was never narrowly utilitarian. As with other turn-of-the-century liberals, he sought an elusive balance: balance between the individual and the social, between ideals and practice. Scientific and technical education were essential for future prosperity, but education was concerned more broadly with the ‘health, advancement and expansion’ of the ‘human mind’. As a student Groom had pondered the relationship between science and literature, between learning and action: it was a balance, he realised, to be made within the life of an individual, as within the life of the nation. Groom quoted the Victorian Director of Education, Frank Tate, in arguing that an ‘ideal education’ resulted in ‘complete self-realisation’, a combination of physical fitness, mental fitness and moral fitness. ‘Citizens were not complete without honourable characters’, argued Groom, and ‘so it was with national life’, he concluded, both ‘industrial and intellectual capacities must be developed’. 25

A few days later, Groom had another opportunity to reflect on the links between science, education and national progress, when he opened the Science Section of Toowoomba’s Austral Festival. While the occasion and the assembled exhibits directed the attention of the local citizenry towards important matters of ‘practical utility’, Groom began his speech by declaring that science was worthy of encouragement for the ‘delight and pleasure’ to be found ‘in the original investigation of the laws of Nature’. Moreover, he reminded his audience that science had a broadly educative role, for ‘habits of scientific thought were invaluable’ in the proper workings of a democratic nation. The application of such ‘scientific principles’ to practical ends, he continued, offered great benefits to the whole of humanity. Based upon the evidence of the exhibits displayed about him, he believed visitors ‘would experience a real thrill of patriotic pride’ in the contributions being made by young Australians to this important endeavour. 26 Science offered both enlightenment and inventions, pleasure and pride, individual growth and national progress.


  1. Len Weickhardt, Masson of Melbourne: the life and times of David Orme Masson, Royal Australian Chemical Institute, Melbourne, 1989, pp. 32-4. See ch. 1 for family details.
  2. Carment, ‘The making of an Australian liberal’, p. 235.
  3. Davison, Marvellous Melbourne.
  4. John Tregenza, Professor of democracy: the life of Charles Henry Pearson 1830-1894, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1968, pp. 128-30, 169-70.
  5. John MacFarland to WH Groom, quoted in Jessie Groom (ed.), Nation building in Australia, p. 7.
  6. Jessie Groom (ed.), Nation building in Australia, p. 8-10.
  7. Quoted in Carment, ‘The making of an Australian liberal’, p. 236.
  8. ibid.
  9. Weickhardt, Masson of Melbourne, p. 38.
  10. Tregenza, Professor of democracy, p. 207.
  11. Weickhardt, Masson of Melbourne, pp. 38-9. For more on Baldwin Spencer and Lyle, see: DJ Mulvaney, and JH Calaby, ‘So Much That is New’: Baldwin Spencer 1860-1929, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1985; RW Home, ‘Sir Thomas Ranken Lyle (1860-1944)’, in Bede Nairn and Geoffrey Serle (eds), Australian Dictionary of Biography, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1986, pp. 172-4.
  12. Letter from Baldwin Spencer to Alfred Deakin, 24 June 1909, Deakin papers, NLA: MS1540, series 15. See also, Mulvaney and Calaby, So Much That is New, p. 265.
  13. Groom moved the second reading of the Northern Territory Acceptance Bill and prepared a detailed memorandum on the Northern Territory: CPD, 30 July 1909, vol. 50, pp. 1878-1894; Northern Territory, Memorandum prepared under the direction of the Hon. L.E. Groom, in connexion with the Bill for the acceptance of the Northern Territory, Parl. Paper no. 20, Canberra, 1909.
  14. Mulvaney & Calaby, So Much That is New, pp. 264-72.
  15. Weickhardt, Masson of Melbourne, pp. 77-84, 115-8, 135-46; Currie and Graham, The origins of CSIRO.
  16. For information on Rivett and his involvement in CSIR, see: Rohan Rivett, David Rivett: fighter for Australian science, RD Rivett, Melbourne, 1972; CB Schedvin, Shaping science and industry: a history of Australia’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, 1926-49, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1987.
  17. Cuttings Book Volume 1, March 1886-April 1887; Scrapbook, Volume 2, April 1887 – , Groom papers, NLA: MS236, series 6, items 1-3.
  18. ‘Mr John Morley on the Study of Literature’, Scrapbook, Volume 2, April 1887 – , Groom papers, NLA: MS236, series 6, item 3.
  19. AN Pearson, ‘The Nature and Province of Science’, Scrapbook, Volume 2, April 1887 – , Groom papers, NLA: MS236, series 6, item 3
  20. ‘Professor Masson’s Inaugural Lecture – The Scope and Aims of Chemical Science’, Cuttings Book Volume 1, March 1886-April 1887, Groom papers, NLA: MS236, series 6, items 1.
  21. Toowoomba Chronicle, 5 November 1906, p. 3.
  22. Jessie Groom (ed.), Nation building in Australia, pp. 10-11.
  23. Toowoomba Chronicle, 5 November 1906, p. 3
  24. ibid.
  25. ibid.
  26. ‘The Austral’, Toowoomba Chronicle, 7 November 1906, p. 3

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