Centenary War Lectures

By Dr James Waghorne, Research Officer, History of the University Unit.

At the height of the First World War, professors from the six universities across Australia presented public lectures giving sense to the conflict and the motivation of the combatants. The lectures covered economics, advances in medical and the natural sciences, as well as cultural commentaries on the German enemy explaining its literary and philosophical contributions. They drew out the challenges of the time and related them to the war.

The History of the University Unit at the University of Melbourne is convening a new series of war lectures reflecting on the consequences of the Great War from a similarly broad perspective, relating changes begun during that conflict and the challenges of the twenty-first century.

The 1915 lectures made use of their interested audience to discuss the work of universities, providing instances where dedicated scholarship provided insight into current events. Speakers also employed an overt patriotism ensuring that all conclusions supported the war and made sure to condemn the enemy and anticipate its defeat.

In a lecture arguing that Britain's central place in international finance combined with its naval blockade of Germany placed it at an advantage in the war, the professor of Economics at the University of Western Australia, Edward Shann, also conveyed key economic themes, including the principles that underpinned finance.

Similarly, another West Australian, Professor of Bacteriology, W.J. Dakin, revealed the recent research into the bilharzia intestinal worm, work on bacteria in the treatment of wounds, tetanus and typhus, and the new challenges of gas gangrene —illustrating his points with the explanatory lantern slides.

In Melbourne, the Professor of Physiology, William Osborne, gave a three-part series on 'the feeding of an army', presenting the requirements for maintaining the 'sustenance of vigour and life of the human machine', breaking down foods into their contribution of protein and fibre, and the amount of 'heat and energy' each supplied. The popular bread and jam rations were now considered 'nourishing' when calculated through nutritional science.

The greater portion of these 1915 lectures covered politics. The University of Melbourne Professor of History, Ernest Scott, told the Kyneton Mechanics Institute that more attention should be directed to modern European history, especially in the Franco-Prussian War, and figures such as Bismarck, Frederick the Great and Garibaldi. Though Australia's geography and orderly federation had sheltered it from world events, the German desire to establish a colonial empire would bring the conflict quickly to Australia's shores if Britain were defeated in Europe. The lecturer in philosophy J. McKellar Stewart introduced the Nietzschean conceptions of power and will, condemning their influence in Germany. Although the lectures were partisan, their content nevertheless conveyed new scholarship and interpretation to an interested public.

The 1915 lectures conveyed pre-war research in the service of the war effort. This year, the series will take up the significant social, cultural and technical changes brought by the war, and their continuing resonance. Eight panels of eminent researchers will discuss key themes arising from the war. As with the earlier series, the lectures will take place in the community, in association with exhibitions throughout the year at museums and galleries.

The series will cover archaeology, psychology, medical science, natural science, engineering and law, as well as contributions to the the humanities disciplines, to examine the way in which war has been commemorated, particularly forindigenous ANZACs, and the role of the visual and performing arts and music in interpreting war.

For more information about each of the individual lectures, and to book your seat,visit the events website for the ANZAC Centenary Lectures.

Partner organisations

The Shrine of Remembrance
Museum Victoria
The National Gallery of Victoria
Grainger Museum, University of Melbourne
Medical History Museum, University of Melbourne
Ian Potter Museum of Art, University of Melbourne