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Physiology celebrates a century of teaching

April 14, 2005

Physiology celebrates a century of teaching and research

It will be exactly 100 years to the day on May 1 that the first lecture in physiology was given in the Otago Medical School by Prof John Malcolm.

To celebrate its centennial, the Department of Physiology is holding a symposium on the weekend of April 30 – May 1 which features some prominent guests, the unveiling of a centennial sculpture and a formal dinner.

And to mark the milestone, the main foyer of the Lindo Ferguson Building in the Medical School complex, home to the department since 1927 is being renovated. A sculpture by artist Don Hunter called "Re Collection 100" will be unveiled in the foyer as part of the celebrations.

Guest speakers at the symposium include Assoc. Prof. Dot Page (formerly Head of History, Otago), Emeritus Prof. Douglass Taylor (formerly Professor of Physiology, Otago), Prof. Ian McDonald (formerly Professor, Queen’s Square Neurology, London) and Dr Chris O’Donnell (Univ. Pittsburgh Medical Centre, USA).
The department owes its beginnings to the generosity of philanthropist Mr Wolf Harris, who in 1905 placed the sum of £2000 with the University of Otago’s Council towards the endowment of a Chair of Physiology.

Over the century the department has built on its strengths and can boast several unique claims – Otago was the first university in New Zealand to establish a chair in the discipline, but most significantly, it is the only department at the university which has a Nobel Prize winner amongst its ranks.

Sir John Eccles, who chaired the department from 1944-51, was a co-winner of the Nobel Prize in 1963 for his work in the field of neurophysiology. As a result he earned the nickname “Synaptic Jack.”

The current head of department Dr Pat Cragg says Physiology – the study of how the body works - has suffered in the past as a discipline.

“We always need to explain what we are. We are not well defined and very little physiology is taught in schools curriculum,” she says.

However, Professor Allan Herbison says students are returning to physiology as people realise that it is physiology that will now have to unravel how genes actually work – now that the human genome has been mapped by biochemists.

He says recent rises in enrolments in physiology can be attributed to students recognising that fact. Emeritus Professor Tony Wheatley agrees there is a swing back to physiology. He says with the advancement of gene technology it will also be the function of physiology to explain how genetic changes create functional changes in the body.

The 100 year celebration will begin with the unveiling of the commemorative sculpture during the opening ceremony at 10am on Saturday April 30th.


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