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Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine

The University around 1900

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Histology class in the Old Medical School (now Coupland 3), 1900.

By about 1900, Owens College had achieved the ideals of Roscoe and his fellows. It had become a 'Centre of Intelligence' for this major manufacturing region, and it had expanded its role in professional training. The medical school had been much enlarged in the 1880s. Undergraduate courses in engineering were becoming to be accepted as a partial substitute for apprenticeships. Owens was helping to produce teachers for the state elementary schools and for the technical colleges then being set up by the better municipalities. After a long struggle, women students had been fully recognised. But colleges like Owens were coming to offer more. They were introducing scientific and technical novelties - the world of electricity, of X-rays and radio-activity, of bacteria and the causes of disease. In these new fields the colleges worked with local industry and local authorities, for whom they could provide analysis or testing facilities. In these fields especially, principles and practices were very close together. The Whitworth Laboratories were opened in 1887 for engineering. In 1894 the medical school was much enlarged, and about the same time Sheridan Delépine opened a public health laboratory that served much of the region. Physics got a splendid new laboratory in 1900, also including electro-technics and electro-chemistry; the former gained its own building in 1912, three years after the old engineering laboratories had been replaced with much bigger facilities. About the same time, in 1908, the Infirmary moved from the centre of town to become a neighbour of the University.

The capital for new buildings and new chairs had come mainly from industrialists. Local authority finance, which became important from about 1890, was directed chiefly to the Technical College as we noted. As it came to rival Owens in the higher reaches of engineering research and teaching, the reaction was mixed. Some University purists preferred to leave practical matters to the Technical College. But Schuster, now the Professor of Physics, backed by colleagues in Arts, urged collaboration in the expansion of technical education. Their arguments prevailed, and in 1903 certain senior staff in the Municipal College were recognised as constituting the Faculty of Technology of the newly independent Victoria University of Manchester.

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Sketch of the Manchester Museum, circa 1900.

Similar tensions between practical training and university science were evident in medicine. Their clinical professors, who dominated the medical faculty, were the elite local practitioners for whom teaching was a part time activity. They and their students had little time for research. The exponents of pre-clinical science, such as physiology, found little encouragement and little time for anything beyond undergraduate teaching and routine administration. Bacteriology was the major exception: that work was so marketable that pressure of routine testing tended to stifle original laboratory work.

A neglect of research was common in British medical schools. Only in Liverpool, for instance, was medical science allied with local pharmaceutical companies, as happened more commonly in Germany and America. It is characteristic of Manchester around 1900 that its greatest achievements in the nascent biochemistry and biotechnology came, not from the Medical School, but from the Chemistry Department. It was there that Arthur Harden trained before he achieved fame at the Lister Institute in London; it was there that Chaim Weizmann, future President of Israel, experimented with the acetone-butanol fermentation which proved vital to munition production in the Great War. It was chemists from this Department, working with Manchester Corporation, who hit upon the activated sludge method of sewage treatment.

In the physical sciences generally, researchers were in control. The Chemistry department poured out research papers and also appealed to industry. Physics, under Ernest Rutherford, became the world centre for research on the structure of the atom; the list of his staff and students can still impress even the non-specialist. No one claimed that this physics was useful, but it was enormously exciting. And if you had visited the Department's meteorological station on the moors above Glossop, you might have met Ludwig Wittgenstein, then a research student in engineering.

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