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Expert Nation: Universities, War and 1920s and 1930s Australia

Expert Nation: Universities, War and 1920s and 1930s Australia

Photo: Chemistry Department Laboratory, 1927. Photograph by H Cazneaux.

The First World War was a new kind of war, arguably the first 'modern war' in which science and knowledge were to play a critical role. In a conflict that was fought as much by experts as by expeditionary forces, Australian university graduates played an important part. Expert Nation, a 2016 ARC Discovery Project—led by Dr Tamson Pietsch, an ARC Discovery Early Career Researcher Award recipient from The University Technology, Sydney—is looking at how war transformed the nature and status of expertise both on the battlefield and in interwar Australia.

“Australian chemists ran the chemical munitions industry in Britain during World War One,” says Dr Pietsch. “Australian expertise was crucial to the war effort because Australian universities from the 1880s had taught these subjects in a way that wasn’t done in Britain. So there was an expertise in Australia that was really valued in the war, and a tipping point was in April 1915 when Allied High Command realised they needed scientists to do science, not just hold guns.”

Not only was this a transformation that changed the political philosophies and commitments of many intellectuals and increased government emphasis on university research, it also contributed to the growth of the professions in the 1920s and 30s and the role of expertise in the life of the nation.

“So much of the focus in our histories of the First World War is on Gallipoli, and on war service as a ‘baptism of fire’ and on the men that died,” says Dr Pietsch. “But there were plenty more people who returned than who died, and what the records show is that the war was crucial in refashioning expertise, and re-shaping how the professions worked.”

“For instance, prior to World War One, the field of dentistry was in a state of unregulated chaos in Australia, with dozens of piecemeal acts and lots of unregulated practice (you were more likely to have your teeth pulled out by a butcher than by a qualified practitioner!). During the war dentists were given roles within the medical corps, and one million Australian soldiers got proper dental treatment for the first time in their lives. These newly trained dental officers came back to Australia and led the formation of a national dental society, and many went back to university to teach, where they reformed standards and agitated for legislation that required dentists to hold a degree,” says Dr Pietsch.

As part of the project, Dr Pietsch's team is creating a new national archives infrastructure, which is uniting the records of approximately six thousand men and women from the universities of Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Tasmania, Queensland and Western Australia with records from the Australian War Memorial and personal collections, and making them freely available online. The database is already searchable, and the project team is calling for interested researchers, honours students, community and school groups, teachers and volunteers to assist to trace the lives and careers of these men and women with World War One experience.

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