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Early years to 1989

Taken from A brief account of the development of the Faculty of Science at the University of Cape Town, compiled by PE Spargo, February 1989.

Early years: 1829 - 1900

From its founding in 1652 until well into the nineteenth century the Cape possessed only a somewhat rudimentary educational system in the form of a number of public and private schools of varying quality. However, in 1828 a committee agreed that the Colony sorely needed a more advanced educational institution. What is particularly noteworthy is that in appealing for assistance from the Governor, Sir Lowry Cole, they specifically mention "that scarcely any means exist among us of acquiring adequate information in those sciences which elsewhere are so much the object of general attention".

The committee emphasized their commitment to the teaching of science by calling for the employment of two members of staff for "the department of science". The prospectus of the new college, to be known as the South African College, is also remarkable in that it lists among the subjects to be taught, "Mathematics, as Algebra, Geometry, Trigonometry, the differential and integral calculus; as also the principles of Astronomy and Geography, and the use of the Globes; Natural Philosophy or Physical Science, Botany, Zoology, Mineralogy and Chemistry". Thus from its very conception the study of science was acknowledged to be of the utmost importance.

Of the first three professors appointed to the newly-established College, one was to teach mathematics (which was defined in such a way as to include all of science as well), with the other two handling English and Dutch Classics. Unfortunately shortage of funds precluded much, if any, laboratory work until an unfilled teaching post enabled the College to purchase "the Encyclopedia Britannica, a few other books and a little physical apparatus". Thus from small acorns do great oaks grow.

It is particularly interesting to note that even in the early years a number of members of staff were carrying out research of a high standard. This is a feature of science at the University which has continued without break until the present when UCT enjoys a pre-eminent position amongst South African universities in a wide variety of scientific disciplines.

Continued on Development of Science Departments.

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