Exam in MacLaurin Hall 1964

Alumni from the 1930s to 1960s share their memories

5 December 2016
Our alumni reflect and look to the future 

A rare glimpse into four decades of student life at the University of Sydney, from the 1930s to the 1960s, has been captured in a publication of alumni memories.

The Golden Yearbook brings together the fond recollections of 397 alumni together with their achievements and hopes for the University’s future. 

The value of education, the critical influence of certain academics, the lifelong friendships, including many marriages, and the importance of contributing to society remain constants throughout these generations’ reflections. 

To celebrate the release of the book, we invited some of our golden graduates back to campus to reflect on their student days in this short video. 



Some of the distinct alumni experiences from these decades include:

During the Second World War Joan Kelly (BA ’42 DipEd ’59) joined the Voluntary Aid Detachment and spent “late afternoons marching around the Quadrangle, directed by an officer of the University Regiment.” She also learnt first aid and home nursing and competed for the back row in lecture halls where knitting socks and scarves for soldiers could go unnoticed. She opted for a pass degree after the lecturer and all but one student from her Latin honours class went to war.

After the war returned servicemen entered the University in the thousands. Alumni recall their commitment and impatience to qualify and “get on with their lives, disrupted by war” as well as the postwar scarcity of books, space and even chemicals for science exams.


“Camaraderie…developed among the 700 of us in that first year after the Second World War, half of whom were ex-servicemen, some still in jungle greens in first year, and getting malaria attacks when they forgot their Atebrin (medication).”  Dr Alan Hewson AM (MBBS ’52)

They were not all servicemen or women. Phillip Goldwyn (BA ’59 DipEd ’60 MA ’69) survived a labour camp in the Ukraine before attending the University to complete a Master’s in Political Science. Dr William Vytas Doniela (BA ’54 MA ’56) arrived as an indentured migrant from Lithuania and went on to achieve a Master’s in Philosophy. Austrian refugee, Peter Lazar AM (BA ’54), carved an early career in TV, including presenting a University revue on the ABC. He is currently chairman of Australia’s largest PR consultancy.  

All my students call me Lindsay. In my day, no one talked to the professors, they were seen as gods. You had to come to uni in a sports coat, tie and clean shoes. I remember a professor of surgery who once kicked a student without a tie out of the class.” Adjunct Professor Lindsay Wing (MBBS ’62 DipLarynOtor ’68)

For women in the 1960s Dr Alison Beard (MBBS ’60) remembersthe ladies sported full skirts with cinched waists, and high heels with stockings that needed to be held up by step- ins. Students carried leather briefcases”. 

Malcolm Stewart (AM BSc ’49) recalls the University’s ‘Rag Day’ when students would dress in full academic regalia, ride into the city, and run amok through Martin Place. Another prank recalled by The Hon. Justice Arthur Emmett (BA ’64 LLB ’67 LLM ’74 DLaws (Honoris Causa) ’09) was at the final year law dinner in 1965. Lord Denning, then Master of the Rolls, was a guest of honour, and when he was introduced to speak the students started hurling bread rolls at him.


Throughout this period it was much less common than it is today to have a university education and for many it was only various types of scholarship, especially the Commonwealth Scholarships Fund established in 1951, that made it possible to study.

Dr John Beston (BA ’50 DipEd ’51) won a Public Exhibition scholarship for the first 100 students in the state, and became “the youngest Sydney graduate ever to get Honours I in English” at age 19. His lecturer supported an application for a Fulbright Scholarship that took John to Harvard for his PhD. “People didn’t get PhDs in Australia then,” he recalls.

Gretta O’Brien (BEc ’57) was the first person in her family to complete school, let alone university. Her mother never went to school, spending her childhood travelling with her father, a shearer. The only full-time female student in the economics faculty, Gretta loved being drawn into a group of European migrants, still some of her best friends, and a culture light years away from her background. Gretta took up a position in the Bureau of Agricultural Economics, was paid 70 percent of the male salary for the same position, and lost her job the hour she was married. Several women alumni cite such discrimination affecting their career choices.

Dr Marguerite Weston (MBBS ’58) managed to prevail in a male-dominated profession. During her year of live-in residency at St Vincent’s Hospital in 1957 there was no provision for female doctors and she was required to stay in the nurses’ accommodation. She became the first female physician at the Hospital and continued to practise for nearly 50 years.

Today Marguerite is undertaking an arts degree at the University of Sydney, majoring in archaeology, which at age 81 she continues to enjoy. Her fellow arts student is Gladys Agius (MateriaMedica (Pharmacol) ’59), also in her 80s and majoring in history.


Not surprisingly this continuing intellectual engagement is a hallmark of the alumni. Dr Allan Stewart (BDS ’36), the earliest degree recorded in the Yearbook, graduated with a Bachelor of Laws in his early 90s followed by a Master of Clinical Science. In 2014, aged 80, Dr John Healy (MBBS ’57) published a review in the American journal Hypertension, which led to an explosion of knowledge of renal processes.


The Australian honours and awards shared by these alumni include a Military Cross, and multiple Medals of the Order of Australia, Members of the Order of Australia, Officers of the Order of Australia and Companions of the Order of Australia.

This is but one indication of the incalculable contribution they have made to society across their many disciplines. Their diverse achievements also trace the history of the era. A small sample includes:

  • leadership of a surgical unit of volunteer doctors to Vietnam during the war
  • the development of the first permanently implanted artificial heart and of the bionic ear for children and adults
  • critical contributions to the broadcast of the moon landing and the construction of the Sydney Harbour Tunnel
  • helping create the Australian International Development Assistance Organisation
  • working with the Turkish government to establish the ANZAC Cove memorial
  • a critical role in drafting large sections of the Constitution of Fiji
  • discovery of the immunological role of the thymus which advanced understanding of multiple diseases
  • pioneering the fluoridation of Sydney’s tap water.


Many alumni also record the powerful influence certain academics had on them including:

  • Challis Professor of Biology Charles Birch
  • Challis Professor of Philosophy John Anderson
  • Sir Hermann Black AC (who taught economics and went on to become Chancellor)
  • Professor Harry Messel, Head of the School of Physics
  • Lieutenant Colonel Sir Charles Blackburn (Chancellor from 1941-64) and his son, Charles Blackburn, who pioneered clinical practice in medicine at the University
  • Sir Gustav Nossal, Professor of Medical Biology (an alumnus who has an entry in the Yearbook)
  • Gerald Wilkes, Challis Professor of English Literature who was instrumental in establishing the study of Australian literature at the University.

Professor The Honourable Dame Marie Bashir AD CVO (MBBS ’56 MD ’02), former Governor of NSW, is one of many women who pay homage to Betty ‘The Admiral’ Archdale, the Principal of Women’s College from 1946-57, crediting her with helping them to both stay and thrive at the University.

Many alumni talk about attending lectures with their friends from other faculties so they could experience and learn from the “rock star” teachers – evidence that the University’s multidisciplinary spirit originated with its students.

View from southern cloisters into the Quadrangle, 1966,

View from southern cloisters into the Quadrangle, 1966. University of Sydney Archives.

Ann Wilson (BA ’62) speaks for many when she describes her fondest memory of the University of Sydney as “That enquiring, learning, scholarly atmosphere…I loved being challenged, and in turn challenging those around me.”

The Golden Yearbook would not have been possible without the efforts of alumni volunteers.

The Yearbook demonstrates how alumni shape our history. You can help shape the lives of future students by giving to the Student Support Fund.

We are always keen to hear from our alumni. Update your details and share your story with us.


Verity Leatherdale

Manager, Faculty Media and PR
  • +61 2 9351 3737
  • Level 7 Jane Foss Russell Building G02