Impact Blog

Before the PhD: Australia’s First Research Doctorates

March 2024
This blog was authored by Rose Gertsakis, who is undertaking a Masters of Cultural Materials Conservation at the University of Melbourne, and Professor Justin Zobel, who is Pro Vice-Chancellor (Graduate & International Research) at the University of Melbourne.

PhDs began to be awarded in Australia in the 1940s, a step that has been recognised as a milestone in the development and recognition of research in Australia. However, celebration of this milestone obscures a history of earlier doctoral research and wrongly suggests that we were decades behind the UK. In fact, Australia’s first research doctorates were in the late nineteenth century – only shortly after the first British awards.

The origins of doctoral research in Australia

The first two Australian PhDs were awarded in 1948 by the University of Melbourne, following a quarter century or so of campaigns for Australian institutions to offer the PhD degree. Further PhDs were awarded soon afterwards at other Australian universities. 

However, these were not Australia’s first research doctorates. An earlier milestone is that the first award of a doctorate for a research thesis in Australia was in 1893. This was a mere twelve years after the first such award in Britain, in 1881, when a doctorate for a research thesis was awarded by the University of London. The first British PhD was not awarded until after the First World War.

PhDs and research doctorates are sometimes confused with each other. The PhD has a longer history. It was introduced in Germany and France in 1810 and quickly adopted by the Netherlands, Switzerland, and the United States. But in the UK it was only in 1875 that a Commission recommended that British universities should consider awarding research doctorates, and only in 1919 was the first UK PhD degree approved. (These details are drawn from David Bogle’s 100 Years of the PhD in the UK.)

The first doctorate via research thesis

The first Australian doctorate via research thesis was awarded at the University of Melbourne, a Doctor of Laws to Edwin Mayhew Brissenden for his paper ‘An Examination of Teutonic Law’, conferred on 18 March 1893. He later became an eminent barrister and, in his 50s, lied about his age in order to enlist in the army as a Private, allowing him to serve in the First World War.









Complete text shown on the cover page of E.M. Brissenden’s doctoral thesis 

Other early doctorates

The first Doctor of Letters via thesis was conferred just a few years later, on 19 March 1898, to Edward Ellis Morris; the first Doctor of Science via thesis was awarded to Bertram Dillon Steele on 5 April 1902. These too were at Melbourne.

Other Australian universities soon began recognizing research, with Sydney awarding its first doctorate via thesis to Walter Woolnough in 1904, a Doctor of Science. In the same year Adelaide awarded its first such doctorate to William Ramsey Smith, also a Doctor of Science.

The requirements of these degrees were surprisingly simple. A candidate had to submit a thesis on a subject approved by the Faculty and ‘have given evidence of research and ability satisfactory to the Examiners’, as shown in Melbourne’s rules for Science below. They are a strong contrast to the complex policy frameworks that govern doctoral study today.









Extract from 1904 University of Melbourne Calendar, page 225.

Remarkably, the first research doctorate awarded to a woman in Australia was in 1904, to Georgina Sweet for her thesis on ‘Contributions to our knowledge of the anatomy of notoryctes, typhlpops and stirling’. This Doctor of Science, awarded by Melbourne, was only two years after the first Doctor of Science awarded to a man. The prestigious Georgina Sweet Fellowship is named in her honour.

The century of evolution of PhDs and doctorates

Despite the interest in creation of a PhD, there isn’t a marked distinction between the content of the pre-PhD doctoral theses and that of the PhD theses that followed them, to judge from the Melbourne theses we had access to.

While a PhD may have had a more formal structure of enrolment and examination than a doctorate, the experience of the candidates was probably rather similar. As for PhDs, doctoral candidates had access to libraries and laboratories and, at least informally, had supervisors. Some doctoral candidates undertook their studies while employed as assistants, or without financial support; but financial support for PhDs only slowly became the norm, and so this too doesn’t strongly distinguish the kinds of award. 

As they now do in PhDs, doctoral candidates in the early twentieth century acknowledged the professors and experts that mentored, supervised, or supported them throughout their research. For example, Georgina Sweet’s 1904 thesis introduction includes thanks to ‘Professor Spencer, who has also very generously placed his splendid stock of animals at my disposal, and has given me the facilities in obtaining literature, some of which I might otherwise not have seen’. 

Speculatively, the greatest difference between doctorates and PhDs was that the former were awarded for a wide range of reasons, including honorary recognition of leading citizens and for examination of advanced skill, particularly in medicine and law. Today this recognition is reserved for what are usually described as ‘higher doctorates’.

Honorary doctorates and notable figures: pre-1900 awards

Thus only five doctorates for a thesis were awarded in Australia before 1900, while at Melbourne alone twenty or so honorary doctorates were awarded in this period, as well as numerous Doctors of Medicine. One of the earliest Melbourne honoraries was in 1868, to His Royal Highness Prince Alfred Duke of Edinburgh, who was in the midst of a tour of Australia that can only be described as disastrous. His visit to Melbourne was marred by riots during a failed attempt at a celebratory banquet; in Sydney, he survived being shot.





Extract from 1868 University of Melbourne Calendar, page 162

As only a small proportion of the early doctorates were awarded for research accomplishment, perhaps the main motivation for establishment of PhDs was to create a degree that was dedicated to research.

While many doctorates were purely honorary, some of the pre-PhD doctoral theses do reflect the accomplishments of notable people. The celebration of the first PhDs is appropriate, but does neglect the merit of these previous awardees, who are just as deserving of ongoing recognition for their unique circumstances such as pioneering as women or undertaking research during the conflicts and economic difficulties of the early twentieth century.

The rich cultural imprint of research doctorates in Australia

These degrees were awarded well over a century ago, but in some ways they reflect cultures that are still with us. Morris, who as mentioned above was awarded Melbourne’s first Doctor of Letters by thesis in 1898, was referenced in the University’s newspaper, the Alma Mater, during the same year (see image below), in an episode that demonstrates the long-held and continuing rapport between professors and students that higher education facilitates – not to mention the expertise and wit of those being awarded early doctorates.








June 1898:

Our observations are based on a review of the University of Melbourne’s annual reports from 1858 onwards as well as associated archives and, more superficially, similar annual reports from Sydney and Adelaide. A broader investigation could consider the daily newspapers that sometimes reported on graduations and graduands; and some of the early doctoral awardees – honorary and otherwise – have been the subject of biographies. There are also open questions around cultural understandings of PhDs and doctorates, and how it is that the doctorate came to be viewed as inadequate despite the quality of work that it could represent. That is, there is much more to discover. 

But what even our high-level review shows is that the story is far richer than the simple fact of the advent of the PhD, and that there is a history of the emergence of University-based research – and recognition of specialised research – to be celebrated.

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