The University’s Second Founder

With the launch of the University’s 600th anniversary we have spent much time thinking about our long history. In fact, this is something our curators seem to spend almost all of their time doing! This guest blog post comes from Jo Rodgers, who is a student at the University and works part-time in MUSA. Here she reviews a new display focusing on one of the University’s most fondly remembered Principals:

MUSA has a new display in gallery 4 which illustrates the life of Sir James Irvine – the Principal of the University of St Andrews from 1920 to 1952.

Sir James Irvine exhibition in MUSA

This exhibition marks the publication of a new biography by his granddaughter, Julia Melvin:  James Colquhoun Irvine: St Andrews’ Second Founder. The material for the display has generously been loaned to MUSA by Mrs Melvin and it the first time it has been on display to the public.

Medal awarded to Irvine for his chemical research

During his long period as Principal Sir Irvine oversaw extensive modernization of the University, earning him the appellation “St Andrews’ Second Founder”. Principal Irvine expanded the teaching capabilities of the University, thus attracting increasing numbers of students to St Andrews. He emphasised the importance of research for the University – leading the way with his own ground-breaking studies in the field of chemistry, and leaving the University with a legacy of excellence in research which endures to this day. The display contains the ‘Longstaff medal’ of the Chemistry Society of London which was awarded to Irvine for his research in carbohydrate chemistry in 1933.

One particular focus of this display is on the home life of the former University Principal – the exhibition provides fascinating insights into Irvine’s personal life in St Andrews. Photographs of him with his family illustrate the role which they also played at the University. One especially evocative photograph shows Mabel Irvine and their daughter Felicity being cheered by then-rector of the University, J.M. Barrie in 1922.

Personal items like these widen our understanding of Principal Irvine and his life in St Andrews, and complement the material on display elsewhere in MUSA which illustrate other aspects of his life, such as his contribution to science (gallery 2) and his role as Principal (gallery 3). To celebrate the launch of the book and opening of the exhibition a symposium was held in St Andrews. During this event we enjoyed hearing many memories from people who studied at the University when Irvine was Principal. It seemed clear that upon entering our sixth century, we owe many thanks to this interesting and great man.

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