[image from National Pioneer Women’s Hall of Fame]
As a teenager, Dagmar Berne, of Sydney, was sent by her widowed mother for a “good education” in a private school, Springfield Ladies’ College. The curriculum included such traditional “ladies’ accomplishments” as deportment and needlework. Discontented, she eventually convinced her mother to allow her to leave school at the age of seventeen to study science with a private tutor.
Berne was convinced that she had failed her matriculation exams, but nonetheless remained unsatisfied with a traditional mother-housewife course. She and her sister Florence began plans to establish a private girls’ school. They went so far as to prepare coursework and conduct interviews – but then Dagmar was surprised to learn, days before classes started, that she had been admitted to study Arts at the University of Sydney.
A woman in any university course was a rare enough sight in late nineteenth century. The University of Sydney only began admitting women at all in 1882, and at the time of Berne’s enrolment, fewer than 5% of students were women. To put this time in context, women were yet to win the right to vote, and it was shortly after Dagmar’s admission to university that married women became permitted under law to own property.
Dagmar wasn’t satisfied with Arts. She transferred to Medicine.
Berne was thus the first woman to study Medicine in an Australian university, on a theoretically equal footing with men. The Dean of Medicine, Professor Anderson Stuart, is said to have protested her admission, and she faced hostility from her fellow students. But Berne ploughed on regardless, obtaining honours in four subjects in first year.
Berne’s fortunes faltered in second year, and she began to register fails in her classes. Wikipedia, citing “de Vries, Susanna (2001). “Chapter Four: Dr Dagmar Berne, Dr Constance Stone”, Great Australian Women: from Federation to Freedom. Sydney:” by Susanna de Vries, says:
“Some writers have suggested that Stuart deliberately failed Berne or gave her lower marks because he did not want a woman to graduate in medicine out of prejudice, citing the results of some of Berne’s fellow male students, who received greatly lower marks than her in first year but still managed to pass second and later years above her.”
[image from University of Sydney]
Berne approached the Vice-Chancellor of Sydney University with her concerns. She was informed that no woman would graduate in medicine at the University of Sydney while he was Vice-Chancellor. So she began to look further afield – to England. The Berne sisters travelled together to London, where they both enrolled in the study of medicine. Against Dagmar’s protests, Florence left her medical study to become a governess, in order to support her family which had fallen on hard times. Berne excelled in her studies in Britain, with no further failures as she had suffered under her Sydney professors. She became one of only eleven women to be awarded the Triple Qualification: diplomas from the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries, the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh and the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow.
Dagmar was living poor in London, in damp conditions and unable to afford a healthy diet, and she was frequently ill with pleurisy and pneumonia. She therefore returned to Australia in 1895 to set up practice in Macquarie Street, after working for two years in a Tottenham hospital. Berne thereby became the second woman ever registered with the Medical Board of New South Wales, after Constance Stone.
Dagmar Berne worked hard to support her family. Sadly, her health did not improve as she had wished after her return. She worked right up until the time of her death from tuberculosis in 1900, at the age of only 35. I can’t help wondering whether her early death was a direct result of her misogyny-forced exile from Australia.
McCarthy, Louella: “Filtered Images: Visions of “Pioneering’ Women Doctors in Twentieth-Century Australia”. Health & History, 2006, pp 91-110