Today on 2SER Breakfast we looked at the inspiring tale of Sydney’s first female medical student, Dagmar Berne. It’s not really a happy story, but this resilient and generous woman made an important and interesting contribution to Sydney’s history.
Described by a family friend and physician as ‘a quiet, friendly sensible girl – and no fool’, Dagmar Berne attended school at Newtown Superior Public School and Springfield Ladies College in Darlinghurst. In 1884 she enrolled in an Arts degree at the University of Sydney and when at the end of her first year the University decided to also allow female students to enrol in Medicine, she became the first woman to do so.
While her fellow male students acknowledged her admirable concentration and immersion in her studies, Berne faced difficulties in receiving passes for all of her professional examinations, although she excelled in others, even winning Professor John Smith’s Prize for Experimental Physics, an annual book prize awarded to the most distinguished student at the Class Examination Viva Voce in Experimental Physics.
Anderson Stuart, the Dean of Medicine and HN Maclaurin, the University’s Vice Chancellor were not supportive of women training in medicine, an indication of the kind of prejudice that Berne faced. Anderson Stuart said ‘while there is a place for a certain number of women in medicine, there are certain limitations of usefulness, and they will never, in my opinion, take the place, or be equal to men in general medical work’, while Maclaurin stated that he would never allow a woman to graduate in Medicine while he was Vice Chancellor.
in 1885 Berne had met Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, a British doctor lecturing at the Sydney Mechanics School of Arts. Having faced similar issues, Garrett Anderson suggested that Berne completed her studies at the London School of Medicine for Women, where Garret Anderson was Dean.
Berne was fortunate in that she had a supportive family, with the kind of income that made this suggestion feasible, so in 1890, still not able to graduate, she travelled with her sister Florence to London. She graduated in 1891 from the London School of Medicine for Women, then proceeded to Edinburgh, Glasgow and Dublin for further qualifications.
With these qualifications, work experience and glowing recommendations she returned to Sydney and on 9 January 1895 was registered with the Medical Board of New South Wales but still, as a woman, was not permitted to work in Sydney’s hospitals.
Berne set up a private practice in Macquarie Street and became heavily involved in public health and educaton, giving public lectures aimed particularly at women (The Sydney Morning Herald in August 1897 reported that there were not enough seats at Sydney Town Hall and women were turned away from her lecture, ‘Digestion and Indigestion’). She was affiliated with, among others, the St John’s Ambulance Association and the Kindergarten Union of New South Wales, the Working and Factory Girls Club and, of course, the Womanhood Suffrage League.
Since childhood, Berne had suffered from pulmonary problems, and these worsened in the last years of the nineteenth century. In 1898 she moved to Springwood where her sister Florence had established a school, and then, at the beginning of 1900 to Trundle in western New South Wales. She died there suddenly in August 1900 at the age of only 34, of consumption or tubercolosis, after treating a patient.
As well as paving the way for other women to study and work in medicine, Dagmar Berne was significant in developing women’s health in Sydney. Her achievements in overcoming prejudice, achieving so much and her commitments to public health are incredibly inspiring.
Dr Lisa Murray is the Historian of the City of Sydney and the former chair of the Dictionary of Sydney Trust. She is the author of several books, including Sydney Cemeteries: a field guide. She appears on 2SER on behalf of the Dictionary of Sydney in a voluntary capacity.
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