Dr Dagmar Berne

Dr Dagmar Berne was the first woman to study medicine in Australia.

Honour Roll

Dagmar Berne was born in New South Wales in 1865, the eldest of eight children. Her father had emigrated from Denmark to New South Wales but drowned in the Bega River while trying to save a man. Her mother remarried but her stepfather died while Dagmar was in her teens. The family moved to Sydney and both the boys and the girls were sent to private schools.

Dagmar attended the exclusive Springfield Ladies' College in Potts Point where she was taught deportment, needlework and other subjects aimed to make her a good wife and mother. However, Dagmar wanted to study science and go to University so she begged her mother to organise private tuition rather than the expensive school. It paid off, for in 1885 Dagmar began studying at Sydney University.

After a year of studying Arts, she gained admission to the Department of Medicine, despite the protestations of the Dean, Professor Stuart who was determined that no woman would qualify while he was in charge. In her first year she achieved Honours in many subjects but, in her second year, she encountered Professor Stuart and he had decided to never give her a pass. So, despite four years of intensive study, Dagmar realised she would never qualify in medicine.

In 1888, she met Dr Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, a pioneering British doctor who had a similar experience to Dagmar in England. Garrett advised her to go abroad to gain a degree. Thanks to the support of their mother, Dagmar and her sister Florence travelled to London, where women were now accepted as medical students at London University's Medical School. They took cheap lodgings and studied hard but the combination of poor diet and damp accommodation had a bad effect on Dagmar, who suffered recurring bouts of pneumonia and pleurisy.

In the 1890s, the family was hit by financial disaster when the Australian economy took a downturn and there was no more money to support the sisters. Florence had been a teacher, so she returned to work and supported Dagmar while she completed her degree. Dagmar qualified in 1883 and worked in a hospital in Tottenham for two years before returning to Sydney.

In 1895, Dagmar registered to practice as a doctor with the Medical Board of New South Wales, only the second woman to do so. She set up a practice in Macquarie Street and worked hard to support her mother. It was soon discovered that her persistent cough was a symptom of tuberculosis. She moved to the country to stay with some family friends in the hope that the dry climate would help her condition.

She did not stop working, right up until her death on 22 August 1900. Her mother established a prize to honour her daughter whose life was cut short as a result of the male prejudice that existed at that time. The Dagmar Berne prize is presented each year to the medical graduate obtaining the highest marks in their final year.