Florence McKenzie OBE

Florence McKenzie was Australia's first female electrical engineer, among a myriad of achievements.

Honour Roll

Florence McKenzie was born in 1891 in Hawthorn, Victoria. She won a scholarship from Thirroul Public School which enabled her to attend Sydney Girls' High School. In 1915, she passed chemistry and geology at the University of Sydney. She then went on to Sydney Technical College where, in 1923, she became the first woman to graduate as an electrical engineer.

As part of the course she needed practical experience, so in 1921 she took over a wireless shop in the Royal Arcade, Sydney and apprenticed herself. She was fascinated by broadcasting and became the first woman to be granted an amateur radio operator's license (station VK sFV). She also became Australia's first certified female radio telegraphist and in 1924 was the only woman member of the Wireless Institute of Australia. She used morse code to broadcast on her own transmitter to operators all around the world.

That year she married Cecil Roland McKenzie who became a partner in her business. Florence shared the popular belief that electricity could free women from much of their housework. In 1934, she founded the Electrical Association for Women, a non-profit organisation to provide for women's electrical needs. She gave advice, lectures and tested appliances for safety. The showroom displayed appliances from different manufacturers so women could compare. She also published a cookery book and electrical guide.

In 1939, she founded the Women's Emergency Signalling Corps which trained women, and later men, in electrical signalling for World War II. She offered evening classes for women volunteers at the rooms of the Electrical Association for women. Once war was declared her school expanded into the adjacent warehouse. The centre was subsequently used as a training school for soldiers and commercial aircraft pilots. She apparently trained 12,000 servicemen in communications during World War II.

Ever the pioneer, she persuaded the government to establish the Women's Royal Australian Naval Service in 1941. In 1950, she was awarded an OBE for her wartime services. She was also an honorary flight officer in the RAAF. Florence corresponded with Albert Einstein until his death in 1955, and became a fellow of the Australian Institute of Navigation and member of the Royal Naval Amateur Radio Society.

Florence retired in 1956 but continued to help occasional pupils with special needs in her own home. Apparently, a day before she died, age 90, in 1982 she said, "It is finished, and I have proved to them all that women can be as good or better than men".