Early women students

Edna Dorothy Sayce (later Briggs)

Edna Dorothy Sayce, who graduated Bachelor of Science at the University of Sydney in 1917 with first class honours in Physics and second class honours in Mathematics, was the University's first woman Physics graduate.

Her early years

Edna Dorothy Sayce was born in 1885 in Melrose, South Australia, youngest daughter of Quakers Alfred Richard and Ellen Sayce (nee Dyke). Her parents had come from England, at first settling at Fullarton, South Australia, and then moving to Crafers in the Adelaide Hills. This was an idealistic community that started with aims of sharing and cooperation, with communal property. Mr Sayce had intended joining a community of Australians with similar aims that moved to Patagonia, but did not do so. At Crafers he had an orchard and market garden. Earlier he had done unemployment relief work as a carpenter on the construction of the Adelaide-Oodnadatta railway line.

When Edna was nine years old the family moved to Broken Hill and Mr Sayce was employed as a carpenter along the line of lode, being last engaged at the Zinc Corporation mine.

She attended Broken Hill Central and District Schools, passing the Sydney Junior University examination in 1910 with honorable mention and becoming dux of the school in 1910 and 1911. In 1913 she was top in the state in the Sydney Training College scholarship exam.

At the University of Sydney

Edna came to Sydney in 1914 to take up the scholarship in the Faculty of Science at the University of Sydney.

In her first year exams, Edna topped the year in Physics with a High Distinction. She won a Levy Scholarship for Chemistry and Physics as well as Mr L A Cotton's Prize for Fieldwork; and was in the Honours list for Mathematics.

She went to see the Professor about continuing in Physics, taking with her a wooden box she had made, learning from her father, as an example of practical ability. 'Why don't you do geology? That is a better subject for a woman student'. Then eventually 'What was your first year exam result?' 'I came first.' Then 'I don't suppose I can stop you'.

She passed her second year exams - winning the Deas Thompson Scholarship for Physics II and obtaining a High Distinction in Physics II.

She passed her final exams in 1916 and graduated Bachelor of Science in 1917, becoming the University's first woman Physics graduate.

While a student and later she assisted with the social work of the Sydney University Settlement.

Edna Dorothy Sayce (later Briggs) in 1917

Edna Dorothy Sayce (later Briggs), photo G3_224_1631, University of Sydney Archives.

Her career

Following graduation, Edna Sayce became a demonstrator in physics at the University of Sydney between 1917 and 1918. The position was available for a year or two while most men students were on military service. She investigated and published on substances related to those now known as superconductors. At the end of the war and return of ex-servicemen, however, her University position ended.

She was also a lecturer in physics at the Sydney Teachers College from 1919 to 1922, and resident tutor at Sydney University Women's College.

On 8 January 1923 Edna married George Henry Briggs, a lecturer in the Physics Department at the University, and they lived at Roseville, Sydney. He did not wish his wife to be in paid work, however, and so Edna abandoned her independent career and turned to assisting her husband in research, e.g. in 1925 they went abroad to work at the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge with Rutherford (later Lord Rutherford, famous for the first splitting of the atom) and both attended lectures by leading researchers.

George gained a PhD at Cambridge and a DSc for further research after returning to Sydney. All this depended heavily on Edna's support which was still in evidence when in 1939 he became Officer-in-Charge of the newly formed Division of Physics in CSIR (later CSIRO). This was the pattern of her life until the birth of their daughters Margaret and Barbara in 1933 and 1934, and until the need for science teachers during World War II led to her re-joining the workforce and teaching high school science at Trinity Grammar School from 1940 to 1945.

The delight in understanding and wide-ranging scientific curiosity that had led her to physics was imparted to students and to her
daughters, and supported her encouragement of George's scientific work. Edna expressed her social concern in many practical ways and her Quaker faith was important through her life. She took an interest in women's affairs and was President of Sydney University Women Graduates' Association when new universities were developing in Sydney.

Her sister Margaret remained for most of her life in Broken Hill, marrying Albert Morris and helping in his pioneering work in restoring vegetation around the city - with great improvement in living conditions as regeneration areas replaced the bare ground and dust storms that had been features of life there.

Her mother died in Sydney of meningioma in June 1937 aged 88, and her father died of pneumonia in 1949 aged 94.

Edna died in Sydney on 29 April 1983.

'Edna's legacy includes her place as a pioneer for women in Physics in Australia; in the tremendous support that she gave George Briggs towards his research and his work in CSIRO, and to her daughters Margaret Jocelyn Wright (Physics graduate, subsequently a social worker in Manchester, England, wife of (Dr) Ian Francis Wright a nuclear physicist at Manchester University and with children Alison, Colin and Derek) and (Dr) Barbara Gillian Briggs (Botanist, Senior Assistant Director (Scientific) at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney); and the effective support she gave to many people and organisations, mostly in ways of very practical social concern.' (Dr Barbara Briggs)

Information sources
  • Edna Dorothy Briggs' biography by Dr Barbara Briggs
  • National Library of Australia historic newspapers
  • University of Sydney Calendar Archive
  • Encyclopedia of Australian Science