Students at the University of Sydney

The first 2 women students and graduates

Mary Elizabeth Brown

Mary Elizabeth Brown (1862 - 1952) was one of the two first women admitted to the University in 1882, and one of its first two women graduates in 1885.


Her early years

Mary Elizabeth Brown, who was known as Elizabeth, was born in Samoa in 1862.

Her father was the Rev George Brown, a methodist missionary who had migrated from England to New Zealand in 1855 where he became a local preacher. Her mother was Sarah Lydia, the second daughter of Rev James Wallis, missionary at Whaingaroa Harbour, New Zealand.

In 1860 they married, left for Sydney where Brown was ordained and then sailed for Samoa where he set up his first mission. In the early days he was constantly in danger of losing his life, as he worked among cannibalistic natives who were fighting among themselves.

Their children George Frederick, Mary Elizabeth, Amy Edith, Monica Marion, Claudia, Geoffrey Patteson and Mabel were borne during the fourteen years the Browns resided in Samoa. Their eldest two daughters Elizabeth and Amy were sent to their grandparents, the Rev and Mrs Wallis, in Auckland, New Zealand for their education.

Having decided in 1874 to leave Samoa, Brown settled his wife and children in Auckland with the Wallis family in 1875, then sailed for the New Britain group of islands for continuation of his missionary work.

By October 1876, Brown was able to rejoin his family in Auckland. The following year his wife agreed to join him on his return to the islands with their two youngest children, Geoffrey and Mabel, but it was agreed that their five older children should complete their education in New Zealand, staying with their grandparents. Elizabeth became one of the first pupils at the Auckland Girls High School which opened in 1876.

The Browns settled in New Britain in 1877, and the following year their last child Wallis was born there. However, Brown became ill early in 1879 and had to leave his wife and three young children behind. Following his recovery in Cooktown, he sailed to Sydney and then Auckland, spending two months with their other five children. While he was away, his wife and son Geoffrey survived a serious illness but his other two children – Wallis (in October 1879) and Mabel (in March 1880) – died.

The Browns left the Bismarck archipelago for Sydney in January 1881, having established about twenty-nine missionary stations, and the older children returned from New Zealand.

In the immediate years after their return Mrs Brown established a home named 'Kinawanua' in the suburb of Gordon, Sydney.

Elizabeth entered as a pupil at a fashionable ladies' college, the Argyle School, in Albion Street, Surry Hills, which was run by Miss Emily Baxter.

Her student days at the University of Sydney

Out of 108 male and, for the first time, female students who sat for the matriculation exam for the University of Sydney in June 1882, 74 - including Elizabeth - were successful. She passed in Classics, Mathematics (Class I) and Natural Science (Class II), and was awarded the Walker Bursary No 4.

Despite shouldering significant family caring responsibilities while undertaking her studies at the University, she was successful in her first and second year exams in 1883 and 1884, and passed the examination for the Bachelor of Arts degree in 1885:

  • 1883: she came 4th in the Classics Pass list, 3rd in Mathematics Pass Class I and equal 1st in Natural Science Class III.
  • 1884: she came 8th in Classics (2th in the Pass list), 6th in Mathematics (5th in Pass Class I) and 9th in Chemistry (5th in Class III).
  • 1885: she came 5th in the Classics Honours list (2nd in Class II) and 5th in Mathematics (4th in the Pass list), and passed in Latin and French.


Elizabeth graduated at a ceremony held in the Great Hall on the afternoon of Saturday 2 May 1885.

(Mary) Elizabeth Brown in 1885

(Mary) Elizabeth Brown, photo G3_224_1349 taken in 1885, University of Sydney Archives.

Her career

Elizabeth was appointed in April 1885 as a teacher to the Brisbane Girls Grammar School, which had opened in 1875, to succeed a Miss Franz, mistress of Form III, who had hastily departed for Europe.

Not much is known about her teaching career or her personal life.

  • In December 1885 at the annual distribution of prizes, Elizabeth was thanked in particular by the Principal of the Grammar School for the willingness with which she had 'undertaken and faithfully performed the extra duties which have fallen upon her during the last few weeks'.
  • In 1888 her father wrote: 'Lizzie took her BA in Honours and is now at Brisbane teaching in Grammar School, the rest are with us here.'
  • During the Grammar School's annual Speech Day in December 1897, the Headmistress made reference to 'a very successful dancing class ... held by Miss Brown during the second and third quarters' of that year'.
  • When her sister Amy - Mrs Benjamin Dinning - died in 1904, leaving seven children, the youngest only one week old, it is understood that Elizabeth helped her mother care for the children.
  • In 1908 her father went to his hometown of Barnard Castle, Durham in England to write his autobiography. Elizabeth and Monica went with him, and much of the work was done there by his daughters – 'George Brown DD, Pioneer-Missionary and Explorer: An Autobiography'.
  • Elizabeth never married.
  • She died in Sydney on 1 May 1952, aged 90.
The Brown Fellowships

Among Equity fellowships introduced by the University in 2009 are the Brown Fellowships named after Mary Elizabeth Brown, who shouldered significant family caring responsibilities.

The aim of the Brown Fellowships is to assist University researchers (of all genders) whose careers have been interrupted by the undertaking of sustained primary caring duties by providing substantial relief from teaching and administrative responsibilities and allow them to focus on their research while re-establishing or enhancing their academic research careers.

Read about Equity Fellowships awarded in 2012


Information sources