Students at the University of Sydney

The first 2 women students & graduates

Isola Florence Thompson

Isola Florence Thompson (1861 - 1815) was one of the first two women admitted to the University of Sydney in 1882, one of its first two women graduates (BA) in 1885 and the first woman MA graduate in 1887.


Her early years

Isola Florence Thompson was born in Newcastle in 1861.

Her father was Joseph Thompson, a school teacher and headmaster, and her mother was Elizabeth Hannah. Her brothers and sisters included Amy, Samuel, Ida, Bertha, Frank and Frederick.

Isola received her first education in the Newcastle Public School where her father was teacher and headmaster for some 15 years. References to her father in the press include the following:

  • in 1870, there were 342 names on the roll at Newcastle Superior Public School, when Mr Joseph Thompson was teacher. The school was known popularly as 'The Hill'.
  • in 1871, a man 'who has since turned out to be a lunatic was caught on the (Newcastle) premises of Mr Joseph Thompson, public school teacher, having entered the house under the impression that someone was beckoning to him ...'
  • in 1875, the unsatisfactory state of his health induced him to settle for a short time in New Zealand.


When her father subsequently moved to Albury in the late 1870s for three years as teacher and headmaster of the Albury Public School, Isola continued her education there. In December 1880, she passed the Junior Public Examination (which she presumably set at the centre in Albury) in French, Latin and Arithmetic; her results were High, Low and High respectively. (Junior and Senior Public examinations were established, set and marked by University of Sydney.) She also passed the entrance examination for teachers under the Department of Public Instruction.

After leaving school she studied under her father at home and, on his appointment as headmaster of Marrickville Public School in mid-1881 and consequent return to Sydney, she studied for a time under Charles Alfred Flint, who graduated BA from the University in 1882 with Class II honours in Mathematics, and MA in 1884.

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 Isola - were successful. She passed in Classics, Mathematics (Class II) and Natural Science (Class II), and was awarded a Walker Bursary.

In her first year Arts exams in 1883, she passed in Classics and in Mathematics (Pass Class II) and came 4th in Natural Science (1st in Class II).

However, 1884 would have been a very difficult year for Isola. Nearly all the members of her family contracted typhoid fever and one child - Ida - died earlier that year aged 14. It is not known if Isola was ill, but her father suffered a long illness from typhoid. He disappeared after leaving his home in Marrickville on the morning of 26 April 1884, and the police, assisted by friends, searched for his body at Coogee where he owned property. It was supposed that he had drowned.

Some time later it became clear that when Joseph had left his house that morning, he had gone to town and the last that was known of him was that he called into the office of an acquaintance and wrote a letter to a friend. He then left the office and nothing was known of his subsequent movements. The letter arrived in due course and revealed that he was tired of life, and that this feeling was caused by the sickness and trouble into which he and his family had been plunged owing to the typhoid epidemic. It was thought that this, combined with his own weakness from the disease, had caused the state of mind indicated in his letter.

He left an estate worth 6,000 pounds.

Despite these hardships, Isola passed her second year exams, coming 7th in Classics in the Pass list and passing in Mathematics (5th in Pass Class III) and Chemistry (Class II).

She successfully passed the exam for the Bachelor of Arts in March 1885, coming 4th in Latin and French, 1st in Classics in the Pass list, and 7th in Class II for Mathematics, and graduated at the ceremony held in the Great Hall on the afternoon of Saturday 2 May 1885.

Isola Florence Thompson in 1885

Isola Florence Thompson, print from a wood-carving, 'Illustrated Sydney News', 6 June 1885, NLA Newspapers, taken from photograph by Creelman and Co, Sydney.


Three years later, on 14 March 1887, she graduated as the first woman Master of Arts, one of the "sweet girl graduates."

Her career

Following graduation in 1885 at the age of 23, Isola Thompson took a position at Sydney High School for Girls, the first female graduate to be appointed there.

The school had been established two years earlier - in a two-storey building on land now occupied by David Jones, surrounded by a high wall. The boys entered from Castlereagh Street and occupied the ground floor, the girls entered from Elizabeth Street and occupied the first floor. These conditions prevailed until 1892 when the boys moved to a new school at Mary Ann Street, Ultimo and thereafter the girls had the whole building to themselves until the move to the school's current Moore Park site in 1921, when it was renamed Sydney Girls High School.

Her mother Elizabeth died at her home in Darlinghurst in 1889.

Isola did not marry, and spent her teaching career - from 1885 to 1914 - at the Girls High School. She succeeded Marion O'Brien as first assistant in 1890 and later became deputy principal. However, her progression to the headship was blocked, it was said, by the first headmistress Mrs Lucy Garvan who held office until 1918.

The Girls High School in 1899

The following images of the Girls High School around 1899 were published in the 'Australian Town and Country Journal' on 25 February 1903 (National Library of Australia):

The building as seen from Castlereagh Street

The building as seen from Castlereagh Street.

The building as seen from Elizabeth Street

The building as seen from Elizabeth Street.

Headmistress Mrs Garvan and the permanent staff of the school

Headmistress Mrs Garvan (centre front) and the permanent staff of the school. It is possible that it is Isola who is standing in the centre of the back row.

Mrs Garvan in her study

Mrs Garvan in her study.

The large schoolroom on the ground floor, showing a section of a class at Indian club exercise

The large schoolroom on the ground floor, showing a section of a class at Indian club exercise.

The large schoolroom on the ground floor, showing a section of a class at lessons

The large schoolroom on the ground floor, showing a section of a class at lessons.

One of the large classrooms, showing the honour boards

One of the large classrooms, showing the honour boards.

One of the smaller classrooms

One of the smaller classrooms.

Staff of the Girls High School in 1914

The following image G3_224_1306 of staff of the Girls High School in 1914, with Miss Thompson in the front row, second from the left, is courtesy of the University of Sydney Archives:

Staff of the Girls High School in 1914
Isola Florence Thompson in 1914
A tribute to Isola Florence Thompson

Failing health forced Isola to resign from the Girls High School in April 1914. When she left for the last lime, the senior students formed a double line, through which she passed out of the school gate.

She died on 8 December 1915 at Braeside private hospital in Stanmore aged 54.

A former pupil, Jean, wrote a tribute to Isola which appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald on 15 December 1915 and which included the following:

'There was a gap made in the ranks of the old school by the death of Isola Florence Thompson, MA, for so many years a well loved figure in school history. Some remember her during her early days in the life of the Sydney Girls High School, when she came fresh fiom graduation honours, one of the very first. Others remember the middle and later period of her school work, very few can think of the High School without her. To the big majority hers was a sweet remembrance, affectionately spoken of, loved, endeared. We reverenced her as one of Sydney's very clever women, a pioneer graduate. In the old days we used to surround her with birthday books and autograph books, and we always wanted to see MA (Syd) attached to her name. If she forgot that, as she often would have done, we did not hesitate to ask for it. Perhaps some of our reverence for distinction has worn off since those days, we have learnt to prize other things more dearly. One can safely say that the memory of her kindness of heart just now stands out first. Miss Thompson was always kind, so kind that some of us may have imposed, but we never did it more than once. She was too true-hearted for even the average school-girl to desire to impose again. For she rarely blamed or found fault, she set her value on honour and tenderness, and the memory of both is enshrined. At times we may have forgotten that she was one of our most able women; we never forgot her way with us.

Last year word went round that our ex-teacher was ill, that she would have to leave her work, that her busy life must change to one of perfect rest and quiet. There was a very quick rally to show her a little of what we thought. Within a bare fortnight old girls, some of whom had not met for 20 years, gathered one afternoon to show their love and appreciation of Miss Thompson's work and their recollection of it. She loved the appreciation, but most of all she loved the flowers and the presence of so many old pupils, and the thought that came from near and far – for her.

Her old girls are playing their part fittingly today – doctors and nurses in Egypt, France, and England. Red Cross workers in our midst, scholars, teachers, writers, mothers of boys and girls will turn over the page as pages are so often turned over in these days, with a wistful sadness and a sweet memory of loving kindness...'

The Thompson Fellowships

Among Equity fellowships introduced by the University in 2009 are the Thompson Fellowships named for Isola Florence Thompson.

The Fellowships recognise that women are significantly underrepresented at senior academic levels. Thompson Fellowships aim to specifically offer women presently at Levels C (senior lecturer) and D (associate professor) substantial relief from teaching and administrative responsibilities and to provide opportunities to develop and strengthen their research, preparing them to apply for, and assume, roles at levels D (associate professor) and E (professor) in the future.

Read about the Equity Fellowships awarded in 2012.


Information sources