My mother, Irene Myrtle Lowe, always proudly told us that she had been the first woman in the Southern Hemisphere to complete a degree in agricultural science.
Born in 1895, the eldest of five, Irene grew up in the gold-mining town of Cassilis, Victoria.
Her mother died when she was 12, her father continued to run the local store and Irene knew she had to help look after her younger siblings.
Thanks to an excellent teacher at Tongio West, she won a Mining and Agriculture Scholarship (awarded to state schools with less than 150 pupils) to Melbourne Continuation School in 1910.
Henceforth she travelled by coach or buggy to Bairnsdale and took the train to Melbourne where she was able to stay with an aunt.
In 1913, she was awarded an “agricultural, mining and veterinary exhibition” to attend Melbourne University.
In 1914, she studied chemistry, zoology, botany and natural philosophy. Then came the challenge.
Students were expected to attend Dookie College for a year’s practical experience. It had never had a woman student.
It was suggested that Miss Lowe must have had powerful friends.
In 1903, the Women’s Progress Leagues Union had asked the College Council if women could be admitted to Dookie but were told there were no provisions for women students.
Irene went to Dookie to meet the principal, Hugh Pye.
He was ‘experimenting with new strains of wheat and believed that women could be specially useful in such plant cultivation’.
The students were amazed to meet a ‘small pretty woman (she was less than 5 feet high), with charming manner and plenty to say for herself’.
Irene started at Dookie on April 25, 1915.
The principal met her at the railway station and the students lined the drive waving flags and singing ‘Long Live the Lady Student!’
She could not escape the publicity. The May 6 Sydney Bulletin’s cartoon showed a woman ploughing a crooked furrow and quipping, ‘Don’t you know that curves are fashionable this year?’.
The Recorder, Dookie’s local paper, mentioned her work-like costume (brown divided skirt, blue dungaree overall and scarlet woollen cap) and considered that other lady students would be asking her advice on this important and interesting phase of feminine interest.
A journalist, E.H.H. wrote how she had ploughed, harrowed, pruned, cut up sheep, worked at chaff-cutting and steaming – in short, she had shirked at nothing.
She had entered a man’s world and survived the students’ staring and silliness not to mention the staff’s cynicism.
Irene completed the year successfully and returned to her course at Melbourne where she graduated B.Ag.Sc in March 1918.
When she took out her degree she was the only agricultural student. The men had left for the war.
Between 1919 and 1928, nine-day courses for women were held during vacation time when there were no male students.
Excuses continued to be made for excluding women so that it was not until 1947 that women were again permitted to live and study practical agricultural work at Dookie.
Following her graduation, Irene worked in the Bacteriology School and then at Burnley after her marriage to John Rogers in 1922.
Three children were to follow and she never worked again, but remained proud of that degree she had won.
Irene a remarkable, determined woman
“It was a man’s world.”
That’s how Irene Lowe described the experience of attending Dookie College in the early 20th century to her daughter Judy Thomson.
Growing up, Ms Thomson said her mother was never short of an enthralling tale about her younger years.
“Her father ran a general store and all the gold miners would come in and my mother still remembered her father giving her gold dust and a pistol and putting it under her pillow while he went to the pub on a Saturday night,” she said.
“She would tell us wild stories about travelling in a coach with her brothers trying to cross a river when it was flooded. The coach was swimming in the water and they were just praying they’d get across.
“She had some hair-raising stories.”
After years of researching family history, Ms Thomson was able to paint a broader history of her mother’s life, especially her time at Dookie College.
“She was the only woman (at the college), she was quite feisty and determined to succeed. She wasn’t going to let them win,” she said.
“They all got on quite well, they called her The Kid. There was a bit of jealousy there but she survived it all.”
Looking back, Ms Thomson said her mother was a “very determined little woman”, especially through life’s challenges, raising Ms Thomson and her brothers while her husband was away fighting in World War II.
“In retrospect she was a truly remarkable woman,” she said.
It is a view shared by Professor Joy Damousi from the University of Melbourne.
Prof Damousi — who has published academic papers on women and leadership — said Mrs Lowe would have found herself in a unique situation for that period of time.
“It was very unusual for women to go to university, especially in courses like agricultural science where there was no women,” she said.
“She was a real trailblazer and incredibly unique.”
Prof Damousi said through Mrs Lowe’s actions she proved that there was nothing that could prevent women from exploring their career options and entering otherwise male-dominated fields.
“For someone her age, the expectation would have been to help raise her siblings and work to contribute to the family economy,” she said. “Most women would have entered the workforce, she was very unusual to take on studying over working.
“What she achieved was really quite exceptional. She really paved the way for so many generations of women.”