Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Cohen, Fanny (1887–1975)

by Cliff Turney

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

Fanny Cohen (1887-1975), headmistress, was born on 9 June 1887 at Grafton, New South Wales, only daughter of Jewish parents Algernon Aaron Cohen, a native-born physician and surgeon, and his English wife Priscilla, née Cohen. Educated at Miss Emily Baxter's Argyle School in Sydney, she was taught Latin and mathematics as well as English, French, music and history. In 1904 she passed the senior public examination with first-class honours and medals for mathematics, algebra and French. At the University of Sydney she performed brilliantly, graduating B.A. in 1908 and B.Sc. in 1909 with first-class honours in mathematics and first-class honours with the university medal in geology.

In 1909-11 Fanny Cohen was a junior demonstrator in geology at the university and in 1911 won the Barker graduate scholarship. Her studies in mathematics at the University of Cambridge were cut short by the ill health of her mother, who had accompanied her to England. She returned to the University of Sydney and graduated M.A. in 1913 with a thesis on 'The application of spherical trigonometry to crystallography'.

Meanwhile in July 1912 Miss Cohen became assistant mistress of mathematics at Fort Street Girls' High School, Sydney. Although untrained as a teacher, she was strongly supported in her application by Professors Edgeworth David and Carslaw; the latter wrote: 'I know of none of my women students who can compare with her as a suitable teacher of mathematics'. She was an immediate success and was promoted to mathematics mistress next year. In 1922 she was appointed deputy headmistress of North Sydney Girls' High School and next year headmistress of the Maitland West Girls' High School. Back in Sydney in 1926 as headmistress of St George Girls' High School, at the end of 1929 she returned to Fort Street as headmistress.

Miss Cohen was 'a teacher of exceptional ability, a highly efficient organizer and a strong disciplinarian'. Her striking personality and her educational ideals left an indelible impression on the members of staff and the thousands of girls who passed through the school. Tall, handsome with expressive brown eyes, charming manner and merry laugh, she was a dignified, self-confident, direct, frank and, at times, very determined woman. She was admired too for her modesty, fairness and impartiality. She had a genuine affection for her pupils, an understanding for their problems and a keen interest in their development. Her personal interest in the welfare of her staff inspired their co-operation and effort; although something of an autocrat, she delegated considerable responsibility and had confidence in their work; many went on to high positions.

Although Miss Cohen never gave detailed expression to her educational ideas, she left no doubt about the three main interrelated principles for which she stood: she emphasized the need to select the intellectual élite of students and to educate them in segregated schools; she held to the belief that 'girls of sufficient ability were capable of reaching the same high academic standards as boys and of entering the professions on an equal footing'; she advocated high standards of education and always admired excellence of performance. She had great expectations of her pupils and sternly reprimanded those who were slacking or whose behaviour was lax. She thought external examinations maintained standards, conveyed to employers an objective standard of the pupil's academic worth and encouraged students to strive harder.

In 1934-44 and in 1949-59 Miss Cohen was a fellow of the Senate of the University of Sydney, served on a number of its committees and represented it on the Women's College Council in 1936-44 and 1949-59, and was a director of the Sydney University Women's Union in 1953-59. In 1937-52 she represented the Secondary Teachers' Association of New South Wales on the Board of Secondary School Studies. In this capacity, as at Fort Street, she endeavoured to promote high standards.

Miss Cohen had a rather unusual range of outside interests: horse-racing and betting, contract bridge, theatre and ballet, motoring and travel. Soon after her retirement from Fort Street in 1952 she became active in the Royal Blind Society of New South Wales. In 1955 she obtained a braille writer's certificate and for some years translated books, helped to produce a monthly magazine for the blind, and trained other people in braille transcription.

In 1962 Miss Cohen was appointed M.B.E. for services to education. She died on 21 August 1975 in St Vincent's Hospital, Sydney, and was cremated. She left the residue of her estate, valued for probate at $101,577 to a niece. Her portrait by W. A. Dargie is held at Fort Street Girls' High School, Petersham.

Select Bibliography

  • Fort Street Girls' High School Magazine, 1949, 1952
  • New South Wales Board of Secondary School Studies, minutes (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Fanny Cohen papers, and Senate minutes (University of Sydney Archives).

Citation details

Cliff Turney, 'Cohen, Fanny (1887–1975)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/cohen-fanny-5709/text9653, published in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 31 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

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