Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Dorsch, Agnes Marie Johanna (1871–1958)

by Alison Mackinnon

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

Agnes Marie Johanna Dorsch (1871-1958), teacher, was born on 18 December 1871 in Adelaide, eldest of four surviving children of Ernst Bernhard Heyne (d.1881), a florist and seedsman from Saxony, and his wife Wilhilmina Maria Laura, née Hankel. Ernst had studied at the University of Leipzig and assisted Baron von Mueller in Melbourne. Educated at a Unitarian Sunday School and Norwood Public School, Agnes was identified by J. A. Hartley as particularly gifted and given extra coaching in Latin and Greek. She won scholarships to the Advanced School for Girls and the University of Adelaide (B.A., 1891). The second woman to graduate in arts from that university, and one of the first to use state-provided bursaries to higher education, she gained first-class honours in classics and mathematics. On 5 April 1893 at her mother's Norwood home she married Caspar Dorsch (d.1916), a Bavarian-born, Lutheran clergyman who had studied in the United States of America; thirteen years her senior, he was a widower with three children. Agnes bore him four sons and four daughters, all of whom she was proud to have breast-fed.

The Rev. Dorsch forbade dancing, picture theatres and card games, seeing them as signs of the devil; his constraints cast a heavy shadow over the growing family. When he suffered a breakdown, he was sent to his people in America to recuperate for two years, but remained a semi-invalid. His subsequent inability to maintain a parish necessitated Agnes's involvement in teaching—at Tormore House School under the redoubtable Caroline Jacob, then at Presbyterian Girls' College and later (for about twenty years) at a Lutheran school, Concordia College. During this time Mrs Dorsch also gave classes at the Young Women's Christian Association and coached private pupils in the evenings. Apart from her daughters she had no domestic help. She was regarded as 'a saint' by her children and fondly remembered for her brilliance as a teacher by several generations of Adelaide students, especially those who went on to do degrees in classics. To be taught by Mrs Dorsch was 'to enter a different world . . . She was big intellectually and culturally'. Many German South Australians had their sense of culture enriched by 'lessons from any of the Heyne family'. Agnes Dorsch 'could read Greek poetry so that it really sounded like poetry'. Her skill in teaching was shared by her younger sisters Laura and Ida, both graduates in arts.

While Mrs Dorsch had little time for the domestic concerns of her large household, she did not neglect to provide books for her children, six of whom obtained university degrees and distinguished themselves with prizes and scholarships. Following her retirement from Concordia in 1942, she continued coaching for many years, even after a stroke at the age of 74. She felt honoured to have taught the children of five governors, including grandchildren of Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Survived by three daughters and three sons, she died on 13 October 1958 at Fullarton and was buried in West Terrace cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Mackinnon, The New Woman (Adel, 1986)
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Citation details

Alison Mackinnon, 'Dorsch, Agnes Marie Johanna (1871–1958)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/dorsch-agnes-marie-johanna-10034/text17691, published in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 2 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

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