Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Peyser, Dora (1904–1970)

by Kerry Regan

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

Dora Peyser (1904-1970), social worker and nurse, was born on 22 February 1904 in Berlin, second of four children of Alfred Peyser, a specialist physician, and his wife Sofie, née Frankel. Dora grew up in a liberal Jewish household in central Berlin. After her secondary education, she completed a kindergarten course and volunteered at the Pestalozzi-Froebel Haus. She then undertook a child-nursing course at the Hugo Neumanns Kinderhaus and studied social work from 1925 at the social school for women (Soziale Frauenschule). In 1927-34 she worked as an assistant to the school's founder Alice Salomon, a pioneer social work educator and theorist. Recommended by Salomon, she gained entry to the Berlin University (Ph.D., 1934), graduating magna cum laude.

A disciple of Salomon's, Peyser was a member of her coterie of gifted Jewish social workers. Her thesis Hilfe als Soziologisches Phaenomen (Assistance as a Group Phenomenon) was published in Germany and received favourable reviews but was withdrawn after Hitler's anti-Jewish legislation. With increasing anti-Semitism in Germany, Salomon arranged, through an Australian colleague Aileen Fitzpatrick, director of the New South Wales Board of Social Study and Training in Sydney, for Peyser to continue welfare research in Australia.

Allowed a special entry visa for one year, she reached Melbourne in the Bendigo on 5 November 1934 and moved to Sydney in May 1935. She was supported by the Jewish Council for Women, New South Wales, and lived in a room at Edgecliff. To supplement her income, she taught German at the University of Sydney for two terms and at Hopewood House, Darling Point. In 1937 her 16-year-old brother Thomas, who was sponsored by the Jewish Welfare Society, joined her; their parents later escaped to Sweden. Dora worked as secretary for the society and helped refugees—meeting them at the boat, finding accommodation and sponsorship, and communicating with authorities in Australia and overseas.

Meanwhile, she conducted her research into the development of social services in Australia and completed a two-part paper, 'The History of Welfare Work in Sydney 1788-1900', published in the Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society (1939). Despite her qualifications, she was unable to find employment in professional social work; her heavily accented English prevented her using her knowledge and skills. Undaunted, she opted to train in Melbourne as a nurse. In addition to obtaining a double nursing certificate there, she completed a course at the Tresillian Mothercraft Training Centre in Sydney and worked with the District Nursing Association at Glebe. She was naturalized on 9 February 1940.

Peyser lived at the nurses' headquarters in Boyce Street, Glebe, and also rented a small room nearby, which she used as a study. In 1951 and 1952 she was a part-time lecturer in the social studies department at the university. Encouraged by Australian social workers Norma Parker and Kate Ogilvie, she revised and published her thesis as The Strong and the Weak (Sydney, 1951), an examination of the sociological interpretation of social assistance. Forced to retire from nursing about 1961 due to the onset of Parkinson's disease, she moved to a flat in North Sydney and lived on an invalid pension until, increasingly debilitated, she was admitted to Greenwich Hospital in 1962.

Short, with dark hair and brown eyes, Peyser was outspoken, with a forthright manner. She could be intimidating but also generous, organizing activities for refugee children, taking them bushwalking and introducing them to art, literature and philosophy. She worshipped at the Temple Emanuel, Woollahra, where she sang with an a capella group. She also played the guitar.

Her Australian publications, although pioneering efforts, failed to generate further literature on social work practice. Although unable to work in her chosen field, she was not resentful of her treatment in her adopted country. Rather, she regarded nursing as a 'wonderful learning experience', which gave her the opportunity to achieve her goal by working in the welfare system. She died of complications from Parkinson's disease on 15 February 1970 at Princess Juliana Hospital, Turramurra. She donated her body to the University of Sydney for scientific research and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • L. Cohen, Beginning With Esther (Syd, 1987)
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 3 Nov 1934, p 10
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 5 Dec 1934, p 7, 10 Dec 1934, p 4
  • A435, item 1945/4/1225, C123/1, item 4888, B13, item 1934/20174 (National Archives of Australia)
  • Dept of Social Work files (University of Sydney Archives)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Kerry Regan, 'Peyser, Dora (1904–1970)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/peyser-dora-13153/text23811, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 24 September 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

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