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Ross, Dorothy Jean (1891–1982)

by Barbara Falk

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Dorothy Jean Ross (1891-1982), headmistress and educationist, was born on 3 November 1891 at Prahran, Melbourne, only child of Victorian-born parents Alfred George Ross, businessman, and his wife Charlotte Ann, née Walden.  Dorothy was educated at small private schools at Toorak and Windsor; the Priory School, St Kilda; and the University of Melbourne (BA, 1914; MA, 1918; B.Sc., 1927) where, in her first degree, she graduated with second-class honours in modern languages and literature.  She was captain of the university tennis team.  In 1914 she enrolled in the diploma of education course but abandoned it after second term because she found it to have little practical value.  She taught for brief periods at Coburg Higher Elementary and Trinity Grammar schools, before joining the staff of Oberwyl Girls’ School, St Kilda.  By 1922 she had completed the requirements for a B.Sc. degree, majoring in botany, and had had further teaching experience at the Kindergarten Training College, St Catherine’s School, Toorak, and the Incorporated Association of Registered Teachers of Victoria’s teacher-training institution (later Mercer House).  She was joint-editor (1924-29) of the Australian Educational Quarterly, published by the IARTV.

In 1925-28 Ross was a senior teacher of botany, and housemistress of St Cecilia’s House, at Melbourne Church of England Girls’ Grammar School.  In 1928 she accepted an appointment as supervisor and mistress of method at the Associated Teachers Training Institution, subject to her obtaining a formal teaching qualification.  The following year she travelled to England and gained a diploma for teachers of experience at the London Day Training College.  She joined the New Education Fellowship (from 1966 World Education Fellowship).  At its conference in August 1929 at Elsinore, Denmark, she was stimulated by contact with Maria Montessori and Susan Isaacs and by the work of Franz Cizek, all of whom advocated cultivating individuality in children.  Back in Melbourne at the ATTI, in 1930-38 she developed and put into practice progressive ideas, in particular the importance of encouraging pupils to co-operate.  During three months leave in 1935 she profited from a ten-week course with Isaacs in London.

Ross succeeded Kathleen Gilman Jones as headmistress of MCEGGS in January 1939.  During that year she reviewed the activities of the junior school and, concluding that the teaching was outmoded, dismissed staff and brought in new teachers.  The challenge of running a comparatively large establishment brought out her considerable management skills, which were reinforced by her charismatic leadership.  The girls achieved outstanding academic results.  Ross received strong support from the school council when during World War II the defence authorities commandeered the buildings, forcing the school to evacuate to Doncaster and Marysville for about two years.  The loosening of conventional behaviour during this period paved the way for the 'democratic school' that she fostered when the school was reunited at South Yarra in 1944.  There was an elected school advisory council, comprising representatives of both staff and students, and an emphasis on non-competitive schoolwork and games; each pupil had an individual timetable.  These aspects of MCEGGS were displayed in a film Living and Learning Together, which was completed in 1955, the year after Ross had encapsulated her educational ideas in her John Smythe Memorial Lecture, 'The Trend towards the Comprehensive School'.  She retired from MCEGGS in December 1955.  Appointed MBE in 1957, she was federal president (1958-60) of the New Education Fellowship and was made a fellow of the Australian College of Education in 1960.

The staff tried to maintain the structures in which Ross had embedded her ideas until 1957 when Edith Mountain, who had more conventional educational ideas, was appointed principal.  Nearly forty members of staff left and some sixty students followed.  Ross watched the modification of her ideas and sought amelioration for her distress by returning to the training of teachers at Mercer House.  With K. S. Cunningham, she outlined her educational philosophy in An Australian School at Work (1967).  Her health dictated final retirement in 1969.

Ross was known from her student days as 'DJ'.  Combining a deep and private religious conviction with a humanist perspective, in 1956 she left the Anglican church and sought peace in the silent worship of the Society of Friends.  A member of the Lyceum Club, she enjoyed cigarettes, good wine, music and the companionship of a succession of dogs.  In 1930 she had formed an intimate relationship with Mary Davis, formerly her student at ATTI and in 1935-49 a member of staff at MCEGGS.  Suffering from chronic asthma and migraine, in 1972 she decided that she had become a burden to her partner, left her flat attached to Davis’s home and moved to Aylesford House, Malvern.  In 1980 she entered Camberlea Nursing Home, Camberwell.  She died there on 11 April 1982 and was cremated.  A portrait of her by Amalie Colquohoun is held by Melbourne Girls’ Grammar School.

Select Bibliography

  • N. Dobson, Mercer House, 1971
  • J. Epstein, A Golden String, 1981
  • C. Turney (ed), Pioneers of Australian Education, vol 3, 1983
  • R. McCarthy & M. Theobold (eds), Melbourne Girls Grammar School: Centenary Essays 1893-1993, 1993
  • B. Falk with C. Trioli, D.J., 2000
  • Ross papers (University of Melbourne archives)
  • IARTV records, box L, 54/2/14 (University of Melbourne archives)
  • Gwenda Lloyd papers, box 1/13/15-18 (University of Melbourne archives)
  • Melbourne Girls’ Grammar School archives, South Yarra
  • Mercer House archive, box 20, 23/6 (Deakin University Library)
  • personal knowledge

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Barbara Falk, 'Ross, Dorothy Jean (1891–1982)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/ross-dorothy-jean-14195/text25207, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 23 October 2019.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

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