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Sweet, Georgina (1875–1946)

by Monica MacCallum

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

Georgina Sweet (1875-1946), by unknown photographer, 1925

Georgina Sweet (1875-1946), by unknown photographer, 1925

University of Melbourne Archives, UMA/I/1071

Georgina Sweet (1875-1946), zoologist, academic and philanthropist, was born on 22 January 1875 in Brunswick, Melbourne, elder of two daughters of George Sweet (1844-1920), then a plasterer, and his wife Fanny, née Dudman, both English born. George, a fellow of the Geological Society, ran the Brunswick Brick, Tile & Pottery Co. An amateur geologist, he built up an extensive fossil collection, now in the Museum of Victoria, corresponded widely with Australian geologists and was president of the Royal Society of Victoria (1905). In 1888-95 he investigated fossils in the Mansfield district for (Sir) Frederick McCoy, and was second-in-command to (Sir) Edgeworth David on the Funafuti expedition in 1897. As a girl, Georgina played the organ in the local Methodist church where her father was steward and lay-preacher. She acted as assistant in his geological work and learned sound business principles from him. He encouraged her to take up a career in science.

Georgina was educated at Parkville Ladies' College and the University of Melbourne (B.Sc., 1896; M.Sc., 1898; D.Sc., 1904), winning awards such as the university's MacBain scholarship (1898). Her research was carried out in the biology department — initially under Professor (Sir) Baldwin Spencer to whom she was devoted and who counted her one of his best students — and later in the veterinary school. At first she worked on the zoology of Australian native animals. She had a paper on Australian earthworms read before the Linnean Society of London in 1900 and her doctorate was awarded for a detailed study of Notoryctes, the Australian marsupial 'mole'. Later she became interested in the parasites infesting Australian stock and native fauna and this work won her the David Syme research prize (1911). She published widely and came to be judged the country's foremost parasitologist. On overseas leave in 1913-14 she investigated worm-nodules in cattle for the Federal government, and during a 1925-27 journey in Asia gathered information on the buffalo fly for the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research. She was for many years a member of the Australian National Research Council.

Her family apart, Sweet's life became centred in the university. In 1896-1907 she also taught in several of Melbourne's leading secondary schools and served on the council of the Association of Secondary Teachers (1905-12). She began her university teaching career in 1898, demonstrating in biology to medical and science students. From 1901 she was lecturer in biology at Queen's College until December 1908 when she was appointed lecturer and demonstrator in biology in the university. From 1909 she was also lecturer in parasitology in the new veterinary school and research institute under Professor J. A. Gilruth and, later, Professor H. A. Woodruff. Keenly interested in her students' welfare, she could transfer to them her own enthusiasm, and won a high reputation for teaching and organizational skills; but, despite her great energy, she was to find the dual appointment a source of strain. From 1911 to 1919 her workload was frequently increased by the often prolonged absences of both her professors and, during the war years, by the concentration of the veterinary course to allow for earlier qualification. On the death of T. S. Hall in 1915, Sweet became second-in-command of the biology school, and during Spencer's absence from November 1916 to March 1917 she was Australia's first female acting professor. In 1919, when Spencer was due to retire, Sweet was persuaded to apply for the chair (now zoology), despite exhaustion from overwork and distress due to the recent deaths of her mother and her sister, Elizabeth Mary Sweet, M.D., and the uncertain health of her father. She had enthusiastic support from academics at home and abroad, but the chair went to W. E. Agar. In 1920 Sweet became the university's first woman associate-professor. By 1921, however, she had to apply for sick-leave. At the end of 1924, she retired from zoology, remaining part-time lecturer in the veterinary school. Two years later she resigned altogether, but, as an honorary lecturer, still did some teaching.

Sweet took an active part in many sides of university life. She served on the science, veterinary and agriculture faculties, and in 1924 was acting dean of the veterinary faculty. On the council of the Graduates' Association and the executive committees of the Science Club and the women students' club, she gave popular public lectures on scientific subjects and was honorary secretary of the University Union in 1912. Moderately wealthy after her father's death, Sweet gave generously to university and other appeals. Although she did not see herself as one of the 'new women' and never felt disadvantaged by her sex, she was always a vigorous supporter of women's rights. She pushed to have women admitted to the university senate, and for seventeen years was president of the provisional council, working to establish the University Women's College which she served for the rest of her life. In 1936 fellow graduates elected her the first woman member of the university council.

Equally energetic outside the university, Sweet became involved in national and international affairs and professional bodies. She was an active member of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science, the Royal Society of Victoria, the Field Naturalists' Club and the Lyceum Club. Australian president of the Young Women's Christian Association in 1927-34, she was a vice-president of the world Y.W.C.A. from 1934. She was a foundation member of the Victorian Women Graduates' Association and its representative on the national and international bodies. In 1930 she became first president of the Pan-Pacific Women's Association. When she was appointed O.B.E. in 1935, representatives of over twenty organizations in which she was involved gathered to congratulate her.

Late in her life Sweet's eyesight deteriorated; she wore blue-tinted spectacles, walked with a stick and appeared somewhat formidable to young students; but her straightforward and generous nature was appreciated by a wide and varied circle of friends. Her greatest recreational delight was travelling. Her journeys usually combined business with pleasure and included a trek through Africa from the Cape to Cairo (1922) with Jessie Webb, and extensive travel in Asia. Having a keen sense of fun, she was amused when students dubbed her 'Spencer's Faerie Queene'. She had deeply-held religious beliefs, belonged to the Methodist Church and, like her father, served for many years on the council of Queen's College. She died at her Canterbury home on 1 January 1946 and was cremated. Her estate, valued for probate at £98,263, included considerable sums for the university, her Church and various charitable bodies.

Select Bibliography

  • Principal Women of the Empire, vol 1 (Lond, 1940)
  • D. J. Mulvaney and J. H. Calaby, ‘So Much That is New’ (Melb, 1985)
  • Australian Women's Digest, May 1946
  • Argus (Melbourne), 10 June 1914, 24 Sept 1934, 9 Dec 1936
  • Star (Melbourne), 15 Oct 1934
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 4 July 1935
  • Spectator (Melbourne), 9 Jan 1946
  • J. R. Rapke, papers on various Australian women: Georgina Sweet (manuscript, National Library of Australia)
  • University of Melbourne Archives
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Monica MacCallum, 'Sweet, Georgina (1875–1946)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/sweet-georgina-8728/text15281, published in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 31 August 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

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