Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Elizabeth Margaret Bannan (1909–1977)

by Maria S. Varvaressos

This article was published:

Elizabeth Margaret Bannan (1909-1977), educationist, was born on 5 June 1909 in North Sydney, eldest daughter of William Patrick Bannan, a detective from Ireland, and his native-born wife Jane Helen, née Anderson. Both parents instilled a strong sense of independence in their daughters, encouraging them to 'speak out' and to 'stand up' as women. Elizabeth and her two sisters went to Fort Street Girls' High School and continued their studies to tertiary level. In 1931 she graduated B.A. from the University of Sydney, with honours in English, education and anthropology. That year she was awarded the Jones medal and the Walter Beavis prize in the graduate course at Teachers' College, Sydney.

After teaching English in government secondary schools, in 1937 Bannan was appointed lecturer at Teachers' College, under the direction of Alexander Mackie. She was away on an exchange programme in 1939-40 as visiting lecturer at the University of Oregon, United States of America. Back at Teachers' College, Bannan became warden of women students when Elizabeth Skillen retired in 1943.

Inspired by the progressivism of the 'new pedagogy' and by the impact of the 'communication programme' on the elementary curriculum, Elizabeth returned to the U.S.A. on a Carnegie fellowship in 1949 to explore the teaching of 'reading' from kindergarten to primary level. She addressed these issues in two articles, and in an unpublished report on the merits of the 'individualised reading programme' which she introduced to the college. In 1950 she represented Australia at a general conference of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and the International Bureau of Education, Geneva, Switzerland.

Dean of women (from 1957) at Teachers' College, Miss Bannan retained her duties as head of the English department. She was discreet and compassionate, and handled problems with 'sympathy, tact, fairness, flexibility and understanding'. In 1960 and again in 1964 she revisited the U.S.A. to study 'programmed instruction' which she added to the college curriculum in 1965.

Respected by her colleagues and regarded with awe by her students, Elizabeth maintained an aura of elegance and sophistication. She had blue eyes, delicate skin and wore her hair in soft, chestnut waves. Tall, slim and impeccably dressed, the dean of women embodied restrained dynamism. During dinner parties in her home at Double Bay and later at Cremorne, she enjoyed blending intellectual conversation with wine and wit. In more private moments, she turned to the poetry of Robert Browning and Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Her contribution as an educational innovator was formally acknowledged in 1967 when she became the third woman in New South Wales to be admitted as a fellow of the Australian College of Education. In 1974 she was awarded the British Empire medal. Elizabeth continued her work at the college after her retirement in 1973, becoming a member (from 1974) of the first council. She died of a coronary occlusion on 26 July 1977 at her sister's home at Ballina and was cremated. Bannan's portrait by Judy Cassab is held by the University of Sydney.

Select Bibliography

  • R. S. Horan, Fort Street (Syd, 1989)
  • New South Wales Police News, June 1922, p 11
  • Teachers' College, Sydney, Council 1974-76, p 4
  • Quidnunc '77, 1, Aug 1977
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 21 May, 6 June 1931, 6 Jan 1965, 13 Aug 1977
  • North Shore Times (Chatswood), 24 Aug 1977
  • University of Sydney Archives
  • private information.

Citation details

Maria S. Varvaressos, 'Bannan, Elizabeth Margaret (1909–1977)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 18 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (Melbourne University Press), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


5 June, 1909
North Sydney, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


26 July, 1977 (aged 68)
Ballina, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.