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Lorna Myrtle Hodgkinson (1887–1951)

by Alison M. Turtle

This article was published:

Lorna Myrtle Hodgkinson (1887-1951), psychologist and educationist, was born on 13 May 1887 at South Yarra, Melbourne, daughter of Victorian-born parents Albert James Hodgkinson, sugar-planter, and his wife Ada Josephine, née Edmiston. The family settled in the Northern Rivers region of New South Wales. After Albert's death, his wife and daughter moved to Western Australia where Lorna attended Perth Girls' School. In 1903-06 she was employed by the Education Department as a pupil-teacher and took courses to qualify for the 'C' certificate. While working as an assistant (1907-12) at Perth Infants' School, she pioneered a class for mental defectives.

Between 1913 and 1915 Miss Hodgkinson taught at public schools in New South Wales. In 1917 the Department of Public Instruction appointed her to May Villa, near Parramatta, to teach mentally defective girls who were wards of the State. She obtained paid leave in 1920 and travelled to the United States of America where she studied the treatment of retardates. At Harvard University (M.Ed., 1921; D.Ed., 1922), she wrote her dissertation on 'A State Program for the Diagnosis and Treatment of Atypical Children in Public School Systems'. Back in New South Wales, in October 1922 she took up a post created for her by the department as superintendent (later supervisor) of the education of mental defectives.

In evidence before the royal commission on lunacy law and administration in 1923, Hodgkinson asserted that the system for dealing with mentally defective children was mismanaged. Her allegations provoked a public outcry. Albert Bruntnell, who held the portfolio of public instruction, ordered a ministerial inquiry which found against her on all counts. She was suspended from duty for 'disgraceful and improper conduct in making false statements and pretences', specifically in regard to the claims she had made about her formal education to gain admission to Harvard.

An investigation by the Public Service Board confirmed the charges, and in March 1924 Hodgkinson was censured and demoted to regular teaching duties. When she failed to take up her new position, she was dismissed. Impatient and indiscreet, she had fallen victim to the government's sensitivity over its handling of an issue on which there was growing public concern. The evidence that she had falsified her educational background was circumstantial, and the dean of Harvard's graduate school of education wrote a testimonial affirming her standing and achievement.

In April 1924 Hodgkinson advertised for residents to enter a new private school for mentally defective children; with six pupils, it opened later that year as the Sunshine Institute, Gore Hill. Initially a tenant, in 1930 she purchased a portion of the site (previously owned by the Theosophical Society in Australia) and spent the rest of her life building up the establishment to sixty pupils. She and her companion Ruth Nelson holidayed at Mona Vale with the children.

The main influence on Hodgkinson came from her Harvard mentors, especially Walter Fernald, founder of a residential state school in Massachusetts for the feeble-minded. Hodgkinson urged that such children be appropriately classified, segregated from the rest of the community and trained for later economic self-sufficiency. For the 'higher grade' of child, she favoured an additional system of vocational guidance and supervision; she envisaged that the 'less able' should remain—if need be, permanently—in a self-supporting, cottage-colony system. Her first priority, however, was the residential training school.

Despite her definite opinions on the appropriate treatment of retardates, Hodgkinson was a 'very retiring and private person' after her public humiliation. She was not a prominent speaker or writer, nor was she active in the emerging groups of professional psychologists. Nevertheless, she lectured on 'mental hygiene' on radio 2GB (the Theosophists' station) in 1927 and addressed the Australian Racial Hygiene Congress in Sydney in 1929. She had published a two-part article, 'Workers or Wasters: the Feeble-minded in America' in the Sydney Morning Herald in 1922 and a summary of an address she gave to the Women's Reform League appeared in the Woman's Voice in 1923.

Hodgkinson died of cancer on 24 March 1951 at Gore Hill and was cremated with Anglican rites; her ashes were interred in the grounds of the Sunshine Institute. She had brought to reality on a small private scale the vision she entertained for a large public venture. Immediately before her death she had converted the institute to a non-profit organization under a board of trustees, to whom she bequeathed the bulk of her estate, sworn for probate at £55,812. Renamed the Lorna Hodgkinson Sunshine Home, the institution expanded, while retaining her philosophy of individual care and development.

Select Bibliography

  • Royal Commission on Lunacy Law and Administration, Report, Parliamentary Papers (Legislative Council, New South Wales), 1923, 1, p 651
  • Department of Education, Report on Mental Defectives, Parliamentary Papers (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1923, 1, p 983
  • A. M. Turtle, 'The short-lived appointment of the first New South Wales government psychologist, Dr Lorna Hodgkinson', Australian Historical Studies, 25, no 101, Oct 1993
  • A. Distin Morgan and C. Wang, Notes on the History of the Home and the Life of Hodgkinson (held at the Lorna Hodgkinson Sunshine Home, Gore Hill, Sydney)
  • file on Lorna Hodgkinson (special bundles, box 8/669, State Records New South Wales).

Citation details

Alison M. Turtle, 'Hodgkinson, Lorna Myrtle (1887–1951)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 17 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (Melbourne University Press), 1996

View the front pages for Volume 14

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


13 May, 1887
South Yarra, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


24 March, 1951 (aged 63)
Gore Hill, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.