Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Edith Amelia Kerr (1893–1975)

by Muriel Porter

This article was published:

Edith Amelia Kerr (1893-1975), missionary and headmistress, was born on 6 June 1893 at Patyah, Edenhope, Victoria, ninth of ten children of James Kerr, a grazier from Scotland, and his Victorian-born wife Mary Taylor, née Gardiner. Educated at the Melbourne Continuation School, Edith began work as a primary school teacher. After the death of her fiancè on active service in 1917, she decided to become a missionary. She attended the Deaconess and Missionary Training Institute of the Presbyterian Church and in 1920 was made deaconess. In 1921 she was sent to Korea as a missionary, under the auspices of the Presbyterian Women's Missionary Union.

Miss Kerr spent the next twenty years in Korea where she concentrated on educational initiatives for disadvantaged women and girls. From 1935 she was principal of the Tongnai Farm School, near Pusan, which rehabilitated destitute women through vocational training. She was recalled in 1941 when conditions under the Japanese occupation grew increasingly dangerous. Back home on leave and deputation work, Kerr had attended the University of Melbourne (B.A., 1933). Again in Melbourne during World War II, she entered the Presbyterian Theological Hall, Ormond College, and in 1946 was the first woman in the Presbyterian Church of Australia to gain a bachelor of divinity.

While studying, Kerr earned her living by teaching at Methodist Ladies' College, Kew. In 1944 she applied to be accepted as a formal candidate for the ministry of the Presbyterian Church, then not open to women. Despite support from the Victorian assembly, her Melbourne North presbytery opposed her. The matter went to the general assembly, but her application was dismissed. Although no Presbyterian woman minister in Australia would be ordained for another thirty years, Kerr was the one who first brought this subject into discussion. Following her rejection, she wrote a persuasive and comprehensive defence of the ordination of women (in the form of a booklet published in 1948) during a two-year stint as principal of the Presbyterian Deaconess Training Institute, Dunedin, New Zealand.

In 1949 she returned to Victoria to prepare for further missionary work in Korea. She had been invited to join the academic staff of the Ewha Women's University in Seoul. To her disappointment, however, she was rejected on medical grounds. She resumed teaching, at Penleigh Presbyterian Girls' School, Essendon, and in 1950 was appointed headmistress of Clarendon Presbyterian Ladies' College, Ballarat. Leaving that post in 1955, she lectured in theology at Rolland House Deaconess Training College, Melbourne, for six years.

A gifted woman with a vibrant personality and considerable personal warmth and charm, Kerr was an engaging public speaker, particularly in the service of the Christian faith. She was also accomplished in music, poetry, embroidery and painting. In retirement she took an active role in the temperance movement within the Presbyterian Church, and created a library and recreational club at the Hedley Sutton home for the aged, Canterbury. She died there on 2 April 1975 and was buried in Box Hill cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Clarke and M. Cochran, The Lamp Burns Brightly (Ballarat, Vic, 1970)
  • Presbyterian Churches of Victoria and Queensland, Missionary Chronicle, Sept 1921, May 1941, Sept 1945, Feb, June, Sept 1949
  • Presbyterian Church of Australia, Deaconess Council, minutes, 6 Sept 1955, 5 Feb 1957, 1 Dec 1959 (Presbyterian Church Archives, Melbourne)
  • family papers (privately held).

Citation details

Muriel Porter, 'Kerr, Edith Amelia (1893–1975)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 15 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (Melbourne University Press), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


6 June, 1893
Patyah, Edenhope, Victoria, Australia


2 April, 1975 (aged 81)
Canterbury, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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