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Dorette Margarethe (Dorothea) MacCallum (1863–1952)

by Ursula Bygott

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Dorette Margarethe (Dorothea) MacCallum (1863-1952), community worker, was born in 1863 at Elbstorf, Hanover, Prussia (Germany), one of eight children of Lorenz Peters, farmer and grazier. In 1881 she was teaching German and French at Aberystwyth, Wales, where she met (Sir) Mungo William MacCallum; they married on 28 June 1882 at Elbstorf. On his appointment to the University of Sydney in 1886, as foundation professor of modern languages and literature, MacCallum, with his wife and their two children, sailed for Australia, reaching Sydney in February 1887. A son born next year died in infancy.

Dorette became involved in all aspects of university life. An intelligent woman with good organizing ability and appropriate social skills, she was also an excellent cook and hostess. These attributes were to enhance her role as wife of a professor who would later hold office as vice-chancellor and chancellor. A grandson later described her as tall and ungainly, with smooth hair, broad brow, wide-set eyes and Saxon features.

Louisa Macdonald noted in 1895 that the MacCallums were a devoted couple 'so happy yet so full of interest in matters not immediately concerning themselves'. In 1895 Louisa became godmother to their fourth child Walter. All the surviving MacCallum children were well educated and graduates of the University of Sydney. The eldest, Mungo Lorenz (d.1933), a lawyer and journalist, was a Rhodes scholar.

Dorette showed a keen interest in the work and activities of the women undergraduates and later the graduate body. In 1891 she helped to set up the Sydney University Women's Society (University Settlement), of which she was vice-president in 1891-92 and 1895-1903 and president in 1925-32. It was largely due to her foresight, and the generous financial assistance provided by her and her daughter Isabella Lightoller (d.1940), that a property at Chippendale was purchased in 1925 as a permanent home for the settlement.

When the Sydney University Women's Union was formed in 1909-10, Mrs MacCallum was among those wives of the university staff who took out life membership to help the young members financially. She was patroness from 1931. Various sporting activities received her help: she provided prizes for tennis competitions and in 1910, when the university's three women's sports clubs formed a single association, she became its president.

Present at the founding meeting of the National Council of Women in 1895, she became active in many aspects of its work, holding the presidency in 1919-27. Among her interests were the Infants' Home at Ashfield and the Sydney Day Nursery and Nursery Schools Association. As president of the latter in 1924-38 and prominent in the establishment of its nursery training college in 1932, she was also associated with the Royal Society for the Welfare of Mothers and Babies and the New South Wales Society for Crippled Children. She was, as well, a council-member of Sydney Church of England Girls' Grammar schools at Darlinghurst and Moss Vale.

Lady MacCallum was a spirited and formidable woman. Family members, especially the younger generation, at times disagreed with her strong views. Her grandson, who wrote of her 'iron hand', believed that she 'thought in German till the end of her life'. Predeceased by her husband, she died on 4 July 1952 in hospital at Rose Bay and was cremated. An Anglican memorial service was held in St Andrew's Cathedral, Sydney. One son survived her. Her portrait by E. A. Harvey was presented to the University Settlement in 1933.

Select Bibliography

  • M. MacCallum, Plankton’s Luck (Melb, 1986)
  • R. Williams, The Settlement (Syd, 1988)
  • C. Turney et al, Australia’s First, vol 1 (Syd, 1991)
  • J. Roberts, Maybanke Anderson (Syd, 1993)
  • J. Beaumont and W. Vere Hole, Letters from Louisa (Syd, 1996)
  • S. Lilienthal, Newtown Tarts (Syd, 1997)
  • Union Recorder, 10 July 1952, p 141
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 10 Feb 1926, p 8, 25 Nov 1927, p 4, 17 Dec 1927, p 4, 28 Nov 1933, p 44, 9 June 1938, p 20.

Citation details

Ursula Bygott, 'MacCallum, Dorette Margarethe (Dorothea) (1863–1952)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 21 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (Melbourne University Press), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Peters, Dorette

Hanover, Lower Saxony, Germany


4 July, 1952 (aged ~ 89)
Rose Bay, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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