Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

Louisa Macdonald (1858–1949)

by H. Alexander

This article was published:

Louisa MacDonald, by Kerry & Co, 1892

Louisa MacDonald, by Kerry & Co, 1892

State Library of New South Wales, 440240

Louisa Macdonald (1858-1949), educationist, was born on 10 December 1858 at Arbroath, Forfarshire, Scotland, seventh daughter and eleventh child of John Macdonald, town clerk and lawyer, and his wife Ann, née Kid (d.1860). In this prolific and prosperous family, she was educated by elder sisters and a tutor, beginning Latin aged 7 and Greek at 12. After two years at a finishing school in London, she and her sister Isabella prepared for the Edinburgh Local Examinations by correspondence; Louisa headed the list of candidates in 1878. As the University of Edinburgh did not admit women to degrees, they matriculated at the University of London and, as students of University College, were among the first residents in College Hall. Bella became one of the first women doctors; Louisa graduated B.A. in 1884 with first-class honours in classics and M.A. in classics in 1886.

In 1887 Louisa Macdonald visited the United States of America and New South Wales to see a brother J. M. L. Macdonald of Wallabadah. On returning to London in 1888 she became a fellow of University College. In addition to teaching and research in classical antiquities at the British Museum, she pioneered educational projects for women outside the university and travelled widely in Europe.

In 1891 Miss Macdonald was chosen from sixty-five applicants as first principal of the Women's College, University of Sydney. The college opened on 21 March 1892, in rented premises, with one student; a week later there were four. Though Louisa Macdonald described the early years as a 'golden picnic', she faced difficult and pressing problems, especially financial. In contrast to Britain there was no urgent demand for women's education and a university education for women seemed to many 'not only unnecessary but unsuitable'. The Women's College was seen as a white elephant. Established as a non-denominational college of equal status to those provided for men, Women's College had from its inception a specific ideology of social and intellectual equality. Louisa Macdonald chose its motto, 'Together', taken from Tennyson's The Princess:

The woman's cause is man's; they rise and sink
Together, dwarfed or godlike, bond or free.

The building and decoration of the Italianate-style college, opened in May 1894, and its carefully designed garden, reflected her belief that gracious surroundings were part of a liberal education.

For twenty-seven years Miss Macdonald, assisted by her lifelong friend and companion Evelyn Dickinson, built up student numbers and placed the college on a sound financial basis, while forging its academic and corporate traditions. Numbers rose slowly in the depressed 1890s to 13 students in 1897, 24 in 1906, and suddenly doubled during World War I. In 1916 the college received the same financial endowment as the men's colleges, which allowed all debts to be liquidated. Extra accommodation was provided by building and purchase.

In the 1890s Louisa Macdonald was active in the Womanhood Suffrage League of New South Wales and the Women's Literary Society, and was a committee-member of the Australian Economic Association. She was a founder and committee-member of the Sydney University Women's Association (Union) and the University Women's Society (Sydney University Women's Settlement from 1906). She lectured, catalogued the Greek vases in the Nicholson Museum of Antiquities, and in 1907 was the first woman to stand for the university senate, but was defeated. She attempted to introduce teacher-training courses and student exchange programmes with European universities. She recognized and encouraged the importance of social life within the college by debates, sport and dances and through intercollegiate contacts. Moving easily in Sydney's social life, she strove to make the college part of the university and the wider community. To celebrate the college's twenty-first birthday in 1913 she designed and directed A Mask, the words composed for her by Christopher Brennan and John Le Gay Brereton. In 1914-15 she was vice-president of the Classical Association of New South Wales—and during the war studied Russian.

When Louisa Macdonald resigned in June 1919 she left behind her a flourishing institution. She returned to London and was appointed to the council of College Hall. She purchased and restored the twelfth-century Abbot's House at Arbroath, which she donated to Scotland. She corresponded with old students and entertained numerous Australians, frequently at Ballintuim, Perthshire. One of her last actions was to write a small history of the college in aid of its building fund. She died on 28 November 1949 at her London home. A staunch Presbyterian, she was no 'bluestocking', although formidable and determined 'to guide and direct the studies of young women'. Imbued with tolerance and a ready sense of humour, she believed higher education should be accessible to all.

Select Bibliography

  • W. V. Hole and A. H. Treweeke, The History of the Women's College (Syd, 1953)
  • Cosmos Magazine, 29 June 1895
  • Sun (Sydney), 20 Apr 1913
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 28 Apr 1915
  • Town and Country Journal, 14 May 1919
  • 'Obituary', Times (London), 14 Dec 1949, p 7
  • Union Recorder, 22 Sept 1960
  • letters and papers of Louisa Macdonald (Women's College Archive, University of Sydney)
  • Council minutes (Women's College Archive, University of Sydney)
  • John Le Gay Brereton papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Louisa Macdonald letters, 1892-98 (State Library of New South Wales).

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

H. Alexander, 'Macdonald, Louisa (1858–1949)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 20 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (Melbourne University Press), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Louisa MacDonald, by Kerry & Co, 1892

Louisa MacDonald, by Kerry & Co, 1892

State Library of New South Wales, 440240

Life Summary [details]


10 December, 1858
Arbroath, Forfarshire, Scotland


28 November, 1949 (aged 90)
London, Middlesex, England

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.

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.

Key Organisations