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.

Zerner, Wilhelm (William) (1882–1963)

by Dan O'Donnell

This article was published:

Wilhelm (William) Zerner (1882-1963), schoolteacher, was born on 21 September 1882 at Fassifern Scrub, Queensland, third of ten children of Prussian-born parents Wilhelm Zerner, farmer, and his wife Margaretha, née Duhs. The boy soon became known as William. Educated at Dugandan and Templin State schools, near Boonah, he was a pupil-teacher in 1896-1900 at the Templin school, which had been built on land donated from his father's 160-acre (65 ha) selection. He moved to Roma as head teacher in 1901. On 17 October that year at his residence at Roma he married with Methodist forms Ottillie Emilie Johanna Dittberner (d.1951), a dressmaker who had been born in Germany. He taught at Albany Creek (1902-09), Blenheim (1909-15), Yuleba (1915), Dutton Park (1916-20), Gatton (1920-22) and Rosewood (1922-27) State schools, and at Nambour Rural School (1928-38). In 1935 he was an acting-inspector of schools.

In August 1938 Zerner was promoted to supervisor of the Queensland Primary Correspondence School, with over one hundred staff and more than five thousand pupils. Next year he began a school magazine, Mail Way, to display children's work, and in 1940 established the Allen lending library (named after its benefactor, Mrs F. A. Allen, of Duchess). On 3 February 1941 he conducted the primary correspondence school's first radio session, 'My School Speaks', broadcast by the Australian Broadcasting Commission. Radio lessons soon became a regular part of the school's programme; tests in mental arithmetic and dictation were given, with the children returning their answers to the school. Enrolment increased during World War II, when families moved from 'danger zones' to areas considered safer, peaking in May 1942 at over seven thousand. Soldiers in the Northern Territory and Papua took lessons through the school, and pupils became involved in the war effort through a school branch of the Australian Junior Red Cross.

An advocate of personal and individual instruction, Zerner encouraged each pupil to proceed at his own pace. In 1948 in Mail Way he urged the children: 'Give to your job, whatever it may be, the best that is in you'. He did not favour coercion, detention or other forms of punishment, and discouraged homework, insisting that all lessons should be done in school hours. Regarding parents as equal partners in the educative process, he wrote in the magazine, also in 1948: 'Amongst the staff I feel I must include our thousands of Bush Mothers. These mothers are truly heroic'.

Zerner retired in June 1949, but within months was re-employed as officer-in-charge of the Special School for New Australians, Wacol East, Brisbane. He resigned in May 1952. On the council of the Queensland Bush Children's Health Scheme until 1962 and of the Australian-American Association, he was also a vice-president of the (Royal) Overseas League, Queensland branch. Survived by his son and two daughters, he died on 28 May 1963 in Brisbane and was cremated with Anglican rites.

Select Bibliography

  • B. Corvi et al (eds), Seventy-Five Years of Primary Distance Education in Queensland 1922-1997 (Brisb, 1997)
  • Courier-Mail (Brisbane), 29 May 1963
  • D. O'Donnell, Schools of the Fassifern, 1867-1933: A Window to Queensland Education (Ph.D. thesis, University of Queensland, 1995)
  • Queensland School of Distance Education archives, West End, South Brisbane
  • information about Templin State School, QSA EDU/Z2629 and QSA EDU/AB 657 (Queensland State Archives).

Citation details

Dan O'Donnell, 'Zerner, Wilhelm (William) (1882–1963)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 9 June 2023.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (Melbourne University Press), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2023

Life Summary [details]


21 September, 1882
Fassifern Scrub, Queensland, Australia


28 May, 1963 (aged 80)
Brisbane, Queensland, 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.

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.