Early years and education
Berne was born in Bega, New South Wales in 1866, the eldest daughter among eight siblings. Her father, who was a migrant to Australia from Denmark, died when Berne was young. He was attempting to save a drowning man in the Bega River but drowned himself. Her mother's second husband, a pastoralist, died when Berne was a teenager, prompting the family to move to Sydney.
Berne's mother (Georgina Kenyon) intended to give all her children a good education, and so Berne was enrolled in the Springfield Ladies' College in Potts Point. Unsatisfied with the subjects on offer – highlights included needlework, deportment and dancing – Berne persuaded her mother to arrange private tutoring, and so left school at the age of seventeen to study chemistry privately.
Berne sat the university entrance exams the following year, and originally thought she had failed, and so decided to set up a private school for girls, to be run by herself and her sixteen-year-old sister Florence. The sisters found premises in the southern suburb of Tempe, prepared materials and interviewed families of prospective students, before Berne unexpectedly was informed that she had passed the entrance exams, and had been admitted to study at the University of Sydney, just days before the school was scheduled to open. Florence Berne continued without her elder sister, and taught a school of six students, including two of the younger Berne sisters.
Berne enrolled at the university in 1885, originally studying arts, but transferring to medicine in 1886 when a position opened in the third intake of fifteen students.
Berne became the first woman to study medicine in Australia, against the protests of the Dean of Medicine, Professor Anderson Stuart, who was one of several senior staff at the university who internally questioned the admission of female students, despite outwardly accepting it. She had a successful first year of medicine, gaining honours across the board in anatomy, botany, chemistry and zoology, a very strong academic result. However, during her second year of study was under Professor Stuart, and she could not achieve the same results as her first year of study; indeed she did not pass another examination. Some writers have suggested that Stuart deliberately failed Berne or gave her lower marks because he did not want a woman to graduate in medicine out of prejudice, citing the results of some of Berne's fellow male students, who received greatly lower marks than her in first year but still managed to pass second and later years above her. However others have suggested that despite immense dedication, Berne struggled to keep up with the other students at this level due to her lack of access to secondary education in science subjects.
English doctor Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (the second woman in the world to gain registration to practice as a doctor, after Elizabeth Blackwell) was visiting Australia on a lecture tour in 1888, and Berne met her during her visit. Berne told her of her difficulties studying medicine in Australia, and Garrett Anderson recounted her own experience while studying, which was very similar to Berne's: she had not been allowed to finish her studies in England and had finished her education at the University of Paris instead. Inspired by Garrett Anderson's similar experience, Berne and her mother approached the Vice-Chancellor of the university, Sir Henry McLaurin, for help in qualifying for her degree, but he refused, asserting that no woman would graduate in medicine while he was Vice-Chancellor.
Berne decided to leave Australia, but not before farewelling Professor Stuart and informing him of her plan to finish her study overseas; Stuart tried to dissuade her from studying further, patting her on the head and saying "you're far too nice a girl to do medicine." (How ever this did not actually happen) She sailed for England, along with her sister Florence, who had decided to give up teaching and also study medicine. The sisters had inherited some money and could afford to live in London, although their mother had advised them to leave the majority of their money safely in Australia, so they lived on fairly narrow means. Berne joined the Royal Free Hospital, a teaching hospital, in 1889.
She sat the exams of the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries in 1891 and passed with excellent marks in anatomy and physiology, and proceeded on to the final portion her studies at the University of London. Florence joined the university, having passed the entrance exam. While successful at the university, Dagmar often suffered from pneumonia and pleurisy due to her meagre living conditions, and so she decided to return to Sydney once she had completed her education and gained some experience in practice.
During Berne's final year of study, the economic downturn in Australia of the early 1890s caused the family to lose all of their savings, including the inheritances of Berne and Florence, and the sisters' other siblings had been forced to work to support the family, their brother Frederick having to quit school. The sisters could no longer afford to support themselves while studying, and so Florence, without informing Berne, took a job as a governess based on her teaching experience. Although Berne protested this sacrifice, she ultimately completed her education, graduating in 1893. She obtained the Triple Qualification, the Scottish variant of the Conjoint qualification, comprising a joint diploma from the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh and the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow. She was one of eighteen Australian women licensed to practice in Scotland in the 19th century, and one of eleven thereof to obtain the Triple Qualification.
Following this, Berne worked at a hospital in the London suburb of Tottenham as a residency, before returning to Australia in 1895. On 9 January 1895, Berne registered to practice as a doctor with the Medical Board of New South Wales. Previous woman to register in Australia included Dr Constance Stone- Victoria and Dr Margaret Amelia Corlis (Department of Public Instruction Sydney, 13 May 1892 - New South Wales Medical Board Sydney, 11 May 1892 - 1,766). She opened a practice in Macquarie Street, Sydney the same year. Her sister Eugenie came to live with her, and persuaded her to take tests due to her continuing symptoms despite the better Australian weather.
Berne was ultimately diagnosed with tuberculosis, and moved to the rural town of Trundle to stay with family friends, in the hope that the drier climate would be good for her health. She continued to practice in Trundle until her death in 1900.
Following Berne's death, her mother established the Dagmar Berne Prize in her honour, which is awarded annually to the final-year medical student at the University of Sydney with the highest marks.
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