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First woman to receive doctorate at Harvard was from Lennox

Dr Lorna Hodgkinson
Dr Lorna Hodgkinson

IN THE history of education for the mentally disabled there is one name which stands out.

That name is Dr Lorna Myrtle Hodgkinson.

Her story is interesting for a number of reasons, one of which being that she spent her early childhood on her father's property at North Creek (now Lennox Head).

Her father, Albert James Hodgkinson, had come to our area with his parents, James and Mary, in the 1860s.

James was a squatter in Victoria and, partly because of the gold rush pushing through his land and the influx of scabies in his sheep, he had decided to try his luck as a cane farmer on the Richmond. By the 1880s he and his son Albert were the biggest landowners in North Creek, owning nearly 2000 acres.

This included the headland property which was later to be owned by Edward Henderson. Albert's homestead was on the property called "Stonyhurst" and was later owned for many years by Jack Meaney.

Although most of the Hodgkinson family left the area Albert's mother, Mary, died here and is buried at Ballina. His sister, Constanza, married locally and descendants are still living in the area.

When Albert James died, however, his wife moved to Western Australia where Lorna Hodgkinson went to school and became a teacher. She was especially interested in the need for helping those with learning difficulties.

Many of these people were institutionalised in mental homes. She believed they could be educated and that special homes should be provided for them where they could achieve a much better and more productive life.

In 1913 she moved to NSW where she taught in public schools. In 1917 she was appointed to May Villa, near Parramatta, to teach mentally defective girls who were wards of the State.

In 1920 she successfully applied to be sent to study in the United States. She attended Harvard University, obtaining a Masters Degree in 1921, and Doctorate in Education in 1922.

In doing so she became the first woman to obtain a Doctorate at Harvard University. Her dissertation concerned the diagnosis and treatment of mentally defective children.

On her return to Sydney in 1922 a new post was established for her as superintendent of the education of mental defectives.

However, by 1924 she had clashed with the Department and she was suspended. She believed that a separate institution should be established and the Department would not agree.

She therefore established the separate institution herself, and it began in April 1924 with six pupils.

It was named the Sunshine Institute and is still in existence as the Lorna Hodgkinson Sunshine Home.

Lorna Hodgkinson was to dedicate her life to her work.

She never married. Initially she rented premises for her Sunshine Institute, the property at that time being owned by the Theosophical Society of Australia. In 1930 she purchased the property and gradually built up the school's enrolment to 60 pupils.

Each year she and her staff would take the students on holiday to Mona Vale, a northern seaside suburb of Sydney, where the children could swim and enjoy themselves.

It could be said that Lorna Hodgkinson was a fighter for the equality of women as well as for the education of the mentally disabled. She was before her time in many ways. She was a real pioneer, and her roots are in our area.

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