Professor Ros Pesman AM (Cooper, 1954)

2022 Alumnae Award for Academia and Professional Achievement

Professor Ros Pesman (Cooper, 1954) is one of Australia’s most eminent historians, with an international reputation in the fields of European and Australian history and in tertiary education leadership.

After achieving excellent academic results at MLC School, Ros began her studies at the University of Sydney (USyd). She graduated with a BA (Hons) in History in 1959 and in 1965 was awarded a PhD from the University of London, where she was the Junior Fellow of the Warburg Institute (1963–65).

Returning to Australia, Ros took up a history lectureship at USyd in 1965. She was promoted to Senior Lecturer, then Associate Professor and finally to a personal chair in history.

Ros is the author of three books and the editor of a further five. She has written 33 articles for refereed journals, and 21 chapters for edited collections. Most of these works were in the fields of Renaissance Italian and Australian women’s history. She has always written with an eye to a broader, non-academic audience, which is most effectively illustrated in her witty and insightful account of Australian women abroad, Duty Free: Australian Women Abroad (1996).

Aside from her academic achievements, Ros held many key leadership roles at the University of Sydney. Notably, she was the first woman to be elected Chair of the Academic Board and was the first woman appointed to the Challis Chair in History. Not only was she an astute and progressive administrator but one with deep concern for the welfare of staff, reflected in the fact that she served as mentor to two generations of academic women.

Outside of the University, Ros served on many Councils, Boards and Foundations. She also chaired the judges’ panel, NSW Premier’s History Awards, and was a member of the Advisory Board of Australian Book Review.

In 2012, Ros was awarded an AM for services to tertiary education through academic and administrative roles.

Ros Pesman (Cooper, 1954) achieved many firsts for women in academia and has served the University of Sydney, the discipline of history and the community as a whole with great distinction.

A message from Ros

I am honoured and delighted to receive this Award. Thank you MLC School. It is a very – very – long time since I arrived at MLC School as a shy Boarder from the bush, and it is a long time since I have visited the School. Thus when I arrived here this evening and walked up from the car park I was amazed at the size of the School today and overwhelmed by its facilities catering for the arts, sciences and sport.

While in my day MLC School, like other private girls’ schools, had the intention for us to leave as well-mannered ladies with good values, it was ahead of its time in its emphasis on education. This was, I think, reflected in the fact that both the Headmistress and Deputy Headmistress, Dr Wade and Dr Whitley, held doctorates. Dr Whitley’s in Chemistry. We still hear much today about the need for far more girls to study the STEM subjects. MLC School was answering that call back in the 1950s. If I remember rightly, it was the only private girls’ school that taught Physics and Chemistry as separate subjects for the Leaving Certificate. That was wasted on me. It was not in my DNA. I studied no science which I now regret. But there was another girl in my form, Janet Willings (Britton, 1954), who did and she became the second woman to graduate with an Engineering degree (Civil Engineering), and the first woman to graduate with Honours in Engineering, at the University of Sydney.

MLC School was not only a place of learning but one where close and often lifelong friendships were formed. This happily was my experience. My best friend at school, Barbara Spode (Lassau, 1954) and I have now shared the events in our lives for almost 70 years, and we continue meet to share what we still remember.