By: Simon Collins

Dame Charmian O’Connor founded the Kate Edger Educational Charitable Trust to support female students. Photo / Gottfried Boehnke, supplied

When Dame Charmian O’Connor started sixth form in 1952, her headmistress at Auckland Girls’ Grammar summoned the top five girls and asked them to drop maths and chemistry because the school didn’t have any suitable teachers.

Two girls dropped both subjects, two dropped one of them. O’Connor insisted on sticking with both, and passed by her own efforts.

“It wasn’t until I went into the scholarship examination and was faced with a whole raft of Greek symbols that I became aware that calculus even existed,” she recalled to the Heraldafter being honoured in the Queen’s Birthday Honours announced today.

She enrolled in a science degree.

“I got into the first lab and I was absolutely fixated and hooked on to science,” she says.

She was the only woman in her honours class. Rhodes scholarships and other scholarships were still barred to women, but she won a Federation of University Women fellowship to do postdoctoral study in London in 1963.

Today, aged 80, she become a dame for her work for that federation for the past 61 years, including a term as national president in 1979-82 and later transforming the Auckland branch into the Kate Edger Educational Charitable Trust, which now supports more than 100 female students a year.

When O’Connor became professor of chemistry in 1986, and for about a decade afterwards, she was one of only four female professors across the whole University of Auckland.

Even today, although women make up 55 per cent of the university’s students, they are still only 28 per cent of the professors.

In science 50 per cent of the students, but only 19 per cent of the professors, are female.

“We are making progress, and I think the Kate Edger Trust is actually one of the movers and shakers in terms of encouraging women to go on and get an education so they can have a career if they wish to,” Dame Charmian says.

“But we have still got a long way to go.”

In her own research, O’Connor spent most of her career working on fundamental molecular behaviour, including studying a key enzyme found in the breast milk of humans and other animals and a long collaboration with Dr Bill Denny at the university’s Cancer Research Centre on anti-cancer drugs.

In a personal reminiscence in 2007, she wrote that this work was deleted from the syllabus in the 1990s.

“Overnight, I was deprived of carrying out any further research in collaboration with Bill Denny and other chemists in the Cancer Research Laboratory and unable to continue with a study of kinetics and mechanisms of biologically related substrates, which had been my research raison d’etre for nearly 40 years,” she wrote.

Instead, she moved into food science, developing a handbook of edible oils for the Australian and NZ food industries.

She has two children and says that when her grand-daughter graduates with a fine arts degree at the end of this year she will be the fourth generation of women in the family to earn a degree, after O’Connor’s mother Katherine Bishop, O’Connor herself and O’Connor’s daughter.

“There is a very strong educational thrust through the female line of the family.”

Source: NZ Herald

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