Woman Falk, Barbara (1910 - 2008)

18 November 1910
Armadale, Victoria, Australia
21 October 2008
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
Educationist and Historian
Alternative Names
  • Cohen, Barbara (Maiden)

Written by Sharon M. Harrison, The University of Melbourne

Dr Barbara Falk was born Barbara Cohen in Armadale, Victoria, on 18 November 1910. Her parents Colonel Harold Edward Cohen, MLA (1881-1946) and Freda Cohen nee Pirani (1886-1969) were fifth generation Australians of Anglo-Jewish descent and were comfortably wealthy members of the Victorian urban establishment. The family maintained a connection with the synagogues in St Kilda Road, although her paternal and maternal families were not observant Jews. By 1914, when her military officer father departed for the Great War, the family had taken up residence in a substantial villa in Wattle Tree Road in Malvern.

Falk was educated at home by a governess until she began attending Little PLC (Presbyterian Ladies College) in Pine Grove Malvern. At the age of eleven Falk attended Lauriston Girls School as a day girl. At the age of eighteen, Falk won a non-resident scholarship to attend Janet Clarke Hall and commenced undergraduate studies at the Faculty of Arts at the University of Melbourne in 1929. She graduated in 1933 with a BA (Hons), winning the Dwight Prize for History and Political Science. Soon after completing her Arts degree, Falk travelled to the UK where she undertook postgraduate studies in sociology at the London School of Economics and completed a Diploma of Education at Oxford. Falk then worked as a psychotherapist while a student in the Department of Psychology at Oxford University. After briefly studying child development at the Gesell Clinic of Child Development at Yale, she returned to Oxford where she taught and carried out experimental work at the Oxford Child Guidance Clinic.

In England Falk met her future husband Werner (David), a German-Jewish refugee from the Nazi regime. The couple married in Oxford in 1936 and had three children: Anne Elisabeth (1939); John Richard (1941-2007) and James Edward (1946). The family moved to the United States before settling in Melbourne in 1950 when her husband accepted a position as a Reader in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Melbourne. After they separated in 1957 David Falk settled in the United States but Barbara remained in Australia.

After working as a remedial teacher at the Melbourne Church of England Girls' Grammar School for two years, Falk was appointed Principal of Mercer House, the Associated Teachers' Training Institute, and, during this time, represented the Victorian independent schools at the University of Melbourne's Academic Board. In 1960 she received an appointment as senior lecturer in education at the University, and soon afterwards began her innovative work in academic development. While head of the University Teaching Project (UTP) Falk involved staff and students in collaborative efforts to improve teaching and learning, at a time when there was almost no systematic application of accepted theories of learning in institutions of higher education. Her work fulfilled a need identified in the Martin Report on Tertiary Education in Australia (1964) for the effective teaching of undergraduates as an 'essential responsibility of a university'. The model developed by Falk, as well as leading to an increased understanding of the teaching process at the University of Melbourne, was adapted elsewhere in Australia and overseas.

Falk was foundation Chair of the Centre for the Study of Higher Education (CSHE) when it was established in March 1968, and continued as Director when, in the year prior to her retirement, the Centre was established as a single department in the Faculty of Education. Under her leadership the CSHE continued the work of the UTP, as well as undertaking educational research. In 1980 she received the first Doctorate of Education (honoris causa) awarded by the University of Melbourne. When she was elected a Fellow of Janet Clarke Hall in 2005. JCH Principal Damien Powell paid tribute to her achievements: 'Her work in establishing the Centre for the Study of Higher Education marks her out as a true pioneer in the history of education'.

Barbara Falk retired in 1975 but her intellectual pursuits and achievements by no means came to a halt, nor did her association with the University of Melbourne. Following her retirement, Falk resumed her pursuit of history, publishing three books: No Other Home: An Anglo-Jewish Story 1833-1987 (1988); Caught in a Snare: Hitler's Refugee Academics 1933-1949 (1998); and DJ: Dorothy Jean Ross 1891-1982, with Cecile Trioli (2000). As a Principal Fellow in the History Department she remained a familiar figure on campus for, as she acknowledged, it was impossible for her to 'spend a happy day without the expiation of work' (Obituary). Attending her office almost daily, she continued with her own research, and contributed to departmental activities, including an orientation program for tutors.

Falk died on 21 October 2008 aged ninety-seven.

Published Resources

Edited Books

  • Grimshaw, Patricia and Strahan, Lynne (eds), The Half-open door : sixteen modern Australian women look at professional life and achievement, Drawings by Simon, Sandra, Hale & Iremonger, Sydney, New South Wales, 1982. Details

Online Resources

See also