Woman Kerr, Edith Amelia (1893 - 1975)

6 June 1893
Patyah, Edenhope, Victoria, Australia
2 April 1975
Canterbury, Victoria, Australia
Deaconess, Headmistress and Missionary

Written by Ruth Lee, Australian Catholic University

Edith Amelia Kerr was born into a large family in Edenhope in rural Victoria, in 1893. Her father James was a Scottish grazier who married Australian Mary Taylor. Educated at the Melbourne Continuation School, Kerr trained as a primary school teacher. She was directly affected by World War One when her fiancé was killed in action in 1917. After training as a Presbyterian missionary she was made a Deaconess in 1920 and posted to Korea supported by the Presbyterian Women's Missionary Union. In the early 1930s Kerr returned temporarily and attended Melbourne University graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in 1933 (Porter, 2000).

From the early 1920s she spent almost two decades living and working in Korea, initiating pioneering community development programmes for disadvantaged women and girls. Her most important project was the Tongnai Farm School, near Pusan where she was principal from 1935. The farm enabled destitute women to develop self-sustaining, micro-economic enterprises through training in food production, animal husbandry and handicrafts. An enthusiastic contemporary journalist described it as: 'one of the greatest and most original missionary enterprises in the world' (Horsham Times, 5 April 1940).

With the Japanese entering World War Two Kerr was recalled to Melbourne in 1941. She undertook study at the Presbyterian Theological Hall, Ormond College, while supporting herself by teaching at Methodist Ladies' College, Kew. Her feminist beliefs propelled her in 1944 to make a ground-breaking application to be accepted as a formal candidate for the ministry of the Presbyterian Church. 'The needs of the Church were urgent', she argued, 'and all potential spiritual leadership, whether male or female, should be used' (Argus, 4 December 1946). Although she had some support, the Melbourne North Presbytery opposed her application and it was dismissed by the church's General Assembly (Porter, 2000). With great determination, however, in 1946, she became the first woman in the Presbyterian Church of Australia to gain a Bachelor of Divinity. Taking up a position as principal of the New Zealand Presbyterian Deaconess Training Institute, she wrote a persuasive case for the ordination of women, published in 1948 (Argus, 29 March 1947). However, it was to be thirty years before a woman minister was ordained in Australia (Porter, 2000).

In 1949 Kerr was invited to join the academic staff of the Korean Ewha Women's University in Seoul. She returned to Victoria to prepare for this work but was rejected on medical grounds. Undaunted, she continued her teaching career at Penleigh Presbyterian Girls' School, Melbourne and from 1950 - 1955 as headmistress of Clarendon Presbyterian Ladies' College, Ballarat (Horsham Times, 7 May 1954). Subsequently she lectured for six years in theology at Rolland House Deaconess Training College, Melbourne, before entering an active retirement (Porter, 2000). Over her life she had four books published, all on Presbyterian themes. She died in Melbourne in 1975.

Published Resources


  • Kerr, Edith, The historic place of women in the church, Presbyterian Bookroom, Christchurch, New Zealand, 1949. Details
  • Kerr, Edith and Anderson, George, The Australian Presbyterian Mission in Korea, 1889-1941, Australian Presbyterian Board of Missions, Sydney, New South Wales, 1970. Details

Newspaper Articles

Online Resources