Trailblazing sister act celebrated

Before they became Australia’s first woman stockbroker and a distinguished plant scientist, UQ alumni and sisters Dr Margaret Mittelheuser AM and Dr Cathryn Mittelheuser AM were blazing another kind of trail on their ponies along the dirt roads of Bundaberg.

This is an image of Margaret and Cathryn Mittelheuser sitting on lawn at their family farm near Bundaberg.

Margaret and Cathryn Mittelheuser at their family farm near Bundaberg.

Margaret and Cathryn Mittelheuser at their family farm near Bundaberg.

Born only 15 months apart in 1931 and 1932, the sisters formed an unbreakable bond growing up on their parents’ cane farm. They were clever, adventurous and shared a love of learning.

Each afternoon, Margaret (Bachelor of Commerce ’52, Bachelor of Arts ’73, Doctor of Philosophy (honoris causa) ’96) and Cathryn (Bachelor of Science (Honours) ’68, Doctor of Biological Sciences ’71, Doctor of Philosophy (honoris causa) ’98) rushed out of school to get home and ride their prized ponies, Effie and Friendless.

At the end of their ride, as they turned down the street leading back to the farm, they held on tight as their ponies picked up speed and galloped towards home.

Long after they had left Bundaberg, the Mittelheuser sisters continued to hold on tight through life’s twists and turns, as they challenged convention, shifted attitudes and created change for working women.

This is an image of Cathryn and Margaret Mittelheuser as young children.

Cathryn (left) and Margaret Mittelheuser as young children.

In September 2018, Cathryn joined a packed room at UQ’s St Lucia campus to honour her sister, the late Dr Margaret Mittelheuser AM, at the official unveiling of her commemorative bronze bust.

Commissioned by UQ’s Faculty of Business, Economics and Law in partnership with UQ Art Museum, and created by Sydney-based sculptor Wendy Black, the bust captures Margaret as she was during her UQ days: a young, inspired woman on the precipice of greatness.

The bust is now a permanent fixture in the courtyard of UQ’s Colin Clark building, in the hope that it will inspire young finance, business and economics students to follow in Margaret’s footsteps.

“UQ meant so much to both of us, but especially to Margaret,” Cathryn said.

This is an image of Cathryn Mittelheuser admiring the commemorative bronze bust of her late sister Margaret.

Cathryn Mittelheuser (left) admires the commemorative bronze bust of her late sister Margaret.

The commemorative bronze bust of Dr Margaret Mittelheuser.

Stockbroker, sister, friend and role model

Margaret is best known for becoming the first woman to head a stockbroking office and the first woman to be registered as a stockbroker in Australia, at just 33 years old.

To those who knew her well, Margaret was not only a gifted stockbroker – she was also a remarkable sister, friend and role model who bettered the lives of those around her.

Cathryn said Margaret stunned her teachers and peers from an early age with her intelligence and determination.

“Margaret went to school on her fourth birthday,” Cathryn said.

“Mother had already taught her to read and write, and she knew her arithmetic and times tables.

This is an image of Margaret Mittelheuser on her UQ graduation day.

Margaret Mittelheuser on her UQ graduation day.

Margaret Mittelheuser on her UQ graduation day.

“When father went to collect her on her first day, the teacher asked, ‘What have you brought us?’ She couldn’t understand how Margaret knew so much.”

Following her family’s move to Brisbane, Margaret enrolled at UQ at 16. Initially unsure of what to study, she soon rediscovered her love for numbers and graduated with a Bachelor of Commerce in 1952 – one of only two women in the program at that time.

“Women just didn’t do commerce,” Cathryn said.

“Their only role in business was to be stenographers or typists, and they were at the bottom of the ladder.

“But Margaret was determined to do something where she could use figures.”

This is an image of Margaret Mittelheuser working at home.

Margaret Mittelheuser working at home.

Margaret Mittelheuser at work ahead of her retirement.

Breaking the mould: making trades, not tea

In 1953, Margaret became the first woman graduate to work at the Commonwealth Department of the Interior in Queensland, where she ruffled feathers by refusing to participate in the tea roster.

“She told the public service commissioner: ‘I didn’t go to university to make tea’, and that was the end of that,” Cathryn said.

Margaret demonstrated a gift for the market early in her career, and used a small inheritance from her uncle to invest in shares in the Queensland Can Company. Her prudent investment impressed her father’s stockbroker and, soon after, he hired her as a research officer.

This is an image of Margaret Mittelheuser working at the Department of the Interior.

Margaret Mittelheuser working at the Commonwealth Department of the Interior.

After a few years, Margaret moved to Sydney to advance her career as a stockbroker. She landed a job at top firm Ralph W King and Yuill. With the encouragement of her employers, she proved she could hold her own in the male-dominated profession.

Margaret’s former client, friend and fellow UQ alumnus Dr Alan Porter (Bachelor of Medicine / Bachelor of Surgery ’61) said Margaret caused “quite a stir” when she was invited to set up and head the firm’s Brisbane stockbroking office in 1961.

The Sydney Morning Herald, in a rather patronising article in the women’s section of the paper, said ‘The stock exchange is hardly a field in which one would expect a woman to shine’,” Dr Porter said.

Three years later, Margaret became a non-member partner of Ralph W King and Yuill, and Australia’s first woman stockbroker.

Cathryn said her sister ignored the backhanded compliments and snide comments that came her way. Margaret also took comfort in the support and encouragement of her male mentors, colleagues and clients, who respected her for her work and the results she achieved.

“She wasn’t so well received by the other brokers in the first instance, but she thought it was ridiculous that women shouldn’t do what they wanted,” Cathryn said.

This is an image of Margaret Mittelheuser working at the Department of the Interior.

Margaret Mittelheuser working at the Commonwealth Department of the Interior.

“She got on with things and her career went from strength to strength.”

Margaret’s storied stockbroking career spanned more than 50 years. She raised millions for state and local governments and private organisations, and attracted countless clients and large investments from Australia and overseas.

Along the way, Margaret received two honorary doctorates, became a Member of the Order of Australia and was awarded a Centenary Medal.  

On her retirement in 2005, she was one of Australia’s longest-serving and most-respected brokers.

This is an image of Cathryn Mittelheuser at the unveiling of the commemorative bronze bust of her late sister Margaret.

Cathryn Mittelheuser at the unveiling of the commemorative bronze bust of her late sister Margaret.

Cathryn Mittelheuser at the unveiling of the commemorative bronze bust of her late sister Margaret.

A pioneer in her own right

By all accounts, Cathryn is just as remarkable as her late sister.

Like Margaret, she is a Member of the Order of Australia and the recipient of a Centenary Medal.

Cathryn, however, built her career in plant science after graduating from UQ in 1968 with a Bachelor of Science (first class honours) and a University Medal.

As a UQ PhD candidate in botany, Cathryn was one of the first Australians to be published in the internationally renowned journal, Nature, when she discovered a substance that helped plants retain water.

This is an image of Cathryn Mittelheuser on her UQ graduation day.

Cathryn Mittelheuser (left) on her UQ graduation day.

Cathryn Mittelheuser (left) on her UQ graduation day.

Cathryn quickly became a pioneer in her field as one of only a handful of women engaged in science research and teaching. Her Nature article generated global interest and was widely cited.

Cathryn, however, left research in 1976 after becoming frustrated with being overlooked for career progression opportunities in favour of less-qualified male researchers. She was determined not to settle for less.

Around this time, Cathryn also developed a keen interest in travelling to unexplored corners of the world, including China– not long after the country began allowing tourists to visit.

In the early 1990s, Cathryn and Margaret embarked on two voyages to Antarctica after seeing an advertisement in a newspaper. The sisters visited the famous research stations; took in the pure, still air; and befriended the local wildlife, including the penguins.

This is an image of Margaret and Cathryn Mittelheuser at the Great Wall of China.

Margaret and Cathryn Mittelheuser at the Great Wall of China.

Margaret and Cathryn Mittelheuser at the Great Wall of China.

Celebrating a shared philanthropic legacy

Over the years, the sisters have given generously to UQ and the UQ Art Museum, and several other institutions including the Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane Girls Grammar School and Griffith University.

“We did what we could,” Cathryn said.

“If you can help someone else – well, why not? There’s so much pleasure in it.”

Their generosity also inspired others to give, including stockbroking firm Morgans, which partnered with Cathryn and UQ to establish a prize in Margaret’s name in 2006 for UQ Master of Business Administration students.

The 2011 prize recipient and Senior People and Culture Business Partner at the Bank of Queensland, Sally Bledsoe (Master of Business Administration ’10), said it was an honour to be a small part of Margaret’s story.

“As a woman in finance, Margaret’s achievements are a great source of personal inspiration,” Ms Bledsoe said.

“It is wonderful to see other women in our industry having an impact and taking up leadership roles like Margaret.”

This is an image of Margaret and Cathryn Mittelheuser at one of many philanthropy events they attended.

Margaret (left) and Cathryn (right) Mittelheuser at one of many philanthropy events they attended.

Cathryn, who cared for Margaret until her passing in 2013, said she hoped the Margaret Mittelheuser commemorative bust would inspire future leaders to follow her sister’s example and leap confidently into the unknown.

“I believe her legacy is that she was able to pave the way for other young women in business at a time when women were expected to make tea, not trades,” Cathryn said.

“I want Margaret’s achievements to remind young women that it can be done if they’re prepared to work, ignore attempts at putdowns and distractions, and just get on with it.”

Margaret’s bust looks out onto the student courtyard within UQ’s hub for business and economics.

“Margaret was delighted when she could see women coming up the ladder and blazing their own trails.

“Here, her legacy and values can live on to inspire another generation, and she can remain at the place where it all started and which she loved so much. It’s a true homecoming.”

Help deserving students achieve their educational goals in the UQ Business School.

Cathryn Mittelheuser (centre) with UQ's Professor Polly Parker and Bank of Queensland's Sally Bledsoe (right).

Cathryn Mittleheuser.

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