Inspired by her naturalist grandfather and scholarly father, UQ graduate Margaret Thurgood had no choice but to go to university, even though this was not usual for women in the 1930s.
“I have always liked science – particularly chemistry and biology”, said 100-year-old UQ graduate Margaret Thurgood, nee Broadbent, (Bachelor of Science ’39) when asked why she went to university at a time when relatively few females did so.
“I think it stemmed from my grandfather, Kendall Broadbent, who used to collect specimens for the Natural History Museum in London as well as the Australian and Queensland Museums, among others.
“He was always travelling on expeditions around Australia and Papua New Guinea, exploring and observing nature. He even had a bird and fish named after him, the Dasyornis broadbenti (Rufous bristlebird) and the Broadbent’s frogfish (Batrachomoeus trispinosus). He really inspired me.
“And then my father, Joseph Broadbent, a barrister and parliamentary draftsman, was always a scholar, so I never thought of anything else.”
Except she did.
“Oh yes, around the age of 14 I decided that I wanted to be a hairdresser, and so I told my father I’d like to leave school. He was broken-hearted but told me it was my decision – he didn’t push me either way.
“However, by the end of the school holidays, I thought I’d be too lonely if I left school early and so I went back. I just did hairdressing on the side instead; I’ve always liked doing hair.”
The young Somerville House dux had no particular career goal in mind when she enrolled at UQ in 1937. She decided that she would be happy with whatever she could get. In the meantime, she made the most of every opportunity and enjoyed the many social aspects of life as a student.
“We had a lot of tennis parties, cinema outings and dances back then, and there was always singing around the piano as well as sport to watch or play,” she said.
“We also seemed to do lots of fundraising – I met my future husband when selling him a sausage roll!”
Of course, there was also hockey practice before lectures, meeting friends on the tram into and out of the city, attending meetings of the Evangelical Union, and mingling with fellow students at lectures and in the lab.
But the absolute social highlight of the year was Commem Week.
“We spent months preparing for this week of celebration. We had to learn so many songs and prepare costumes for our floats in the University Procession that wound its way through the streets of Brisbane.
“I remember dressing up as a baby in 1938 to acknowledge the opening of the new Women’s Hospital, and I can still remember the words we had to sing about our own particular areas of study.
“But the crowning glory was the Commem Ball, held at City Hall: I loved it!”
However, university wasn’t just about the social life.
“The first thing I had to do when I started in science was to be given a toad and then mount its skeleton on paper,” Margaret said.
“The Bachelor of Science was a set course back then. We did four subjects in first year, three in second and two in third year.
“In first year, we had to take physics, which I found difficult because I hadn’t studied it before – girls had a different syllabus at high school and physics was only offered to boys – but I ended up getting a Pass+.”
“Everyone said that no-one got straight through second year because it was a hard year, and that was true for me: I had to sit for a post-exam in Physiology early the following year but, luckily, I passed.
“During the degree, we had end-of-year exams and no ongoing assignments except one major essay (that was enough!): mine was entitled A comparative review of enzymic factors controlling calcareous deposition. I remember one of our exams having many questions about birth because the wife of the professor setting it had just had a baby!
“We were expected to keep up with our own private study, and we also had two week-long field excursions to Caloundra and Binna Burra, where we were marked each day for collecting specimens such as worms and insects. These excursions were great fun and very social.
“General science classes were held at George Street and we often combined with dentistry, engineering and medicine students because there were not that many people to fill the lecture room.”
She recalls having to dress nicely to attend university, and only wearing academic gowns for special occasions.
By the end of 1939, Margaret had completed her Bachelor of Science and was soon to be engaged to Ken Morton, a dental student she had met on campus. Life as she knew it was about to change completely.
“Straight after my degree, I got a job at the Queensland Museum, where I had to identify specimens as best I could,” she said.
“I also dissected the brain of a strange-looking creature, a ceratodus, which then went on display.
"It was a bit of a dead-end job, so when the Minister for Agriculture and Stock approached my father six months later saying, ‘Your daughter has a science degree: would she like to come work in my Department as Assistant to the Parasitologist?’, I jumped at the chance. My main role would be to conduct a survey of parasites in Queensland poultry.
“Unfortunately, the Parasitologist was not so happy because women tended to leave the job, so he tried to put me off early by making me go through a pig’s gut. It was the slimiest, most parasite-riddled thing I’d ever seen in my life, but I did it.”
After this inauspicious start, Margaret – soon to become Mrs Morton – remained at the Animal Health Station at Yeerongpilly until 1943, only leaving to join her husband in Sydney, where he had been posted by the Air Force. Despite the marriage bar for female staff in the Public Service, she had been able to stay on beyond their 1942 wedding because the Parasitologist had gone off to war and there was no-one else to replace him.
When husband Ken was later deployed overseas, Margaret returned to Brisbane and moved in with her parents at West End to await the birth of her son, Roger, in 1944.
So, what was it like living through a world war?
“I always worried about my husband getting killed, of course, but otherwise I managed,” Margaret said.
“We had coupons for food and clothing and some restrictions on activities, but we certainly had more freedom then than we have had in the current pandemic.
“Before I married, I joined the Baptist Girls War League and helped organise entertainment for the soldiers; I also cooked them lots of dinners. Later, I joined the Voluntary Aid Detachment, where one of my jobs was to run from Yeerongpilly to Yeronga when the air-raid sirens went off. It was a busy time.”
After the war, the couple rented at West End while Ken established his dental practice in Queen Street (Brisbane). They later built a house at Jindalee and also expanded their family with the adoption of baby Suzanne. Margaret filled her days with mothering and volunteering duties – mostly for the local church and school – finessing her cake-making skills along the way. Holidays were spent at their Gold Coast beach house.
“We had a wonderful life, until Ken died from pancreatic cancer on my 49th birthday,” she said.
After spending a couple of lonely years at home, in the early 1970s she decided to contact the Department of Primary Industries to see if there was anything she could do for work.
“Fortunately, when I was called in for an interview, I realised that I knew the panellist from my UQ days and, on the basis of my university results, he offered me a job straight away in the agricultural chemistry lab.”
Around this time, Margaret also caught up with old family friend Jack Thurgood, whom she later married, and was once again hit with the public service marriage bar. This time, she had to resign from her job immediately, but she didn't really mind as it gave her time to travel with her new husband, take up a range of hobbies and charitable work, and care for her mother – who lived with them until she died at the age of 93. The pair travelled to England, Europe, America, New Zealand, China, Israel, and Oberammergau in the Bavarian Alps, Germany, and remained active in the church community until Jack’s death in 1999.
So, is she glad of her university education, despite its limited effect on her career?
"Oh yes, I'm thankful I went to UQ because it was there that I discovered the Evangelical Union and what it means to be a Christian.
"I was a bit of a flibbertigibbet and I loved the social life, but I also learned a lot and, of course, I met my husband there and we were very happy. I’ve had an absolutely wonderful life and it all started there.”
“My father studied at UQ (Bachelor of Arts ’36); my son, Roger, studied dentistry at UQ (Bachelor of Dental Science ’67) as did his son, Greg (Bachelor of Dental Science ’95, Bachelor of Science ’00); and Roger’s other son, Rohan (Bachelor of Commerce ’94), studied there – so we have a great family tradition of UQ alumni.
“I can still remember going to the ceremony of the laying of the Foundation Stone by Forgan Smith at St Lucia in 1937: it was a big occasion.”
And does she have any tips for living a long life?
“No, not really. I have never smoked and only drink in moderation. All I can say is that I have learnt not to be as critical as I was when younger and I try to practise what I preach by being more understanding, patient, loving and forgiving. I read a lot and I have also tried to keep learning new skills – patchwork and quilting, quilling, china painting, choral singing, contract bridge and bowls are just some of the things I discovered in later life.
“You’re never too old to learn new skills.”