Elspeth & Barbara: Which came first – the flute or the bassoon?

Elspeth McCracken-Hewson and Barbara Trauer are sisters whose lives have followed remarkably similar trajectories. Both studied science, started their careers as computer programmers, lived in London, had two children, became maths teachers, and taught maths at Trinity College. Both also have a love of music. So, who’s the copycat?

The elder of the two sisters, Barbara, has said that ‘Elspeth always copied me’. But Elspeth claims that it has just as often been the other way around.

Let’s take a look at this family tale.


Barbara TrauerBarbara Trauer was a maths teacher known to many cohorts of Foundation Studies students from 1995, retiring in 2018. But her career began in 1969 when she was a computer programmer in Melbourne. Her first job was at Gas & Fuel Corporation where she was employed as a ‘Mathematician (female)’ (yes, really). In this role and, later, as a scientific programmer, Barbara recalls processes being a bit clunkier than they are today. ‘Working on mainframes, we would write programs on a coding sheet, then take it to the ‘punch card girls’ who would send the punch cards to the enormous mainframe computer. Then you waited about three days to see if the code was correct. If there was a mistake, you fixed it and waited another three days to see if it worked.’

Barbara then worked in London until 1989, after which she returned to Melbourne with her husband and young sons, eventually moving into maths teaching at Trinity in 1995.

Barbara says she found the students at Trinity easy to teach and enjoyed interacting with students from many countries. As a musician and lover of music, she sought out musical students at Trinity and encouraged them to perform in ensembles at Foundation Studies events. Barbara also recruited a few promising students to the Preston Symphony Orchestra, in which she plays bassoon.

In addition to her love of music, Barbara is a passionate environmentalist and member of the Greens. Always keen to reduce her carbon footprint, she’s planning a (post lockdown) trip to London to visit her son and grandchildren using minimal air miles by travelling on the Trans-Mongolian then Trans-Siberian Railway, with connecting train trips to London.

‘Being a grandmother has made a difference to how I view the environment and issues like climate change. Having four granddaughters, I want the planet to survive for them.’


Elspeth McCracken Hewson_Trinity CollegeBarbara’s younger sister Elspeth McCracken-Hewson also started working as a computer programmer in Melbourne, before moving to London in 1972. In London she met her husband, and in 1974, they eventually travelled overland to Australia … only to make the return journey eight years later with two children in tow.

At this time, Elspeth began teaching mathematics in the UK, and her teaching career continued back in Australia upon her family’s return in 1994. It was Barbara who suggested she apply for a job at Trinity and Elspeth joined the staff in 2000. She hasn’t looked back since.

‘At Trinity, although mathematics is an elective subject, 90 per cent of our students choose it,’ says Elspeth. ‘For many of our students English is a second language, but the study of mathematics crosses language and cultural barriers.’

Like Barbara, Elspeth has a love of music, and is quick to point out that she took up the flute before Barbara started playing bassoon. But her true love is singing, and she has sung in the London Symphony Orchestra Chorus and currently sings with the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic Choir.

At Trinity, Elspeth organises her students to perform each year in a musical soirée (which she established) and at valedictory ceremonies. She recalls that on one memorable occasion at one of the soirées it was a teacher’s birthday, and the singing of Happy Birthday was spontaneously followed by many students grabbing the microphone and giving an impromptu rendition of it in their own language, much to everyone’s delight.

With shared interests in maths and music, Barbara and Elspeth’s lives have followed amazingly similar paths. ‘There does seem to be some connection between how the maths brain and the music brain works,’ says Elspeth.

Continuing this family tradition, their younger sister Heather has taught maths and plays the violin. However as yet, she has somewhat surprisingly not decided to join Trinity as a maths teacher.



Category: Foundation Studies