How our first female student started a long family tradition

By Emily McAuliffe

Yesterday, 15 March, would have been Lilian Alexander’s birthday, the first female student at Trinity. Born in 1861, Lilian came to Trinity as a non-residential student in 1883, and little did she know, she would kick off a long family history with the College.

Lilian Alexander and Cat Hill Trinity College
Cat Hill's reflection shown in Lilian Alexander's portrait at Trinity College.


Perhaps she didn’t consider herself a trailblazer at the time, but Lilian Alexander (TC 1883) was a gender-equality pioneer. Not only was she the first female to attend an Australian university college (Trinity), she was also one of the nation’s first female medical students after campaigning for women’s admission into medicine. Before studying medicine, Lilian graduated Master of Arts at Melbourne University with first-class honours. Proving that gender doesn’t hinder ability, she went on to become a leading surgeon and put a founder’s stamp on the Queen Victoria Hospital and Victorian Women’s Medical Society.

While Lilian had no children of her own, she became guardian to her four nephews when her sister and brother-in-law passed away from illness in 1913. All the boys went on to survive service on the Western Front.

Ernest, the second eldest, followed in his aunt’s footsteps to join Trinity in 1914, before becoming a navigator with the Royal Flying Corps in England (now the Royal Air Force). He experienced life as a prisoner of war after being shot down in 1917 while conducting photo reconnaissance.

Ernest’s nephew John Cudmore (TC 1950) would be the next to come to Trinity, followed by John’s daughters Diana (TC 1984) and Edwina (TC 1986). Diana Cudmore went on to marry Richard Hill (TC 1982), a medical graduate like his father Dr Arthur Victor Leslie (Les) Hill (TC 1956), thus bringing together two families with a long association with the College. Les’s brother Douglas Hill (TC 1951) had also attended Trinity and Les took the college connection a step further by marrying Janet Clarke Hall resident Barbara Hill (née Bott) (JCH 1954).

Les’s granddaughter – Richard and Diana’s daughter – Catherine Leslie Hill (‘Cat’) is now at Trinity (TC 2019) and is starting to understand the stories of her parents.

Diana has memories of standing on the Bulpadock at night looking to see whose lights were on to know who she could visit. Friends of Catherine now do the same, peering up at her Cowan residence overlooking the lawn.

‘I had heard the word ‘bul’ before from my parents, but it never made sense until I could actually look out my window and see it every day,’ says Cat, who is studying a Bachelor of Arts. 

Terms like Juttodie and being ‘spooned in’ have also gained meaning, with Cat making a double debut in both athletics and rowing. At Formal Hall, Cat alternates between wearing her parents’ academic gowns. ‘Dad’s looks a bit scruffier than Mum’s,’ she laughs. 

And wherever she sits at dinner, Cat’s great-great-great aunt’s eyes follow her from a portrait on the wall. ‘I always feel like Lilian is watching over me,’ says Cat. ‘It definitely makes me feel like I have a special connection with the place.’

16 Mar 2020
Category: People