Professor The Honourable Dame Marie Bashir


Professor Marie Bashir believes education and life long learning are integral to existence. Her roles in the fields of health, education and the arts have received national and international recognition and changed lives. As Chancellor of The University of Sydney she was highly respected over two successive terms, and throughout three successive terms as Governor of NSW, she was much loved.Professor Bashir spoke with Journalist Bronwyn Ridgway about her teachers, mentors and those who have challenged and inspired her through what continues to be a truly remarkable life.

“I was extremely fortunate as I had both country and city schools. I was born in Narrandera NSW to a father and mother who were in love all their life and who valued education enormously. My father Michael Bashir was from a medical family and he himself was part way through a medical degree at the American University of Beirut when he came out to visit Australia. He met, fell in love with, then married Victoria Melick and they came to live in the beautiful country town of Narrandera where my father established a drapery shop and ran the business.

“I was the eldest of four children and went to school at six years of age to Narrandera Public School. My mother was a dutiful daughter and would visit her ageing parents in Sydney and sometimes stay several weeks to care for them. I would go with her, and consequently attend Cleveland Street Public School. It was a wonderful school, and I ended up staying with my grandparents and aunt and spent third, fourth and fifth classes there, taught by the most inspirational teachers.

“I remember Miss Coghlan, who from time to time gave me a gift of a book. It was in 1941 that she gave me The Story of Siegfried, which was about the hero made famous in the Wagner operas. I still have that book and I recognise that this little book started a love and passion that now takes me to operatic performances around the world; that gift unconsciously influences me to this day.

“When I was in sixth class, Japanese submarines entered Sydney Harbour and as many children as possible went from Sydney to the country. So with my cousins, I went back to Narrandera to live. I wanted to go to a selective high school like my mother, who had a great love for literature, music, opera and in addition was a magnificent embroiderer! So I sat for the Primary Final Examination and was able to go to my mother’s old school, Sydney Girls’ High School. It was an exceptional school and produced some of the finest results, as it does now.

“At the time I was attending high school, tragedy was affecting the world. It was the time of Hitler’s rise to power. The state of Europe and the discriminatory and unmentionable treatment of the Jewish people resulted in a wave of people exiting Europe and arriving in Australia. So in 1943 there were many brilliant girls at our school, daughters of Jewish families, who had fled as far as they could from the turmoil and brutality in Europe.

“I was blessed to have these wonderful girls as my friends. They were informed and culturally rich, topping classes and thereby challenging me to think, discuss and debate issues when we went out socially. It was an extraordinary and bountiful time for me, talking with fellow students about Goethe, Schiller and Mozart during our lunch times.

“School was such a stimulating environment; there was no discrimination, I was Christian and many of my friends were Jewish, students were of different faiths, and I believe we were happy together. We made great friendships that have lasted to this day.

“Some of the teachers at our school were absolutely superb. I’ll never forget my French teacher, Miss Bessie Mitchell who was a former Old Girl. She was kind and inspirational; she expected nothing but the best that each of us could offer, and this succeeded in bringing out the very best in every one of us. I believe it made each student rise to the occasion and fulfill our potential and that meant the whole class achieved remarkable results.

“With this encouragement and expectation, we became life long learners; wherever we eventuated – in the city, the country, as professionals or business people. From my love of music I studied violin at The NSW Conservatorium of Music where I played in the student orchestra. I went to The University of Sydney and studied medicine. Some of my male cousins also studied medicine, my sister became a doctor, an immunologist, and one of my brothers a pharmacist.

Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world. - Nelson Mandela

“While at The University of Sydney I lived on campus at The Women’s College. The college principal was from England and had an academic background. During the Second World War she had served in the Royal Navy. After discharge from the Navy, she came to Australia – Miss Betty Archdale. She knew everything about the students and remembered detail. She too became a mentor, inspirational in an incredible way. Later she went on to be an impressive Headmistress at Abbotsleigh.

“On completion of my degree, I was very fortunate to be allocated to St Vincent’s Hospital in Darlinghurst – all the young male doctors wanted to work at this hospital because of the opportunities to do surgery. You saw and treated everyone; the poor and the homeless from King’s Cross and those experiencing life’s difficulties. As doctors, it was a time of full commitment; it was dramatic, and in fact hard to leave at the end of a shift. I later went on to work at the Royal Alexandra Hospital for Children in Camperdown, with extraordinary paediatric mentors such as the Sir Lorimer Dods.

“While I was at university I met a well known rugby player, the Australian Wallabies Captain Nicholas Shehadie who had just returned from playing with the Australian team in South Africa. I had no interest in sport. South Africa then was the heart of apartheid, and thus I had a political view on the tour. However three years later we married. I went to work in general practice and I had three children.

“My interest in treatment and concern about the use of high doses of tranquillisers, particularly for young people suffering from mental ill health, led me to study psychiatry. After completing this post graduate course, I was asked to open an Adolescent Unit at Broughton Hall Clinic Rozelle, where we had wonderful teachers for young people, so that they could keep up their education and associated interests during treatment. The teachers in that unit were special
and caring.

“Years later, when my husband became Lord Mayor of Sydney, we were hosting guests from the then Soviet Union. Travelling along the Parramatta River on our way to Rosehill Races, our guest enquired about a magnificent building, which we had passed on our way. I said I didn’t know about its function but would investigate. I then discovered it was the Thomas Walker Convalescent Hospital in Concord and it was closing down. A Japanese investor was looking to purchase it because it was adjacent to a golf course. I thought that we desperately needed such a fine location as a school for children with special needs and with depression. It was an excellent location where we could nurse them back to health. I felt it was important to have education and health care together in one unit. We acquired the building, it became Rivendell, a name the children drew from their reading of The Hobbit.

“I believe teachers are in a privileged position and can positively influence their students by being warm, believable, trustworthy and kind but also have expectations that students do their very best. With caring support, it can bring about great results. Children need to talk about all the issues that concern them, for example about traumatic news they’ve seen on television or the Internet, issues about pollution and their future, guns and shootings. Encouragement can lift children’s confidence especially if they think they are ‘dumb at maths’ or ‘not able to understand science’. We need to talk about these things and together we can overcome those perceptions.

“I think about Nelson Mandela, whom I consider to be one of the finest leaders ever. He said: ‘Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world’.

“I applaud our education system both in government and non government schools, including the increased cultural richness, music, drama, literature and the arts, that has been infused into our students’ education in Australia. I observe my six grandchildren, one is already a teacher and another in his final year of education; they effuse warmth, trust and knowledge and I can see they have the essence of fine teachers.

“I believe that no matter where we are working, or whatever we do, we all have a responsibility to teach and nurture young people so that we can help them realise their potential and go on to make a contribution.”

Professional appointments

1972 - 1987
Foundation Director Rivendell Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Child Adolescent and Family Service (Thomas Walker House, Concord)

1987 - 1993

Area Director, Community Health Services, Central Sydney Area Health Service, New South Wales Department of Health - Sydney

1993 - 2000

Consultant Psychiatrist to New South Wales Juvenile Justice Facilities

1993 - 2001

Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, Department of Psychological Medicine, Faculty of Medicine, University of Sydney, Senior Specialist in Child, Adolescent and Family Psychiatry

1994 - 2001
Area Director Mental Health Services, Central Sydney Area Health Service, New South Wales Department of Health - Sydney

1996 - 2001

Senior Consultant Psychiatrist - Aboriginal Medical Service, Redfern
Senior Consultant Psychiatrist - Aboriginal Medical Service, Kempsey

2001 - 2014
Governor of New South Wales

For a full list of appointments, honours and awards see www.bit.ly/2C6UuHm