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The class of '53

By Tom Biegler - posted Friday, 1 December 2023


It is results time for the school leavers of 2023. I know it's an exciting time. In 1953 I completed the NSW Leaving Certificate. 70 years ago!

It was later, in 2002, that I first had occasion to look at that Class of '53 to see if I could find out what had happened to the top 10 achievers of that year. In those days their names were public knowledge. And I was curious. This is a statistically unsound personal analysis and commentary on what I found. Most of it was first drafted in 2002.

What did happen to the best and brightest of 1953? Can we learn something from the way those young lives unfolded? With these questions in mind, I set out to discover the fates of the ten top achievers of the year. None was a personal acquaintance of mine. But I did have the published list of the first 100 in the State, plus some other clippings of the time. With a bit of luck and perseverance, and the help of Google, I discovered quite a lot about that select group.

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In the process of uncovering their stories, I found myself looking through a window into a different world, the Australia of half a century earlier. Of course I had been there too, but hadn't noticed how odd it was!

On January 13 1954 the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald announced that 75% of the 7,118 students sitting the 1953 Leaving Certificate exam had passed. On that day the metropolitan boys' results were published. Country boys and girls followed the next day and after that the metropolitan girls had their turn. Girls, it seems, were expected to be more patient.

The first 100 list was published a couple of weeks later. The top ten all came from boys' schools, three of which were rural. Eight were from private schools, five of which were Catholic. So 50% of the top ten had come out of the Catholic school system! No one remarked on this at the time.

All of those ten boys' surnames were unmistakably Anglo-Celtic. The pre- and post-war waves of refugees and immigrants (which incidentally included me), while evident to an extent in the full list of 100, had not yet made its impact on the top ten.

As for the girls, the top one showed up in 11th place (but see my later note below*). In the first 100 (surnames and initials only), 20 were definitely identifiable by their schools as girls. There may well have been some more among a further ten students whose country high schools may have been co-educational.

How did those ten extremely bright boys of 1953 go in their further education and careers? Not surprisingly, all went on to further study, eight at Sydney University, and had fine careers. As far as I can determine (the information on two of them is second-hand) all are still alive, well and professionally active at age 65 or 66 (remember, this refers to 2002), so perhaps brains and health go together.

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Three studied Science, three Engineering, two Medicine, one Arts and one Theology. Career choices generally followed the common pattern of the day; good school results in maths and science led to courses that grew and exploited those capabilities. There is not a single lawyer, economist or accountant in the group, although one of the engineers did become a very successful businessman.

All of the top 10 continued their studies beyond their first degree. In their tertiary academic achievements there was much evidence of the brilliance shown at school. Two shared the University Medal in Chemical Engineering, notorious as one of the toughest of the University courses. Another two went on to do the famously demanding Mathematical Tripos at Cambridge. Six earned the title Dr, three as PhDs, two as medical practitioners and one as Doctor of Theology; one is a Professor.

Strikingly from today's perspective, three of the top ten followed religious vocations, two as ordained Catholic priests and one as a Christian Brother. Some might lament the loss of their remarkable capabilities from the genetic pool.

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Dr Tom Biegler, a retired CSIRO scientist and research manager, came 43rd in the NSW Leaving Certificate of 1953.



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About the Author

Dr Tom Biegler was a research electrochemist before becoming Chief of CSIRO Division of Mineral Chemistry. He is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering.

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