Salme Koobakene

May 22, 2013

Two Baltic women who came to Australia as refugees after World War II have been honoured in contributions to the Australian Women’s Register by Ann Tündern-Smith. They are Salme Koobakene (1919-1998), originally from Valgamaa in southern Estonia and Zenta Liepa (1927 – 1987) originally from Riga, Latvia.

Both women were chosen to migrate to Australia on a ship known in the Baltic communities as the “First Transport”, the General Stuart Heintzelman, which arrived on 28 November 1947. The passengers on the First Transport were the first ever non-British migrants to be selected for settlement by Australian officials. They were participants in a social experiment that was so successful that it brought millions of migrants to Australia in the following decades. The “First Transport” is the focus of Ann Tündern-Smith’s research into the Baltic communities in Australia.

The Australian Women’s Register is an on-line, searchable archive at It sees itself as “a valuable and growing source of biographical data about Australian women and their organisations, with hyper-links to the archival repositories and libraries where their records are held and to other sources of information.” Ann is a member of the Register’s Canberra support committee.

This year is the 100th anniversary of the proclamation of the name of Australia’s new capital city, Canberra, in 1913. As part of the Centenary celebrations, the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) Government funded the Register’s support committee to commission new entries and update existing ones on women who had a substantial connection to Canberra. The resulting special exhibition is called, “From Lady Denman to Katy Gallagher” and can be found at The two women honoured in the title are the wife of the Governor-General in 1913, who announced the new name, and the ACT’s Chief Minister since 2011.

Both Salme Koobakene and Zenta Liepa lived out their lives in Canberra after being sent there to work in late 1947. Zenta died early from lung cancer but not before those she worked with as a technical assistant at Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation began to thank her for her dedication by naming insects in her honour. The Latin names of at least two genera and 21 species of flies now include ‘zenta’ or ‘liepa’. Her story is at

Salme Koobakene spent most of her working life in a library at the Australian National University, where her Russian language skills were of particular use. In her will she asked the Country Women’s Association (CWA), of which she had been a member since her early days in Canberra, to use funds from her estate to provide grants to high school students and young carers who are still at school in their Canberra-Monaro Region. Her estate was also able to provide grants of at least $10,000 per year for six years to the National Gallery of Australia. Salme’s life is at

Ann-Tündern-Smith’s interest in Salme Koobakene also led to her contributing a history of the Canberra Branch of the CWA to the Australian Women’s Register Canberra centenary project as well as two other entries.

Ann Tündern-Smith