When Nancy Millis’ father suffered a heart attack in the late 1930s, the family of eight fell into financial difficulties. Her ambitions of going to university were looking dismal.
Fifteen-year-old Nancy left school, trained as a secretary and obtained work as a clerk and then as a laboratory technician but still dreamed of going to university, so while she worked by day, she studied at night.
When she finally completed her exams, she was devastated to find that she was ineligible to enrol in the Bachelor of Science at the University of Melbourne because she had taken more than one year to complete her matriculation.
She approached the Dean of Agriculture, Samuel Wadham, to gain entry to the Bachelor of Agricultural Science course. He agreed to her request and in 1942 she enrolled, aged 20 and determined to succeed.
During the first year of study on the university campus in Parkville Nancy became friends with the only other female students, Pat Howard and Janet Kent-Hughes.
The second year was a farm training year at Dookie Agricultural College. While Dookie is now a campus of the University of Melbourne, in 1943 it and the other agricultural colleges were government training organisations and did not admit women to their residential courses.
The farm training year in the Bachelor of Agricultural Science provided something of a loophole, and Nancy, Pat and Janet were the first women to attend since one woman beat the system during the First World War.
The three girls from the city caught the train to Benalla with some trepidation about what the year would hold.
Nancy reflected “it was our first experience of being a small group of people who had a collective path to follow” and explained “the course was very oriented towards what you would actually do if you were a dairy or pig farmer, or whatever.”
She enjoyed 1943 “on the dirt.” The day work was varied; she would harvest wheat, sew wheat bags, fork silage, cut chaff, plough cereal crops with an eight-horse team and contour furrowing slopes which were at risk of erosion and they often attended lectures at night.
Most of the heavy lifting was done manually and by Clydesdale horse teams as petrol was in short supply during the Second World War.
Nancy’s father died suddenly the next year. It was a huge shock for the family but there was no thought of Nancy leaving university, now that she was “an incurable aggie.” After completing the agricultural science degree in 1945 she won a scholarship and embarked on a two-year Master of Agricultural Science.
In 1949, she joined the Commonwealth Department of External Territories, excited by the prospect of overseas travel. She moved to Papua New Guinea, then an Australian dependency, as an agricultural extension officer with a project on the agricultural practices of the local women.
But her posting was cut short when she developed life-threatening peritonitis that gave rise to kidney failure, a collapsed lung and widespread oedema. Her life was saved by the newly available antibiotics, penicillin and streptomycin.
The next phase of Nancy’s career took shape when she won a scholarship to attend Bristol University in England to do a PhD on spoilage in cider. Upon returning to Australia she found that suitable jobs were in short supply.
The head of the University of Melbourne’s Bacteriology Department, Professor Sydney Rubbo was busy building bridges between the university and Australian industry and he quickly recognised the potential of Nancy’s expertise in applied microbiology and recruited her to his staff.
In 1954, Professor Rubbo encouraged Nancy to apply for a Fulbright Fellowship and sponsorship from the American Association of University Women which enabled her travel to Wisconsin to visit Marvin J. Johnson, who was studying penicillin production.
Another overseas research opportunity came Nancy’s way in 1963 when she visited the chemical engineer, Professor Suichi Aiba, at Tokyo University.
Nancy was frustrated by cultural barriers to her gaining hands-on experience in fermentation research in the laboratory and was about to leave when an American chemical engineer and food scientist, Professor Arthur Humphreys, arrived from the University of Pennsylvania.
The trio of Nancy, Professor Aiba and Professor Humphreys formed a close friendship and they developed a series of lectures on biochemical engineering resulting in the 1965 publication of a book, Biochemical Engineering, which was printed in several languages and became an invaluable reference book on industrial microbiology, still in use today.
Nancy’s university career progressed. She was promoted to Reader in 1968 and she became one of the first female professors at the University of Melbourne. She was appointed Emeritus Professor upon her retirement by which time she had led or contributed to numerous significant research projects and national and international organisations and received innumerable awards.
She was modest about her research achievements, saying she had never discovered anything world shattering and that she was aware of her limitations and lived a satisfying life despite them.
Nancy’s “year on the dirt” gave her a liking for gaining first-hand experience of all the considerations involved in a particular problem or puzzle. It was a strategy she employed for the rest of her brilliant career.
These days, University of Melbourne Bachelor of Agriculture students can now choose to spend between one and three semesters based at Dookie campus… regardless of gender.
This is an edited extract of the book Breaking New Ground by Associate Professor Helen Billman-Jacobe and Dr Ann Westmore that explores the lives and careers of the female students who had a year of practical farming experience at Dookie. For more information you can email Associate Professor Helen Billman-Jacobe here.
Banner: Dookie’s new tractor in 1943. Patricia Howard driving, Nancy Millis on A-frame (third from left) and Janet Kent Hughes kneeling in foreground/Supplied