Woman Millis, Nancy Fannie (1922 - 2012)


10 April 1922
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
29 November 2012
Richmond, Victoria, Australia
Academic, Chancellor, Microbiologist and Professor

Written by Rosemary Francis, The University of Melbourne

Nancy Millis was born in Melbourne on 10 April 1922, the fifth in a family of six children. The family lived in Brighton and operated a wholesale fruit business. Nancy received her primary and secondary education at Brighton primary and Melbourne Church of England Girls' Grammar School. Her education was interrupted when her father suffered a heart attack and she left school to work as a bookkeeper. She completed her matriculation at night school part-time, and as a result of taking two years to matriculate, was prevented from enrolling in the Bachelor of Science degree at the University of Melbourne. After overcoming severe illness, on her sister Jean's advice, she completed the Bachelor of Agricultural Science instead in 1945 and Master of Agricultural Science in 1946.

The completion of her PhD at the University of Bristol in 1952 on the fermentation of cider and microrganisms that affect the process, laid the basis for her academic career and leadership in the field. On her return to Melbourne in 1952, she was to experience gender discrimination, when she was unsuccessful at finding employment with Carlton and United Breweries and Kraft; neither of which employed women in their laboratories. By 1953 she had a position at the University of Melbourne as a Demonstrator in the microbiology department. In 1956 she was appointed as a lecturer, following the award of a Fulbright travel grant in 1954. Her research into fermentation was extended when she took sabbatical leave in 1963 to work with Suichi Aiba at the Institute of Applied Microbiology at Tokyo University. This work formed the foundation of the course Millis subsequently established at Melbourne and the lectures she gave in Tokyo with Aiba and Arthur Humphrey form the basis of Biochemical Engineering, first published in 1965 and still a standard textbook in the field.

In 1977, in recognition of this work and her leadership in the field, she was elected to the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering (ATSE). She was promoted to a Professorship in 1982, only the fourth woman to be appointed professor at the University of Melbourne, and remained in that position until her retirement in 1987. On her professorial appointment, she remarked to The Age newspaper that universities could be 'a bit of a club where blokes tend to appoint blokes … And there is a tendency for women not to want to take on responsibility, but that's partly because sometimes they are invited to take responsibility in such a way that they can't say yes' (quoted in Morrison). In 1988 she was made Emeritus Professor and in 1993 was awarded an Honorary Doctorate at the University of Melbourne. She was Chancellor of La Trobe University from 1992 until 2006.

In 2002 Millis was one of five Australian scientists featured on Australian stamps. Two years later she was elected to the Australian Academy of Science (AAS). Complementing her academic leadership, Millis served on the Board of Management of the Fairfield Infectious Diseases Hospital and the Australian Water Advisory Resources Committee, among others. She died in Epworth hospital, Richmond, on 29 November 2012.

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