Thursday, 30 March 2017

Professor Emeritus Nancy Millis, AC MBE: an appreciation

Nancy Millis graduated with a Bachelor of Agricultural Sciences from the University of Melbourne in 1945, and obtained a Master in 1946 before going on to earn a PhD at Bristol University.  

Her doctoral research was on microbial growth and fermentation in cider that started her lifelong interest in anything that ferments; both as a scientist and a consumer.

A microbiologist, she was the fourth woman to be appointed as a Professor at the University of Melbourne and played major roles in genetics engineering and water quality. Professor Millis was recognised and honoured by nations and peers for her work in developing higher education courses, maximising links between universities and industries, and her devotion to science and innovation.

In 1977, in recognition of her academic leadership, she was elected to the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering. She was promoted to a Professorship in 1982 and remained in that position until her retirement in 1987.

Professor Millis served as the fourth Chancellor of Victoria's third university for the period 1992-2006. This is where I got to know her as I was secretariat to the University Council. The Chancellor’s role is partly ceremonial but includes chairing University's Council meetings – a role akin to chairing the board of a public company. Networks, experience and influence are essential for success in the role.

Professor Millis was an approachable, humorous, straight-shooter, unimpressed with airs and contemptuous of verbosity. She was a delight to work with. She was also disarmingly unassuming and convivial with students or the public. Highly respected and trusted by Council members as both independently minded and fearless, she accepting that the managerial role of the Vice-Chancellor should be supported without interference.

My memory includes two humorous exchanges:

One year we had a series of Christmas cards painted in a stylistic way with religious themes. My role was to find out which ones she wished to use. One represented the baby Jesus glowing in the manger with men gathered around. ‘Looks like a good Australian BBQ’ she said.

At one Council meeting, a distinguished member known for his lengthy literary expositions wished to add something to a long discussion on an issue of minor concern. ‘With your permission, Chancellor, may I comment on this matter?’.  ‘If you must’ she replied sotto voce. Unwounded, the speaker launched into a detailed exposition, until she interrupted with ‘Thank you, Professor’.

Through her 'retirement', she maintained an office at the University of Melbourne and presented at international symposia and public discussion on her areas of expertise. 

In 2002, the year she turned 80, Millis was surprised to be one of a handful of scientists honoured in a series of Australian stamps. A TV report took the opportunity to highlight this and her life’s work. This was the year I wrote the appreciation below.

Two years later she was elected to the Australian Academy of Science. Complementing her academic leadership, Millis also served on the Board of Management of the Fairfield Infectious Diseases Hospital and the Australian Water Advisory Resources Committee, among others. 

She died at the age of 90 in Epworth hospital, Richmond, on 29 November 2012. Her name lives on in a number of awards celebrating research excellence and women’s leadership in science.


From Concepts, Golden Key International Honour Society, 2004, page 86. A PDF can be provided on request.