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From politics to a PhD: Australia’s oldest university graduate

After a whirlwind career in television and politics, 93-year-old Dr Lis Kirkby is Australia's oldest graduate.

When explaining her zest for life and continuous quest for knowledge, Dr Elisabeth Kirkby quotes Mark Twain.

“Anyone who stops learning is old, whether 20 or 80. Anyone who keeps learning is young. The greatest thing you can do is keep your mind young.”

Dr Kirkby’s extraordinary life is an example of this. At age 93, she is the oldest person to earn a PhD in Australian history.

Born in Bolton, Greater Manchester, in 1921, Dr Kirkby joined the women’s branch of the British Army, known as the Auxiliary Territorial Service, in World War II.

“It was an unnerving experience. I was a Lance Corporal in charge of recruits. I found it hard to cope when recruits came from the slums of Liverpool and Manchester and had little education. Many had been employed in munitions factories and had been injured in accidents. Their life experience was so different from my own,” she says.

“I had to assess the correspondence from women who were requesting a discharge from the Service on compassionate grounds. I was usually in trouble because I was approving their requests when the sergeant in charge of the unit was convinced they were malingering.”

In 1943, she moved to the entertainment unit, where she toured around the army and air force bases in southern England with Terence Rattigan’s play Flare Path. 

“It was a great experience working with other army actors, some who became big stars later: Kenneth Connor (‘Allo ‘Allo!), Griffith Jones, Faith Brook, and Wilfred Hyde-White.”

This was the start of a successful acting career for Dr Kirkby, who spent 15 years writing, directing and producing for radio and the arts in Malaysia, before moving to Australia. She produced documentaries for the ABC and had starring roles in Number 96, Homicide and Hunter.

“When I was working for the Talks and Features Unit at the ABC, the Head of Department was Colin Mason. He became Senator Colin Mason after the formation of the Australian Democrats, and invited me to join the party in 1977. As I had been appalled at the dismissal of Gough Whitlam, I agreed.”

Dr Kirkby was the Australian Democrats NSW state leader, becoming the longest-serving Australian Democrat MP. Despite her own long-running political career, she believes the current political climate is in many ways disturbing.

“The global financial crisis has shown us that too much emphasis is placed on the ability to make money. Cyber finance allows bankers and financiers to manipulate markets and control the elected representatives, even in democracies.

“The fact that the personal wealth of some billionaires is greater than the GDP of some small countries is unsustainable. We must work towards a more just and equitable society; particularly in Australia, the land of a ‘fair go’.”

Last week, Dr Kirkby graduated from a PhD at the University of Sydney Business School. Her thesis concerned the impact of economic orthodoxy on unemployment during the Great Depression in Australia.

“Whilst completing a PhD can be frustrating and time-consuming, the exciting part is doing the research and learning about the lives of the unemployed, those who really carried the burden of the Great Depression.”

The topic is close to Dr Kirkby’s heart, who spent her childhood experiencing the Great Depression first-hand.

“In comparison to many thousands of others, my family was lucky. It is only through the research I have done that I realise now just how lucky we were.”

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