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Dr Jean E Laby

In 1959 Dr Jean Laby became the first woman to receive the Doctor of Philosophy degree in physics at the University of Melbourne.

Inducted:
2009
Category:
Honour Roll

"Being the first female PhD in physics showed it could be done. She pushed on the doors that were locked to women and burst through them" - Professor David Jamieson, Head of School of Physics, University of Melbourne.

Jean was one of Australia's pioneer atmospherics physicists and the sole female atmospherics physicist of her generation, and her work gained international recognition. She had several papers published in 'Nature', the most prestigious scientific journal.

As a role model she opened the way for women to participate equally with men within the scientific and academic world at a time when it involved obstinate gender hurdles. Professor David Jamieson from the University of Melbourne described Jean as a "trailblazer": "There is a legion of female PhD students who have followed on from Jean's legacy."

Jean and her sister, Betty, spent much of their childhood at the University, accompanying their father, Professor Thomas Laby, who was head of what is now called the physics department. Not only did Jean inherit her father's love of physics, but also the desire to teach. According to Professor Jamieson: "the two don't always go together. Scientists aren't always the best communicators."

In 1961 Jean took up the position of senior lecturer at the Royal Australian Air Force Academy at Point Cook and remained the only woman on staff until 1980. In 1975 she obtained a $US25,000 grant for a global study of climatic impact and developed lightweight micro-electric control systems to automate the collection of high altitude atmospheric data. Jean and her colleagues can claim to be the pioneers in an experimental technique that continues to be of critical importance today to our understanding of, and the interaction with, the earth's climate. She laid the foundations for climate change and pollution studies with the techniques they developed.

Jean also travelled to South Africa and South America to undertake atmospheric research with high-altitude balloons. They camped out in fields in difficult conditions and she just put up with it, along with the discrimination.

Reviewed 25 May 2022

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