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Langley, Doreen Moira (1920–1998)

by Janet Scarfe

Doreen Langley, n.d.

Doreen Langley, n.d.

photo provided by Women's College (University of Sydney)

Doreen Moira Langley, distinguished nutritionist and educator, died in Sydney on 19 May 1998, aged 78.

She was the eldest daughter of George and Edmee Langley (nee Plunkett). Born in London, her earliest years were in Mansfield, on the edge of Victoria’s high country. Her father, Lieutenant Colonel George Langley DSO, Gallipoli veteran and commander of the 1st Australian Camel Battalion, returned from World War I to be headmaster of the Mansfield Agricultural High School. Her mother, Edmee (BA London 1914) had been secretary to Lord Edward Cecil of the Egyptian government; her father’s closest friend was Lord Kitchener. Her parents met and married in Cairo.

From the mountains of Mansfield the Langley family moved to Warnnambool. George Langley became principal of a number of major schools, including Box Hill High School and finally Melbourne High School (1949-56).

Doreen won a scholarship to Melbourne Church of England Girls Grammar (1934-36), then followed in her father’s pre-war footsteps to the University of Melbourne. He had graduated in arts, but she graduated in science with a post-graduate diploma in dietetics. She was senior student at Janet Clarke Hall in 1940, during Enid Joske’s principalship. There were 58 students then. The manner of address to and between students was formal. She was "Miss Langley."

With an Exhibition in Biochemistry with Bacteriology, she became a microbiologist at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute. In 1943, she joined the Women's Auxiliary Australian Air Force which was accommodated at the University of Melbourne. Flight Officer Langley lectured mess officers, compiled catering manuals, struggled to improve the nutrition of patients in RAAF hospitals, and inspected air force units throughout remote Australia.

George (by then Brigadier) Langley was involved in repatriation of prisoners of war from Europe after 1945. Doreen’s WAAAF colleagues advised Australian and American forces in New Guinea on dehydrated foods. Almost predictably then, she joined the Nutrition Survey Expedition to Papua New Guinea in 1947, then the British Medical Research Council Nutrition Unit in Gambia, and finally the South Pacific Health Commission in Fiji from 1951-53.

From 1954, she lived in Sydney, lecturing in nutrition at East Sydney Tech. Then at 37, she became principal of the Women’s College at the University of Sydney, succeeding the legendary Betty Archdale. Shortly afterwards she was awarded the MBE.

Becoming as legendary as her predecessor, she retired from the Women’s College in 1974. She was a Fellow of the University Senate, and Foundation Member of the Board of International House. She was the first woman to preside over the Heads of University Colleges conference, and president of the Sydney University Women’s Union.

Her times in Melbourne became less frequent with the death of Brigadier Langley in 1971 and Mrs Langley’s move to Sydney. She was impatient with Melbourne’s weather and far preferred Sydney’s galleries, theatre, concerts, flora and fauna, and the views of Pittwater from the rocky outcrop where she lived.

Her influence on individuals and institutions in Melbourne remains however. Dr. Eva Eden, principal of Janet Clarke Hall from 1964-85, had been vice-principal at Sydney’s Women’s College in Doreen’s first years there. Dr. Eden transformed the food, customs, administration and revenues of JCH, as Doreen did at the Women’s College — but only the Women’s College could boast Maggie Beer (the Maggie Beer) as household manager in the early 1970s.

Doreen introduced married couples as tutors, implemented "extended visiting hours" by male students (opponents referred to it as all night visiting), insisted against considerable opposition the continued residence in college of a pregnant student, and kept a fine cellar of rich red wines. In 1971, she tried to interest Senior Common Room in the latest book she had just read, The Female Eunuch. We changed the subject, to her obvious annoyance.

A magnificent cook with either perfect or meagre ingredients, she presided over almost continuous soirees at her home at Avalon Beach. They were challenging, vigorous occasions, full of life, brimming over with optimism and encouragement laced with the earthy reality of her great shouting laugh.

The final soiree took place during her last day at home. Friends came from around the world, around the country, around Sydney to farewell her, to uphold her in her dying in the way she had upheld each of us in our lives.

At her memorial service, long-time friend and colleague quoted D. H. Lawrence: Doreen had been "dipped again in God and new created". You can hear Doreen’s "Good-oh!"

She is survived by her sister Pat Lesslie and nephew Robert.

Original publication

  • Age (Melbourne), 9 June 1998

Additional Resources

Citation details

Janet Scarfe, 'Langley, Doreen Moira (1920–1998)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/langley-doreen-moira-13353/text23982, accessed 22 October 2014.

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