AUSTRALIA: Six decades to earn a PhD

Melbourne-born Doris LeRoy (pictured) dropped out of school when she was 14. Now, almost 60 years later, she has earned a doctorate - despite battling cancer, enduring hip replacements and suffering the death of her husband.

LeRoy was awarded the degree for her revelatory account of how the Anglican Church's most powerful dignitaries actively but covertly supported the Australian conservative government's attempts in the 1950s to outlaw the Communist Party.

That account, a research thesis, earned her a doctorate at Victoria University in Melbourne. Yet this elderly mother of four and grandmother of three reached academe's highest pinnacle while confronting hurdles that would have stopped most people in their tracks.

Here is a septuagenarian scholar who left school at 14 to work as a secretary and laboratory assistant, who married at 20, reared four children and who finally returned to study at a further education college in her mid-50s.

Then, after going on to university and completing an arts degree, an honours year and several years of research for her doctorate, at the age of 71 LeRoy was presented in December with a PhD at a Victoria University conferring ceremony*.

The climb to reach this peak had taken 15 years, including the three-and-a-half-year slog for her doctorate poring over government reports and debates, as well as documents from university libraries in Australia, Britain and America.

"The thing that worries me is that the emphasis has been on my illness and not on my thesis. They don't give PhDs away, you know," she tells me towards the end of our interview.

That is true and LeRoy's thesis deserves coverage because it is the first time the role of senior Australian Anglicans in backing efforts by the late conservative Prime Minister Robert Menzies to ban the Communist Party has been revealed.

But then few women have overcome so many seemingly unsurmountable obstacles to achieve a university's highest award.

One of the examiners for her thesis is Dr Dianne Kirby, a senior lecturer at the University of Ulster in Northern Ireland and an expert on the Anglican Church and the Cold War. Kirby says LeRoy's thesis is "an excellent piece of work and I encouraged her to revise it for publication".

"Our correspondence in the early days was purely scholarly, an exchange of information and ideas," Kirby says. "She was attracted to the subject she pursued at postgrad level on the basis of reading my work on the Church of England and the Cold War. Once she became a doctoral student and was pursuing her own original line of research in Australian sources, she became important to me because it supported and complemented my own work."

LeRoy, however, admits that she was "pretty sick the whole way through my PhD years. I was diagnosed with breast cancer a year into the degree but I just kept working because it was the best thing to do; if I'd stopped I don't think I would have gone on. I'd get treatment and then trot down to the uni to continue studying. I also had two hip replacements so it's been a struggle but I got there. I really can't believe I've done it."

She says she followed the example of her late husband, Paul, who continued his university education despite battling serious illnesses, including cancer. Paul LeRoy had had a kidney removed when he was 38, then Hodgkin's lymphona was discovered and this was followed by a stroke. Yet he started an MBA at Melbourne University while undergoing radiation for the cancer, the same year as one of his sons enrolled there to start his degree.

"So you see what I mean when I felt I had a model to follow," LeRoy says. "Unfortunately Paul died of complications following another severe stroke when I was 61 which was pretty unfair. But I thought, if he can fight the cancer while studying, I can too..."

Her long journey to the award of a PhD began when she decided to learn about computers at a women's study centre. She was encouraged by centre staff to tackle a couple of subjects a year towards a certificate in liberal arts and then to do a diploma course.

"My husband had another stroke and eventually died in the last year of the diploma. The people in the college then said, 'Why don't you go on up to the uni?' They had this pathways system which, with a diploma of liberal arts, meant you could get exemptions and go into the second year of an arts degree. It's a very user-friendly way of getting back into study for a lot of people."

With a bachelor of arts in hand, LeRoy completed an honours year with marks high enough to get offers of PhD scholarships from Melbourne, Deakin and Victoria universities. But she chose to stay at Victoria because her supervisor, Professor Phillip Deery, is a leading expert on the Cold War.

"He and a colleague, Professor Rob Pascoe, both looked after me when I got breast cancer and again later when I was quite ill and had the hip operations. Rob came to my home to save me travelling to the university and I doubt I would have made it had I gone to Melbourne or Deakin. The caring nature of the Victoria University staff is just terrific."

LeRoy became interested in the Cold War during her honours year when she studied the life of the Red Dean of Canterbury - the Very Reverend Hewlett Johnson, the English clergyman who acquired his nickname because of his support for the Soviet Union and its allies.

"He came out here for the 1950 Peace Congress in Melbourne and this brought home to Anglicans in Australia that this man, the dean of the premier cathedral in Britain, was talking about communism. Some priests here were sympathetic and helpful in the peace movement but the majority weren't and the church was dismayed this man [Johnson] was here," she says.

"It was then I realised the Anglican hierarchy in Australia, while they didn't act in the same manner as the Roman Catholic Church, were just as committed to getting rid of communism as the Catholic archbishops."

During her research, Le Roy discovered how closely the Anglican Church was involved in the fight against communism during the early years of the Cold War, how the church's influence reached the highest echelons of power and how political leaders used religion and the strength of the church to "obtain their ends".

She says numerous studies have examined the role of the Catholic Church in fighting communism in the 1950s but that little attention had been paid to the position and power of the numerically dominant Anglican Church. Her research has highlighted the significant number of Anglicans who held influential positions in the government, the military and the judiciary during the Cold War.

"These powerful elites were able to influence social opinion both directly and indirectly," she says. "Prominent Anglicans were very helpful to the anti-communist Menzies government at the time and, although there were no overt statements about this link between church and state, there probably didn't need to be; such a separation doesn't apply in the [exclusive men-only] Melbourne Club."

One notable example of a deeply conservative and influential Anglican was Brigadier Sir Charles Spry, then head of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation. LeRoy says Spry was part of a close-knit defence establishment elite in Melbourne known for its vehement anti-communism and its informal links with the conservative Liberal Party.

She says church newspapers were also used to spread anti-communist propaganda, particularly the evangelical titles. The papers disseminated anti-communist news items from local and international sources and were powerful shapers of opinion.

"It was quite amazing there was so much fear considering the small numbers of communists in Australia at the time, estimated to be 20,000 at the most. Yet people took it as a matter of course that, because we hated communism so much, we would do anything to fight it. I think my research is important today because it can be used as a lesson for the current fear, ignorance and misunderstandings of Muslims. People should stand back a bit and look at what's happening."

As an Anglican herself, LeRoy was appalled by what she had uncovered. She says she did not realise the covert connections between church and state because they were not supposed to exist. Yet she was probably more dismayed at the Anglican collusion with American crusader Billy Graham during his 1959 campaign in Australia.

"At that time, Graham was openly cooperating with the American government's use of religion as a weapon against communism. He said he did not have to be concerned about Episcopalians in America, they were small in number. But in England he knew he had to get the Anglicans on side and once the Archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Fisher, and the Queen appeared to give their approval, Australian Anglicans were sure to follow."

Deery has high praise for his former student: "Dr LeRoy's fine PhD was enabled by two main factors: her intellectual inquisitiveness that constantly led her research into untrodden historical territory, and her personal qualities - tenacity, determination and self-belief - which helped her overcome daunting obstacles."

Kirby says that although she knew LeRoy was a mature student, she had no idea how mature: "I was delighted when I was asked to be an examiner because I wanted to see precisely what she had found out and subsequently asked for the marked copy to be returned to me because I had marked it up so extensively for my own use.

"It was only after her doctorate was awarded that I learned of her age and of the traumatic events that she had had to confront in the course of her research and writing. I was amazed; I could not believe it. For a young person full of health and vigour and modern education to get a doctorate is a highly commendable achievement, still the preserve of a small percentage in the population.

"A doctorate is hard, it is a challenge on many levels and many fail. It is a sign of excellence. I think most universities and individual academics would have sought to dissuade her from proceeding on age grounds alone. So Dr LeRoy is a lesson and an inspiration to us all. A woman of remarkable courage, intellect and tenacity, I feel honoured to have been a small part of her great achievements."

* After receiving the award of doctor of philosophy last December, Dr Doris LeRoy delivered the valedictory address at her graduation ceremony. Her speech can be viewed here.