Raised by her resourceful, widowed mother, Jackie Birrell began a degree at Melbourne University in the 1940s when women were an uncommon site on campus, particularly in the sciences. ‘I majored in metallurgy [the study of metals]. I'd never heard of metallurgy until a friend told me her sister had majored in it because so many of metallurgists were involved in the war effort that there was a shortage.’ Jackie, now 95, was the only woman in her course. ‘During my last year, I met my husband to be [John]. He was back from the war. We got married at the end of my degree.’
Raising a family
At that time, it was the norm for women to give up work after they married but such was the shortage of metallurgists that Jackie was allowed to work as a teacher at the university’s metallurgy department until John completed his medical degree in 1950 and they started a family, raising three boys. ‘I didn't have any great wish to go on working. I quite enjoyed being a mum and none of my friends who were graduates worked, except one because they needed to.’
Making a difference
Jackie’s husband was Dr John Birrell OAM, who is credited with saving about 30,000 lives through his pioneering work on road safety as Victoria’s Police Surgeon. ‘He worked in that job for 20 years. and you can probably blame him for bringing in 0.5 and making seatbelts compulsory, and that's back in the 1950s and 60s,’ Jackie says.
Jackie enjoyed playing golf and took up oil painting. In their 60s and 70s, John and Jackie began visiting remote parts of Australia. ‘We did a lot of travelling all over Australia, camping everywhere with a four-wheel drive and a tent. We went everywhere — over the Gunbarrel Highway — it was just marvellous. ‘I do feel like I've had a good life. I have good memories, particularly those outback trips. I just think Australia is fantastic. A lot of people go flitting overseas when Australia is such a wonderful country.’