Terri Stewart’s childhood recollections of Cecilia Leary contain few pointers to the extraordinary and trailblazing life led by her much-loved aunt.
“We didn’t really see that much of her because she ended up living on the other side of Australia,” Terri recalls.
“She used to come home occasionally for Christmas. We caught up with her once in Melbourne and twice when she was living in Canberra. But we didn’t regularly catch up.
“She always made a fuss of us when we saw her because we were the only children on that side of the family. We were pretty much the bees’ knees.
“She was just a nice person. It was obvious that she was extremely clever but she never seemed above everyone else in terms of education.”
Ces – as everyone knew her – died in 1986 at the age of 61.
The remarkable nature of her career might easily have remained a mystery. But after the death of Ces’ partner last year, Terri made enquiries to see whether there were any effects or information relating to her aunt which she might be able to access.
The documents she received were, in Terri’s own words, “mind-blowing.”
Some of Ces’ story was already well-known to Terri. Her aunt – Terri’s father’s sister – had been born in Melbourne in March 1925 into a family that had only recently moved from Tasmania. A subsequent move to WA in search of better opportunities coincided with the onset of the Great Depression.
Some of the information put a little colour to a history that Stewart was mostly aware of. The family had originally settled down in Mukinbudin and then moved to Marda, about 140km north of Southern Cross, where Terri’s grandfather Dennis found work at the Butcherbird mining battery. After first attending a Catholic convent school at the age of seven alongside her sister and brother, Ces’ emerging scholastic abilities resulted in her being sent to Perth Modern School, where she might have crossed paths with a student four years her junior named Bob Hawke. Like her, he would go on to study at the University of Western Australia and then find success in Canberra.
But much of what was sent to Terri was new to her and has resulted in her seeing her aunt in a totally different light. She didn’t know, for instance, that Ces, after completing a Bachelor of Science in physics and mathematics, had become one of the first women – and quite possibly THE first woman – to join the Melbourne-based Bureau of Mineral Resources in a professional capacity.
Similarly, Terri had no idea that her aunt was likely the only woman flying around Australia in the 1950s (sometimes for up to six months of time) conducting aerial surveys of what was largely uncharted territory. The aeromagnetic charting equipment being used was state-of-the-art and provided new and vital insights into the geological make-up of our country.
“The areas she would have been flying across are pretty remote even now,” Terri reflected.
“But back then it would have been totally cowboy country. It’s just incredible. I’ve no idea where they would have stayed or how they would have got food, or any of that stuff.”
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Other documents related to Ces’ time as at the Bureau of Mineral Resources – these days known as Geoscience Australia – are eye-openers to a different era, when the presence of women was extremely rare in both the field of earth sciences, and the mining and resources sector in general.
An extract from The West Australian from November 23, 1954, outlines Ces’ role as the only woman in a radiation survey team that spent three months operating in the Kimberley and Northern Territory. The article describes Ces analysing data mid-flight, her keen interest in the landscape of WA’s far north, a failed attempt to shoot a crocodile and an episode in which she saved bottles from the burning Port Hotel in Derby (the August 1954 blaze destroyed both the pub and the adjoining general store).
The February 1995 edition of the Australian Society of Exploration Geophysicists (ASEG) publication Preview contains some very interesting insights into Ces’ early days at the BMR and how she fought gender bias while holding a pretty handy ace up her sleeve – her own talent and the confidence it gave her.
“In 1953, she was a member of the Airborne Reductions group,” the story recounts.
“A couple of years later the BMR was reorganised and geophysicists were allocated for aerial survey work. Ces applied for one of these jobs and was knocked back. She felt that she was being overlooked for promotion because women did not go out on survey teams.
“So, she took the unusual step of resigning in 1955 and returning to her parents’ house in Kalgoorlie. Knowing that her expertise was needed, she hoped to force the BMR’s hand. In 1957, she applied for a job again with the BMR and this time was employed as a member of the geophysics team.
“Although women were not allowed to work in the field, Ces used to visit the camps on weekends whenever possible.”
Given that BMR was first established in 1946, there’s a case to be made – albeit a hard one to prove definitively – that Ces might have been Australia’s first female geophysicist.
What is established fact is that Ces went on to become head of the BMR’s Airborne Reductions Group and was a key figure in the introduction of computing to data analysis at the bureau.
Bruce Wyatt, who moved from Tasmania to Canberra on a BMR cadetship in the early 1970s, recalls Ces as a woman who was both kind and formidable in her own quiet way.
“She was a good friend to my family and lived in the next suburb with her partner,” Wyatt reflected.
“I got along really well with her. We had a couple of little kids and we had a holiday or two with Ces at a little beach shack in Congo [in southern New South Wales]…I can remember her giving my daughter a toy that she hung on to for years and years and years.
“She was a very thoughtful person – but at the same time she wouldn’t take shit from anyone.
“In the current day, I suppose what she did wouldn’t be extraordinary at all. But it was rare in those days because there were so few women in geophysics or geology.
“Ces just got on with the job. Everyone respected her abilities and I don’t remember ever seeing any kind of prejudice towards her.”
Another former BMR employee and founding ASEG member Ted Lilley has similar memories of Ces’ time in charge of the Airborne Reductions Group.
“She was held in respect by the field workers, such as myself,” Lilley said.
“While in the field we were always aware that the charts, returned to Melbourne with their various markings and annotations, needed to meet Ces’s standards.”
Given that she died the best part of 10 years before much of the world started using the internet, it’s not surprising there are few references to Ces online.
Quirkily, a Parliamentary record survives of her original full-time offer of employment with the BMR as a mathematical assistant, which came with a yearly salary of 623 pounds. The use of terms like “female rates” is another reminder that this was a totally different era.
Meanwhile, her entry on the Australian Encyclopedia Of Science website is about as matter-of-fact as things can get.
“Cecilia Leary was a geophysicist working in the Bureau of Mineral Resources from the 1950s to the 1970s. During the 1950s and 1960s she conducted aerial surveys.”
That said, given her niece’s memories of Ces’ modest and humble nature, maybe that’s the way she would have preferred it.
“Reading all these bits and pieces about her now is just incredible,” Stewart said.
“She was never a person that would boast about things and I certainly don’t remember our family talking about it.
“I knew that she had become a geophysicist and got some scholarships in order to do that. But I don’t remember my grandparents ever saying ‘Ces is flying around doing all this surveying’ or anything like that.
“She was just an ordinary everyday person I guess…until you read about what it is that she actually did.”