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Doreen Moira Langley (1920–1998)

by Rosemary Annable

This article was published online in 2024

Doreen Langley, n.d.

Doreen Langley, n.d.

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

Doreen Moira Langley (1920–1998), nutritionist, educationist, and editor, was born on 23 January 1920 at Sidcup, Kent, England, elder daughter of Melbourne-born George Furner Langley, educationist and officer in the Australian Imperial Force, and his Egyptian-born wife Edmée Mary, née Plunkett, of Irish and French parentage. Her father had returned to Australia in August 1919 and she and her mother joined him at Mansfield, Victoria, in mid-1920. In 1934 Doreen left Warrnambool High School, where her father was headmaster, to board at Melbourne Church of England Girls’ Grammar School. At the University of Melbourne (BSc, 1940; Diploma of Dietetics, 1945), having been persuaded by her parents that she was ‘temperamentally unsuitable’ (Langley n.d., 7) to study medicine, she chose dietetics. She lived at Janet Clarke Hall (senior student, 1940), where she won the Sara Stock and Florence Colles Stanbridge scholarships and the Grace Maudsley prize, among other awards, and achieved a first-class honours degree.

After short appointments at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Research in Pathology and Medicine and at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Sydney, Langley returned to Melbourne and, seeking to assist the Allied effort in World War II, became a civilian employee of the United States Army 4th General Hospital. On 13 September 1943 she enlisted as a trainee officer in the Women’s Auxiliary Australian Air Force. Commissioned in November, she was promoted to section officer in May 1944 and to acting flight officer in October 1945. She was officer-in-charge of No. 4 Maintenance Group’s WAAAF barracks at Toorak (November 1943–June 1944) and, applying her dietetics knowledge, a messing staff officer at Royal Australian Air Force Headquarters (June 1944–September 1945). Following a short posting in Sydney, she was demobilised in January 1946.

Completing a postgraduate course in nutrition at the Institute of Anatomy in Canberra in 1946, Langley became nutritionist on the New Guinea Nutrition Survey Expedition of 1947, where she was also responsible for provisioning and feeding the survey team. The experience fired an interest in tropical nutrition. Fieldwork for the British Medical Research Council based at Fajara, The Gambia (1950), and the South Pacific Health Service based in Suva (1951–53), followed. Under parental pressure to return home, and to marry, she moved to Sydney in 1954 as lecturer in nutrition at East Sydney Technical College. In 1957 she was appointed principal of the Women’s College within the University of Sydney, a non-denominational college of ninety-five students.

With rising women’s enrolments and the prospect of Commonwealth funding for residential colleges recommended by the Report of the Committee on Australian Universities (Murray report), Langley’s attention turned to the college’s need for growth. Between 1962 and 1969, informed by an overseas study tour of developments in student accommodation, she oversaw an extensive building program that transformed ‘Women’s’ into a college for two hundred and fifty students. Its student academic and pastoral support was maintained by recruiting a full-time vice-principal and more resident tutors, and financial viability was ensured by extending the use of the college during vacations. A new wing, opened in 1969, was named in her honour. In 1960 she had been appointed MBE.

Interested in all aspects of tertiary education, Langley was involved in the wider university and residential colleges community, which raised her own and the college’s profile. Elected as a fellow of the university senate (1969–74), she sat on a number of committees during a time when the university was undergoing significant expansion; her expertise in student accommodation was particularly apposite. In her dealings with students, trust was fundamental, but encouraging their participation in college management and governance brought conflict with the college council over the respective roles and authority of the principal and governing body. A perceived paternalistic ‘grace and favour’ (Langley 1984) attitude to determining her salary also rankled. Many of her best qualities—such as a direct and hard-working nature and her high standards—made her difficult to work for and she found it hard to delegate. By the early 1970s the college had been modernised under its ‘open minded, modern thinking and organised’ (Cotton 1970, 24) principal, students and tutors had a role in college management, and there were plans for new types of student accommodation. She retired in November 1974.

Part-time work as publications officer for the faculty of law institute of criminology followed. Langley became a member of the Australian and New Zealand Society of Criminology in October 1974; enrolled in the university’s diploma of criminology (awarded 1976); and edited the institute’s quarterly Proceedings until 1988, when she was instructed to retire as she was past the compulsory retirement age. She had been elected an honorary fellow of the University of Sydney in 1986. In retirement she did voluntary work, and continued an involvement with International House that had begun in its planning stages in 1963 and which led to her appointment as a fellow in 1993. She also organised and, with her sister, arranged the disposal of their father’s archives, and ordered her own, updating her ‘strictly and (boringly!) factual’ (Langley n.d., 26) autobiography begun in the 1980s.

Travel—‘as an escape from myself’ (Langley n.d., 24)—and food—Langley was ‘a magnificent cook’ (Scarfe 1998, 26)—were lifelong passions. Direct in manner, an analytical and positive thinker, and a meticulous record keeper, she was stylish, well dressed, and cultured, with wide-ranging interests in the arts, international affairs, and people. Nevertheless, outward appearances of confidence and poise belied recurrent insecurities and feelings of failure to meet parental expectations. She had never married. Her special skill was in connecting people, and many friendships were fostered through enjoying hospitality at her home in Avalon, accompanied by ‘her great shouting laugh’ (Scarfe 1998, 26). Having been diagnosed with cancer, when it became apparent that it was terminal, she gifted possessions to friends and (a non-believer) arranged her own memorial service, to be followed by champagne from her own cellar. In November 1997 some two hundred friends, colleagues, and former students gathered at the Women’s College to mark the fortieth anniversary of her appointment as principal and to say goodbye. She died on 19 May 1998 at Wahroonga, and was cremated. Portraits by Kay McNaught (1961) and Cybele Day (1991) are held by Women’s College.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Annable, Rosemary. Doreen Langley: An Ordinary Person, an Extraordinary Life. Bundanoon, NSW: Brinkburn Publishing, 2013
  • Annable, Rosemary, ed. Biographical Register: The Women’s College within the University of Sydney. Vol. 2, 1940–1957. Sydney: Council of the Women’s College, 2005
  • Annable, Rosemary, ed. Biographical Register: The Women’s College within the University of Sydney. Vol. 3, 1958–1968. Sydney: Council of the Women’s College, 2007
  • Cotton, Michele. Speech at the opening of the Menzies Common Room and Langley Wing, 5 July 1969. Women’s College within the University of Sydney Calendar, 24. Sydney: The College, 1970
  • Dix, Ann. ‘Principally a Role Model.’ Australian, 3 June 1998, 14
  • Langley, D. M. ‘Autobiography 1920–1996.’ Unpublished typescript, n.d. Women’s College Archives
  • Langley, Doreen Moira. Interview by Christiana Campbell, 11 December 1984. Transcripts. International House oral history transcripts. University of Sydney Archives
  • Langley, Doreen Moira. Interview by Joyce Thomson, 23 August 1984. Transcript. Australian War Memorial
  • National Archives of Australia. A9300, LANGLEY D M
  • National Library of Australia. MS 9550, Papers of Doreen Langley, 1947–1990
  • Scarfe, Janet. ‘Doreen Moira Langley: Educator.’ Age (Melbourne), 9 June 1998, 26
  • Women’s College Archives. Doreen Langley Collection

Additional Resources

Citation details

Rosemary Annable, 'Langley, Doreen Moira (1920–1998)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2024, accessed online 24 June 2024.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Doreen Langley, n.d.

Doreen Langley, n.d.

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

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Life Summary [details]


23 January, 1920
London, Middlesex, England


19 May, 1998 (aged 78)
Wahroonga, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death

cancer (rectal)

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

Military Service
Key Events
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