Mildred Barnard Prentice

By Helen WolffMarch 25th, 2021

Early life

Mildred Barnard was born in Melbourne but when she was four the family moved to the newly established Royal Military College at Duntroon, Canberra where her father was Professor of Mathematics from 1912-22. Her mother, while not highly educated herself, came from a professional family.

Mildred and her older sister were boarders at MCEGGS, so Duntroon was mainly a holiday experience. Mildred enjoyed boarding school life, even sleeping outside on the boarding house balcony in all weather. ‘I was strong’ she said. When the civil staff at Duntroon was retrenched in 1922, her parents returned to Melbourne where her father was appointed senior lecturer in mathematics at Melbourne University. Fourteen-year-old Mildred, with the benefits of a scholarship, elected to remain a boarder. ‘I was never a day girl for any length of time’, she recalls with satisfaction.

Tertiary education and early career

Mildred could easily have aspired to medicine or studied law, but she was strongly encouraged by her remarkable mathematics teacher, Miss Winifred Waddell, to continue with mathematical subjects. (A graduate of the University of London, Miss Waddell similarly fired Nancy Millis and the Laby sisters, among others.)

Her parents did not seek to influence her choice of subjects or career aspirations although their approval and support were very important to her. She was fortunate in belonging to that financially comfortable section of Melbourne society which did not discourage girls of ability from continuing to study. Mildred completed Leaving Honours in 1925 and won a senior government scholarship.

Although she was not especially young for university by the standards of the time, she stayed at school for another year to broaden her general education, studying French and further English amongst her other subjects.

It was a mature and independent young women who took up a residential scholarship at Janet Clarke Hall, Melbourne University, in 1927. She found her lecturers kindly and considerate and here too her father had some direct influence – as one of her lecturers.

With mathematics as her principal study, she graduated BA (Hons) in 1930. On reflection, she felt that there were no barriers to the determined. A Dixson research scholarship enabled her to complete a B.Sc. in physics the following year and an MA (Hons) in 1932.

Her research, under the supervision of Professor J. H.  Michell, was in continuum mechanics: the flexure of a plane elastic plate which has in it a straight crack or split, the practical application being the study of cracks in dam walls. About this time she was awarded the Nanson prize for further postgraduate research.

For the next two years Barnard tutored at the university, at Janet Clarke Hall and at Trinity College. In those years of deep depression she felt fortunate to be working at something for which she was trained. Meanwhile she also turned her attention to a newly developing branch of mathematics. In 1934 she eagerly attended the first course in mathematical statistics given at Melbourne University. The lecturer was Dr Maurice Belz (later Professor of Statistics at the university). She also completed an innovative elementary practical course given by Dr Geoffrey Leeper in the Agriculture Department.

The problem-solving element of statistics appealed more to Barnard than ‘pure’ mathematics, and she was most fortunate in finding herself in contact with some crucial new developments in this area in Australia. In 1928, Sir John Russell, director of Rothamsted Experimental Station in England, had visited Australia and aroused the enthusiasm of David Rivett, head of the CSIR, in the statistical work being done under Russell by R. A. Fisher. Rivett offered a studentship for a graduate to go to Rothamsted to gain first-hand experience of this work and then return to CSIR for three years. Betty Allan, a distinguished recent graduate of Melbourne University, was selected. Allan was a graduate of MCEGGS, another of Miss Waddell’s proteges, and a friend of Barnard’s older sister. She had also been a resident tutor at Janet Clarke Hall. She, more than anyone else, encouraged Barnard to develop her interest in biometrics and to approach Rivett. He strongly suggested study for a doctorate with R. A. Fisher: ‘Wherever he is, go and find him’. He made it clear that she would be a valuable asset to CSIR if she returned with the qualification, but he had no scholarships to offer at that stage of the Depression.

Self-reliant and highly motivated, Barnard needed only finance. Her application for a women graduates’ scholarship was unsuccessful and so she borrowed from her parents. Her older sister, a teacher at MCEGGS, also helped, though sadly she did not live to share Barnard’s achievements.

She arrived for the start of the northern hemisphere academic year in 1934 and began work under Fisher at University College, London:

Undoubtedly it was a most stimulating, if somewhat bewildering, atmosphere for a young graduate to work in. New and more complicated experimental designs were being introduced and analysed by means of the analysis of variance techniques discovered by Fisher, but, at the same time, the basic tests of significance involved were the subject of controversy and disagreement.

Barnard’s first year of research involved the application of discriminant functions to the secular variations in seven skull characters as displayed in four groups of Egyptian skulls-each group coming from a different dynasty. The result was a ‘uniquely determined linear combination of four of the characters which seem to capture the variations over time very well’. In late 1935 she transferred to Rothamsted Agricultural Experimental Station in Hertfordshire, a research centre accredited by London University to work under Dr Frank Yates. Her research here produced substantial publications, on confounding in 2n factorial experiments, and on the associations between meteorological factors and measurements of growth of wheat crops.

Time at CSIRO

Immediately after her PhD was awarded in 1936, CSIRO offered her an appointment. She was granted £50 to visit some other experimental stations in the United Kingdom before returning, then she spent three months in Canberra with Betty Allan getting acclimatised. She finally began duties at the South Melbourne headquarters of CSIR Forest Products Division in January 1937.

The main areas under investigation at this time were timber seasoning, timber physics, wood structure, wood utilisation, timber mechanics, wood preservation and wood chemistry.

There was a lot of scope for difficult and interesting statistical work. Investigations carried out included experiments to determine the holding power of different types of coach screws, the efficiencies of different types of casein glue, the uniformity of pore sizes, the personal bias of different observers in the Wood Structure section, and the effects of treatments on the serviceability (‘lifetime’) of railway sleepers and telegraph poles. Regression relationships were sought between properties of timber such as specific gravity, number of growth rings per inch and percent summerwood, and the modulus of rupture … Other properties of wood investigated included toughness, bending moments, and air dry intensity and shrinkage (in tangential, radial and longitudinal directions).

Much of this work would now be characterised as routine, but at the rime it broke new ground. So new was the application to timber that she prepared a booklet on Elementary Statistics for Timber Research Workers in 1939.

Thus far there was little to distinguish Barnard’s career path from that of any similarly able and motivated male colleague, but only single women could work for CSIR. In 1939 she married Sydney Prentice, at that time an electrical engineer with the State Electricity Commission of Victoria (SEC). They had first met as students at Melbourne University and later they travelled together as part of a group in England while he was working there as a graduate apprentice. Had he been on staff at Melbourne University for some years before joining the SEC in 1937. Since it was wartime and statisticians were scarce, Dr Prentice ‘was graciously permitted to stay on a temporary basis’. She finally resigned in 1941 when her first child was on the way.

Career highlights and other organisations

Apart from some part-time lecturing at Melbourne University and tutoring at the Women’s college, Dr Prentice was fully occupied tutoring at the Women’s College, Dr Prentice was fully occupied with her three girls and a boy between 1941 and 1956. In 1950 Sydney Prentice was appointed Foundation Professor of Electrical Engineering at Queensland University and they moved to Brisbane. It was not till they took sabbatical leave overseas in 1956 that Dr Prentice began to think about resuming her career. She ‘met a lot of old friends who asked, “What are you doing with yourself?” They were surprised that I was not doing anything in the statistical field’. She was, however, a little apprehensive after such a long break. About this time, a friend in the mathematics department of Queensland University, Henry Finucan, suggested that she start with some demonstrating to night classes. She enjoyed the work and gradually increased her commitment until 1970 when she was appointed full-time lecturer in mathematical statistics. In 1972 she was elected first chairwoman of the Brisbane Branch of the International Biometrics Society, Australasian Region.

Dr Prentice retired in 1978. She and her husband travelled widely and involved themselves in community work. They also published the results of their genealogical research in the book Bear and Forebear.

Honours and awards

1972 Career position – First Chairwoman of the Brisbane Branch of the International Biometrics Society, Australasian Region


Rasmussen, Carolyn, ‘Science was so Much More Exciting: Six Women in the Physical Sciences’ in On the Edge of Discovery: Australian Women in Science, Farley Kelly, ed. (Melbourne: Text Publishing Company, 1993), pp. 105-131

Reproduced with permission from the University of Melbourne.

Further reading