Proving age is no barrier: social worker earns PhD at 90

University of Queensland

Dr Bronwyn Herbert is the embodiment of lifelong learning.

At the age of 90, the long-time social worker is graduating from The University of Queensland after completing her PhD thesis on the generational impacts of homelessness.

“Over many years I noticed that some young people who’d been homeless as children with their parents were falling into homelessness as adults, and I wondered what we could have done differently to prevent this intergenerational problem,” Dr Herbert said.

“There was little written about how early homelessness affected their relationships, education, and employment, so I decided to follow that up and try and close some of those gaps with information.”

Dr Herbert stopped working in the field at 81 – a time when most people are well into retirement.

“I only retired because I wanted to get onto my thesis and I really hadn’t had enough time to work on it,” Dr Herbert said.

Her PhD in social work from UQ’s School of Nursing, Midwifery and Social Work is the culmination of a lifetime of improving the lives of others, which began after she suffered a terrible loss.

Her first husband, a medical student, died on her 23rd birthday when she was pregnant with their first child.

A few months later and still grieving, she gave birth to daughter Katrina.

“They didn’t know what to do with a young widow at the hospital, so they put me in a room across the corridor from a mother whose baby was stillborn,” Dr Herbert explained.

“It made me realise that some young mothers are suffering grief, broken marriages, domestic violence and some had suffered abuse, and they needed more support.

“My brother was a lecturer in psychology, and he told me about a new course being offered at UQ.”

In 1961, Dr Herbert enrolled in the Bachelor of Social Work and her long connection to UQ the Bachelor of Social Work and her long connection to UQ began.

An old black and white photograph of a family of a father, mother, and four children ranging in age from baby to teenager

She later remarried and, after the birth of her second child Jeff, she discontinued her studies to raise her family and went on to have two more children – Tim and Anthony.

It was only when Katrina was finishing school and considering career options that Dr Herbert was re-acquainted with an old university friend who urged her to re-commence her studies.

She graduated in 1982 and commenced what has been a long and distinguished career helping families in crisis.

“In my 50s, when many people were thinking about lessening their workload and perhaps retirement, I was all enthusiastic and just wanted to get going,” Dr Herbert remarked.

“And I kept going until I was 81!”

Dr Herbert had to overcome adversity again during her PhD, when her son Jeff, also a social worker, died suddenly.

There were her own health issues and then in 2022 her husband, Anglican clergyman Ronald Herbert, passed away at the age of 95.

During Bronwyn’s PhD candidature she was advised by late Emeritus Professor Jill Wilson AO, Dr Jemma Venables and Professor Cameron Parsell.

Professor Parsell, from the School of Social Science, paid tribute to her achievements describing them as ” truly outstanding”.

“Bronwyn faced her fair share of obstacles, but her accomplishments are testimony to her ability to never give up, and to see the opportunities in problems,” Professor Parsell said.

“She is a remarkable scholar who embodies the ethical and solution focused research central to UQ’s vision.”

While Dr Herbert’s experience as a young widow sparked her interest in social work, caring for those less fortunate goes back a little further.

Her father, Hugh Albert Irvine (Bert) and his brother Sam managed Irvines department store at Wynnum on Brisbane’s bayside, which opened in 1901.

During the war years and The Great Depression, the store supported many unemployed locals with groceries and clothing.

The store was sold in 1966 and later demolished to make way for Government offices, including Social Security.

Now that Dr Herbert’s PhD is completed, she plans to spend time with her beloved family – many of whom are also in the caring professions.

Daughter Katrina and son Tim went into the teaching profession, Jeff became a social worker while her youngest son, Anthony, became a doctor.

He is currently a senior lecturer at UQ’s Faculty of Medicine.

She said there was also more work to be done.

“I’d like to do some writing about interesting cases I’ve had,” she said.

“I believe we need to record some of the amazing outcomes some families have achieved in spite of the trauma they were experiencing – both financial and emotional”.

Timeline of achievements

1983 – 1996

  • Began social work career at not-for-profit Silky Oaks, initially in the Youth Hostel and Alternative Care Program, then as Manager, Family Care and Support Program for homeless and families in crisis
  • Masters of Social Work in 1995 – “Families in Crisis – an Educational / Therapeutic Support Group”
  • Selected for Best Practice Service Documentation by the Department of Family and Community Services, Queensland, 1995

1996 – 2004

  • Royal Children’s Hospital – Coordinator of the Parent Aide Unit
  • State Winner, Queensland Health, Community Link Volunteer Awards, 2001
  • Australia Day Achievement Award, Royal Children’s Hospital and Health Services District, 2001

2004 – 2012

  • Silky Oaks – Program Manager of Child, Youth and Family, Care
  • Professional Excellence in Housing Award (Silky Oaks Housing Program) – Australian Housing Institute, 2009
  • Tom Burns Community Service Award, 2014

2012 – present

  • PhD
  • Supervised more than 30 UQ students

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