Dr David Bottomley may look old, but he barely sounds it. Having recently completed his thesis, the 94-year-old now holds the title of ‘oldest PhD graduate in Australian history’.
When he speaks, it is evident he’s learned. He is eloquent, but not unfriendly, with bouts of hearty laughter interspersed throughout our conversation.
His trajectory gives life to the theory that to stay sharp, a person must continually learn. Bottomley, who initially taught science at a country boarding school in 1944, completed his Masters degree in 2008, aged 84, at the University of Melbourne, before embarking on his doctorate at Curtin University in 2012. He completed the latter, on ‘Science, Education and Social Vision of Five Nineteenth Century Headmasters’, with a resounding pass.
Far from being inhibited by his age, his supervisor, John Curtin Distinguished Professor David Treagust, said he was a “very dedicated student” who “progressed at an amazing rate”, even mastering the technology that he thought challenging. Despite having a knee operation, he didn’t take a single leave of absence of the seven-year course of his PhD. He even travelled to London to visit a museum’s archives to collect materials for his work, and presented at a conference in Canada just before Christmas last year. “He proudly told me that he was insured by a Japanese company, because they’re used to insuring old people,” Treagust said. “It was a pleasure to be working with him, with his constant diligence, self-criticism, and willingness to do more than what was necessary. He is a remarkable individual.”
This self-criticism was evident when Campus Review spoke to him. “I don’t know if my dithering will be helpful,” he said. He then proceeded to explain how he explored modern, 19th century approaches to science education in order to apply them to the contemporary context.
Despite going above and beyond in his thesis – Treagust repeatedly suggested he finish it but Bottomley (validly) protested – he called it “[just] a start”. Indeed, it was. He is not content for his PhD to linger on a bookshelf: he says he is enjoying all of the media attention he’s receiving because it’s helping him define the scope of his future work. “I have ideas,” he said. He has already contacted his business acquaintances (he worked as a market researcher for much for his 72-year career) as well as his local council and the Minster for Aged Care, to share them.
“I’m developing my personal program for the next five years,” he said. “It’s awfully challenging…I need to talk to the teachers of today to find out whether there is a synthesis between old and current ideas. Are there areas other than worrying about international test scores? I don’t know how it will work. I’m just trying to inform myself at the moment.”
When asked whether others found him inspiring, he matter-of-factly replied, “far from it – other people have much more to be proud of …” Yet, like the educators he researched, progressiveness is something he now stands for. Paralleling Nobel Prize Winner Donna Strickland in relation to her gender, when quizzed about his age, he minimised what others might perceive as a hindrance. “My age was not a factor among my cohort,” he said, describing his Masters study group, for example, as “very close and friendly”.
Treagust substantiated this. “He’s got a great sense of humour, he’s as sharp as a tack, and he doesn’t seem to forget anything,” he said. “My father died at that age, and he certainly couldn’t have handled it.”Do you have an idea for a story?
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