Vale: Phillip Garth Law AC, CBE, 1912–2010

‘Greetings! It has been an eventful year… Notably, I have had three portraits painted, which is remarkable at my age… I tore an artery in my ankle and was taken by ambulance to hospital… it bled again… I left my old house is Stanley Grove… one of the most dramatic and difficult events of my life… celebrated my 95th birthday with a dinner for 160 people at the Melbourne Club… one of the greatest evenings of my life… flew to Hobart to attend… Midwinter Dinner and the Phillip Law Lecture… spent 5 days in hospital… In February Vic Roads cancelled my driving licence. I passed various tests in October and had it restored. So here I am back to normal, at Christmas.'

Thus wrote Phil Law, Antarctic scientist, explorer and administrator, academic, and tertiary education pioneer, in his personal Christmas letter 2007. This note, outlining one year in his 98, illustrated both the meticulous records that he kept as well as how he shared his distinguished, challenging, adventurous and exciting life with others.

The unique archival collection of Law’s diaries, correspondence, reports, interviews, films, lectures, photographs, papers and books in the National Library of Australia, which traces his life, family, education and careers, makes him arguably one of the most recorded persons in Australian history. Despite the difficulty of competing with such an archive, this brief tribute on his Antarctic period comments on Phil Law the mentor, Antarctic scientist, colleague and friend to all his expeditioners. Building on Sir Douglas Mawson’s legacy, Law developed the Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions (ANARE), despite less than adequate finances, staff and facilities, and laid the foundations for Australia’s current Antarctic commitment, research and influence.

Seconded from his lecturer position in the Physics Department at the University of Melbourne in July 1947, Law became Senior Scientific Officer in an expedition which, soon afterwards, was given the official title of ANARE. Scientific programs were organised for the newly established Heard Island and Macquarie Island stations and Law performed cosmic ray observations on the less than successful Antarctic voyage of HMAS Wyatt Earp; his personal account of this voyage is a classic and details the intriguing happenings after the voyage. On 18 May 1948 ANARE was formally incorporated into the Department of External Affairs and an Antarctic Division (AD) of the Department was created, with Law being appointed Officer-in-charge of the AD (succeeding Stuart Campbell as Leader of ANARE) on 3 January 1949. The title of Director came later. In 1950 Law spent a summer with the Norwegian-British-Swedish Antarctic Expedition to the Weddell Sea. The charter of the suitably ice-strengthened Kista Dan, enabled the establishment of Mawson Station in MacRobertson Land in 1954 and Davis Station in the Vestfold Hills in 1957. Law oversaw the transfer of Wilkes from the USA to Australia in 1959 and planned its replacement by Casey station from 1965; it was opened in 1969, three years after Law resigned from the AD. During his tenure Law explored over 5,000 km of coastal Antarctica, and station personnel, using aircraft (including wintering RAAF crews), tractor traverses and dog teams, explored and mapped over one million kilometres of territory.

Despite the high cost of Antarctic logistics, a limited budget and science being secondary to the political considerations of exploration and sovereignty, scientific research was accomplished. A small AD headquarters, housed in a number of locations in Melbourne, worked with government agencies and universities and developed its own research capabilities in auroral and upper atmospheric physics, glaciology, medical studies and human physiology. All scientist and lay staff were encouraged to publish in major journals, and a very successful ANARE publications series was established. From 1953–1957 Law was a member of the Australian Committee, International Geophysical Year (IGY). It was largely due to his efforts that ANARE took part in the IGY in 1957–58, and that Australia became a founding member of the International Council of Scientific Unions’ (ICSU) Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR). Law’s involvement in SCAR was renewed after he left the AD and again became Chairman of the Australian Academy of Science’s National Committee for Antarctic Research (ANCAR) from 1966–1980.

The AD headquarters had a relaxed atmosphere despite deadlines due to the short, intense, Antarctic summer field season. Law was demanding but his personality, determination, enthusiasm, work ethic, sense of fairness, attention to detail and involvement of all meant a loyal and dedicated staff who could see him at any time through his ‘open door'. Morning and afternoon teas were held in one room, where everyone was expected to attend; much business being transacted during these interludes. Law was also a great communicator and master of publicity, and publicity did much for the success of both the AD and ANARE. He had a knack of getting what he wanted from External Affairs where his style was much more direct and argumentative. He confessed to finding the bureaucracy at times stultifying.

In an unusual divisional structure, in addition to the Assistant Directors (Logistics and Scientific), four other positions came directly under Law's control – Photography, Publications and Public Relations, Library and Information Service, and Geography and Place Names – reflecting his attitude to publicity. The AD library, records systems, and Law Collection of thousands of photographic slides result from this policy. Dating from the Heroic Age, publicity has always been important to polar endeavour. From the inception of ANARE, journalists, photographers and authors were among expedition staff. Seeing the need for recognition of expeditioners, dignitaries farewelled every voyage, and met each individual voyager. Typical of the releases was this heading from a 1965 ANARE Newsletter, published in Antarctic (Vol 4, p23):

'Never a dull moment in the Australian Antarctic

Closing one station, re-siting another, forced landings, a huge ice breakout, searching for men marooned by blizzards, an aircraft sinking through thin ice: all these have been taken in their stride by ANARE men in the course of a full Antarctic programme this summer.'

A common perception in the parent department in Canberra was that the high profile of the AD and its leader meant both were untouchable.

Although today much of pre-embarkation training and the conduct of Antarctic station life is taken for granted, when it was introduced in the 1940s and 1950s it was very innovative. As well as developing equipment and supplies, policies had to be laid down, and selection methods established. Accomplished at many sports, Law introduced pre-departure gym classes and swimming at the YMCA. Some of his other innovative actions included: a plethora of manuals; indoctrination week lectures; an alcohol policy; the taking of Boy Scouts to Macquarie Island; the training of doctors and lay assistants at the Royal Melbourne Hospital; a Personal Cables Officer to handle personal telegrams and communications between Australia and Antarctica; excellent food and wines; and music and libraries on the stations. Law’s 1959 Sir Richard Stawell Oration, published later in the Medical Journal of Australia as Personality Problems in Antarctica, and his 1957 Annie B Cunningham Lecture on Nutrition in the Antarctic are seminal international works on these subjects.

On voyages, no one will forget putting on a tie and jacket for dinner each night, or pre-dinner drinks on a rotational basis with Law and his deputy, or Phil smoking a cigar with a glass of wine alongside, playing his squeeze box or piano-accordion all night as everyone sang from the ANARE Song Book. Law’s ability to catnap before making a landing was amazing; fully clothed with pack on back he would lie on the Leader’s Cabin floor waiting to embark on boat, pontoon or DUKW (amphibious truck). Favourable weather and ice conditions were frequently referred to as ‘Law Luck', while the catchcry ‘too much Law and not enough order’ was often recited during periods of boredom, or when only a few persons got ashore at a landing, or cargo operations did not go to plan.

Dr Law achieved wide recognition for his contribution to the Antarctic, science, education and the community with many decorations, awards and accolades, including a CBE 1961, AO 1975, and AC 1995. A man of great principle, Law declined an OBE and although awarded a Polar Medal in 1965, he declined that also until 1996, when he received it at an investiture at Buckingham Palace. A base, plateau, islands and promontory are all named for Law, but he considered the only ‘decent’ feature his name appeared on was Law Dome; the reason for this, in Law’s opinion, being his chairmanship or membership of the Australian Committee on Antarctic Names for nearly 40 years.

No memoir on Phil Law is complete without reference to his wife Nel, the first Australian woman to visit Antarctica. An accomplished artist she painted a fine Antarctic series. Concerned with, and a great supporter of ‘those left behind', she was instrumental in establishing the Antarctic Wives Association. After her death in 1990 Phil sent a letter to friends and colleagues overseas; an excerpt reveals her influence and the support she gave to her husband-

‘Nel was a remarkable woman – beautiful, intelligent, talented and, above all, happy. I look back gratefully upon our long marriage – 48 years. She put up with my long and frequent absences, she supported me loyally in my various careers and she had a profound cultural influence upon my life. Ours was a union of passionate love and deep mutual affection.'

Until his death Dr Law kept an intense interest in matters Antarctic, especially the AD. Changes to organization, policy, logos and errors in books or papers gained sharp rebuke as authors and later directors found. His greatest disappointment was changing the title ANARE to Australian Antarctic program, some 50 years after ANARE became a household name and in Australian dictionaries.

Phil Law’s life was extraordinary and he shared it with all through his brilliant communication skills. His influence on ANARE personnel was considerable and he followed careers with great interest. It is fortunate for future generations that the nation has such a record of the life and work of Phillip Garth Law.

Desmond Lugg

Australian Antarctic Division 1962–64 and 1968–2001

Read an interview with Phillip Law in 1999