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A great explorer who left Australia's footprint in Antarctica

The Age

Friday March 12, 2010

By PETER LAW- The author is Phillip's younger brother.

Dr PHILLIP LAWANTARCTIC EXPLORER/EDUCATIONALIST21-4-191220-2-2010By PETER LAWPHILLIP Law was responsible for establishing Australia's permanent presence in Antarctica. He chose the sites and led or took part in 23 expeditions that set up the three Australian Antarctic stations, and was chairman of the Australian National Committee on Antarctic Research from 1966 until 1986. He has died aged 97.Considered one of Australia's greatest Antarctic explorers, he was also responsible for charting nearly 5000 kilometres of coastline and about a million square kilometres of the continent's interior. He liked to say: "I'm one of the last people in the world who's had the joy of new exploration."Law's life was truly remarkable. Overcoming a number of obstacles to complete his early tertiary education, he was successively a secondary school teacher, a scientist and a university lecturer, before becoming an Antarctic explorer. After that he became an educational administrator while also leading a rich non-professional life.He born in Tallangatta, the second of six children of Arthur and Lily Law. Matriculating at Hamilton High School in 1927, he first studied at Ballarat Teachers College, then at Melbourne Teachers College and eventually Melbourne University. He was the university lightweight boxing champion.In 1933 he was appointed science master at Clunes Higher Elementary School, transferring two years later to Elwood Central School and then Melbourne Boys High School. In 1938 he took two years' leave to do a master's degree in physics but Australia was engaged in World War II when he graduated. Although he enlisted in the RAAF, the university physics department, which was involved in weapons research, insisted he remain on this work. Still eager to see something of the war, Law arranged to visit the battle areas of New Guinea on a scientific mission for the Australian Army. He was away for four months.After the war, he lectured at the university, his speciality being cosmic rays.In 1947 the government established the Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions (ANARE) with three major aims: to establish research stations at Heard Island and at Macquarie Island and to dispatch a small ship, HMAS Wyatt Earp, to search for a suitable site for a station on the Antarctic continent.In August 1947 Law was seconded for one year to act as senior scientific officer of ANARE. He was to co-ordinate the scientific programs and to accompany the ship to carry out cosmic ray observations. The ship proved unsuitable for its task and failed to reach the continent but the cosmic ray work was successful.Law was appointed head of ANARE in January 1949 and director of the newly created antarctic division of the External Affairs Department. Within three weeks he was leading an expedition to relieve a party at Heard Island.For the next five years he designed and built up the administrative structure of the antarctic division, developed the Heard and Macquarie stations, and greatly extended the scientific programs. But his eyes were still focused upon Antarctica.In 1950 he joined, as an observer, the Norwegian-British-Swedish antarctic expedition to Queen Maud Land and afterwards was able to buy two of their leftover Auster aircraft.In 1952 Law heard that an ice-breaking ship was being built in Denmark to service lead mines in Greenland during the northern hemisphere summer. He approached the owners to see if they would charter the ship, Kista Dan, to ANARE during the northern winter. When they agreed, Law presented a detailed plan to the Australian government to establish a research station in Australian Antarctic Territory in 1954, using this ship. In January 1954 Law sailed with a pioneer party of 10 winterers to Heard Island, then south to MacRobertson Land.He used the Auster aircraft to discover a suitable station site and, after an adventurous series of events, set up Australia's first permanent Antarctic station and named it Mawson. On the return voyage from Mawson, Law made the first landing on the Vestfold Hills mainland, about 400 kilometres east of Mawson.In 1955 he closed down the Heard Island Station in order to fund extensions to the new Mawson Station.Law had noted that Vestfold Hills was an ideal place to establish a station. When he learned, in 1956, that the USSR was planning to set up stations in Australian Antarctic Territory, Law recommended to the Australian Government that ANARE should establish a station at Vestfold Hills to forestall any Russian entry and the result was Davis Station.Then in 1959 it took over a disused US base 2000 kilometres east of Davis Wilkes, which was replaced in 1969 by the nearby Casey base.Using spare ship time, Law explored 5000 kilometres of unknown coasts of Australian Antarctic Territory, while ANARE men at the stations explored almost a million square kilometres of the hinterland. By 1970 there was no longer any unmapped portion of Antarctica.In 1966, Law resigned to take up the position of executive vice-president of the Victoria Institute of Colleges to co-ordinate the activities of a number of vocationally oriented institutes of tertiary education. All those colleges are now either new universities or amalgamated with existing universities.His wife, Nel, died in December 1990; they had no children.

© 2010 The Age

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