Australian Antarctic explorer dies

By Rebecca Courtney 6 July 2010
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Alf Howard, who was aboard Douglas Mawson’s 1929-31 expedition to Antarctica, has died.

ALF HOWARD, AUSTRALIAN EXPLORER, scientist, educator and last remaining member of Sir Douglas Mawson’s 1929-31 expedition to Antarctica, died peacefully in his sleep on 4 July, at the age of 104.

Along with famed photographer Frank Hurley, Alf was aboard Discovery on the British, Australian and New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition (BANZARE) led by Mawson.

Alf, the youngest member of the team at 23 years old, was recruited as a hydrologist and chemist.

Mawson described him as being responsible for “the taking of sea-water temperatures and the collection and chemical examination of sea-water samples”.  

Further, he commended Alf’s role on board the Discovery, recounting the valuable scientific work undertaken as a delicate and difficult operation.  

Pictures of Alf during this time show him lurching over the side of the ship, precariously perched upon a ledge above the open freezing sea and strapped in with a harness around his waist to collect water samples.

He was born in Camberwell, Victoria, and received his first of five degrees, a Bachelor of Science, at the University of Melbourne in 1927.  

Later studies included a PhD in linguistics and an honorary doctorate in statistics from the University of Queensland, an institution with which he had an association of almost 50 years.

His love of science and education ensured he was a valuable addition to the Department of Human Movement Studies at UQ in his later years, where he worked as an honorary computer programmer and statistics adviser until 2003, at the age of 97.

Alf is described as much more than the man who accompanied Mawson on the well-documented expedition to Antarctica.

He is remembered by former colleague Professor Doune Macdonald, Head of the School of Human Movement Studies at UQ, as “a practical man, generous with his time and with prodigious skills in helping generations of students”.

Doune recalls fondly Alf’s daily morning ritual of making a pot of tea – tea bags would not suffice – and that he walked to work despite his age.

Alf was also a lover of classical music – Mozart was his favourite – and an avid reader of anything scientific.  “Fiction”, he would say, “is frivolous.”

He was also generous financially, donating in 2005 a considerable sum of money for a computer laboratory for undergraduate students and spending his retirement years as an Honorary Research Fellow, volunteering his time. He once indicated that all he needed was a UQ red parking sticker and a library card.

The 1990s saw him return many times to Antarctica. One occasion was in 1991 with an Australian Geographic Society trip, which was led by Dick Smith, where they visited Mawson’s Hut. In 2001 he was presented with the Australian Geographic Society Lifetime of Adventure award.

His funeral is being held on 9 July at 2.30 p.m. at Mt Thompson Crematorium in Holland Park, Brisbane. The University of Queensland will mark the day by flying flags at half mast.

Alf Howard (bottom left) with the crew of Mawson’s 1929-1931 Antarctic expedition, aboard the Discovery.
(Photo: National Library of Australia)