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Henry, Neil Buchanan (1927–2009)

Neil Buchanan Henry was born on 22 November 1927 in Ipswich, Qld. He was educated at St Edmund’s Christian Brothers College there, later attending the Australian Forestry School (AFS) in 1949. His Canberra class was a large post-war intake with a total of 36 students.

Neil was a genius in terms of his mathematical and all-round intellectual skills. In time he received accolades from his bosses some of which were almost adulatory: ‘No finer officer ever existed in the Department and he was responsible for so many good things. Not only just as a mensurationist but as the Department’s first computer modeller. He developed with others the computerisation of volumation and valuation of the accounts to be sent to log purchasers, previously a tedious manual compilation, as well as pricing systems’. ‘He established spacing, tending, thinning and burning trials together with computational protocols that provided the core foundations of operational forestry, according to Dr. Gary Bacon.

In the late 1960s selected Forestry staff including Dick Pegg attended a course on computing. On its completion, Lew Rogers, Deputy Conservator addressed the group and asked if there was anybody present who had not learnt anything to raise his hand. Neil raised his. Lew then said he would have been disappointed if Neil had learnt something considering the training the Department had already given him.

Neil was a bit of a prankster, who loved innocent practical jokes and used his imagination to further his oblique and puckish sense of humour. At one stage he invented a device activated by a button powered by a battery. It looked innocuous enough sitting on his desk. However, when a person whom he disliked entered Neil’s office, spoke to him and moved to leave, Neil would activate the little device. Out would spring a small fist, tightly-clenched, with a pair of inverted V-shaped fingers pointed towards the slowly closing door. And of course Neil was famous for his rubber stamp on which was embossed the word BULLSHIT. He probably used it a lot.

Norm Clough remembers one memorable time at the Gympie Training Centre, when Neil explained a point by filling the whiteboard with a gigantic equation. Norm says, ‘I doubt anyone in the room had a clue, but you can bet Neil had it right’.

There was a tree named after him. At that time it was called Eucalyptus henryi, Broad-leaved Spotted Gum; now it’s in the genus Corymbia. It grows in the northern suburbs of Brisbane and west of the City towards Ipswich. Such was his interest and curiosity in the world around him. As friend Gary Bacon movingly said, ‘He will continue to dwell in the forests he respected through his spotted gum namesake’.

On the subject of botany Bernie Hyland has the following comments: ‘About 1963, the District Forester, Atherton instructed me to compile a manual which would enable departmental staff to identify the trees in north Queensland rain forests. I had what I thought was a bright idea: Make the manual in the form of a card key. Neil suggested that we try using the 80 column punch cards, which the computers used at that time for data entry. In 1971, with Neil’s help and advice we produced A Card Key to the Rain Forest Trees of North Queensland. Neil wrote the necessary programs and we were soon identifying specimens by computer.’

Tom Ryan also remembers Neil’s love of botany and the ‘bush’: ‘His love of nature covered a wide spectrum. He was also a keen photographer and recorded anything of his particular interest. On one occasion he was found on his knees and elbows on a Beerburrum forest road with his camera aimed virtually point blank at the face of a blue tongue lizard. When asked what he was doing he said, “I am persuading him to poke out his tongue so that I can get a good shot.” This was Neil Henry, very intelligent, very gentle but a very persuasive man.’ Tom also tells of Neil’s eccentricity: ‘Back in the 1960s Caribbean Pine, as then introduced to Queensland, had wide genetic diversity. Some trees were heavily branched. Others grew a stem to thirty feet with only needles (but without branches). Neil cultivated such a tree at his Ipswich home—which must have been a pleasure to Neil but an oddity to his neighbours.’

Another story of Neil’s ingenuity and fondness for nature is from Syd Curtis: ‘In 1968, I mentioned to Neil that I wanted to tape-record an Albert Lyrebird but that they were extremely shy and it was most difficult to get close enough for a good recording. A few days later Neil presented me with a long cable to enable me to place my microphone near where the bird would sing, and connect it to my recorder back in a place of concealment. It worked beautifully.’

I once sent an invention of mine to Neil for comment. It was a hand—held device for measuring the degrees of lean and bend of plantation trees. I included a page of paper explaining the trigonometry of the mechanism. Neil responded that my trigonometry was sound, but he sent me some of his own which explained the working of the device in just three lines. I was slightly miffed but deeply impressed.

Neil was generous with his time, always willing to help out and give advice when requested. ‘He certainly was one of the brightest and well read foresters we have been fortunate to have known’, says Keith Jennings. A little known fact was Neil’s interest in woodworking. He was an artist, in which perfection was his goal and achievement. No surprise there (Tim Yorkston).

A final few words from Neil’s colleague Dr. Ian Bevege:

‘Neil was the original self-effacing quiet
achiever, a thoroughly professional
forester whose interesting personal
advancement through “the system”
came a poor second best to his love for
forestry and dedication to the job in
hand, whatever that may have been at
the time. Consequently he was very
much in demand by the hierarchy for all
sorts of “one off” tasks, which he
always tackled with gusto tempered by
not little whimsy. A polymath with an
insatiable curiosity, a giant intellect but
eschewing the posturing of the
intellectual, Neil was widely read and
could and would discourse learnedly on
all sorts of surprising topics, especially
on the rare occasion when his guard
was down and memory lubricated a
little by a drop of fine red. A great
colleague, lively companion and good
friend.’

Farewell Neil Buchanan Henry.

Original publication

  • Forester, vol 52, no 3, September 2009, pp 9-10

Citation details

'Henry, Neil Buchanan (1927–2009)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/henry-neil-buchanan-18329/text29941, accessed 20 September 2017.

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