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Diana Rosemary Howlett (1934–2018)

by R. Gerard Ward

Emeritus Professor Diana Rosemary Howlett, who died recently, was the second woman to be appointed a full professor at The Australian National University. This was in 1982. She was born in 1934 and grew up in the remote town of Ceduna, in the arid southwest of South Australia and later recalled that the nearest building with a staircase was 130 kilometres away, and she ‘didn’t see a river until she was 20, or anything that could be called a mountain until she was 24’. She hoped to become a high school teacher and had to move to Port Lincoln to complete secondary school, where one of her teachers for geography and English was Colin Thiele, to whom she often referred with great appreciation. She also recalled that in physics classes the boys could conduct experiments, but the girls could only watch! For her final year at school, she moved to Adelaide Girls High School, and then started a BA at Adelaide University, awarded with honours in 1956. Her honours thesis was on ‘Viticulture in the Barossa Valley’, and at that time she did not drink wine! She still had to complete a three-year bond for her Diploma in Secondary Education and her time at university, and taught at several high schools, including Port Augusta, Port Lincoln, Victor Harbour and Adelaide Girls High. She was also a part-time tutor at the University of Adelaide in 1958, where Sir Douglas Mawson and Professor Graham Lawton were important academic influences. Her graduate university career began when she was awarded a Commonwealth PhD scholarship and became a PhD student in 1959 in the Geography Department of the (then) Research School of Pacific Studies at the ANU, Canberra.

At the research school, her supervisor was Professor Harold Brookfield (but Professor Oskar Spate was also an important influence) and she began to study Papua New Guinea and soon began fieldwork in the PNG highlands. Her thesis investigated the impact on the indigenous socio-economy, after 1950, of the settlement of Europeans in a highland valley relatively near the town of Goroka. At the time it was fairly unusual for a woman to be working in such an isolated part of the highlands and she maintained contact with the people of the village and its neighbourhood for a long time. Her thesis, ‘A Decade of Change in the Goroka Valley, New Guinea: Land Use and Development in the 1950s’, led to her doctorate being completed in 1962 and conferred in 1963.

Her employment in universities began in 1962, as a research assistant in the New Guinea Research Unit at ANU, and then as a Teaching Fellow in Geography at the University of Sydney. She was appointed a Lecturer in Geography at the University of Sydney in March 1963 and continued on the staff there until 1967. Her link to the ANU was also renewed in 1965 when awarded an ANU Postdoctoral Travelling Fellowship to travel overseas and make professional contacts, while on study leave from Sydney. This enabled her to visit several countries in Southeast Asia and Europe, and spend a term at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London. It also included time spent in the Southeast Asia Program at Cornell University. In 1968 she spent time at the Institute of Planning, University of the Philippines, and later that year was appointed Associate Professor in Geography in the State University of New York, on the campus at Oneonta, northern New York State, USA.

Dr Howlett returned to Australia in December 1971 when appointed Research Fellow in the Department of Human Geography, Research School of Pacific Studies, and remained in Canberra at the ANU for the rest of her academic career. This meant that she was able to renew her interest in the geography of Papua New Guinea and most of her subsequent research writings concerned that country, although her first book on PNG, A Geography of Papua New Guinea, was published in 1967. A revised version of this volume was published six years later.

In 1979 she held a temporary post as Senior Lecturer in the Geography Department, followed by two years as Senior Research Fellow in the Development Studies Centre, RSPacS.

When the Foundation Professor of Geography, Basil Johnson, moved from the ANU to Britain in 1982, Diana Howlett was appointed to be Professor and Head of Department. At that time, the department was in the Faculty of Arts, but under her leadership it also joined the Faculty of Science, which added to its range of students. The department’s honours program was also expanded during her time as head of department, and she was head of department when a number of now senior geographers in Australia and overseas graduated.

In her own research work during the 1970s and early 1980s, she maintained her interest in Papua New Guinea, and for some years this included being involved in studies sponsored by the PNG Central Planning Office and the Australian Development Assistance Bureau, which led to the establishment of periodic markets in parts of the Highlands of PNG, and other development programs. One unusual publication was a volume published by the Government of Papua New Guinea in Melanesian Pidgin English entitled Simbu: long wanem rot? (Chimbu: Along what road?). This was a translation, by herself, of a jointly authored monograph (with R. Hide and E. Young) on development issues in the highlands province of Chimbu. It remains one of the very few volumes ever published in Melanesian Pidgin.

During her years in the School of General Studies, Professor Howlett served on a very large number of ANU committees. This was due in part to the University’s wish to involve women in more of its administrative activities at the time, and the relatively small number of women is senior positions in the 1980s and 1990s. She was also a member of the governing committees of several national organisations, including the Australian National Commission for UNESCO, the Rhodes Scholarship Committee and the Australian National Committee for Man and the Biosphere.

After her retirement from ANU in 1999, she was appointed an Emeritus Professor of ANU, and maintained her interest in the University. Throughout her life in Canberra she remained in close contact with her family in South Australia. Her health deteriorated in recent years, but she continued to live independently, aided by neighbours and friends. She was in hospital for some months in 2018, and died peacefully during the night of 9 August 2018 in the Calvary Hospital, Bruce, ACT.

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

R. Gerard Ward, 'Howlett, Diana Rosemary (1934–2018)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 20 April 2024.

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