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Phillip Garth Law (1912–2010)

by Malcolm Brown

Phillip Law, in a brilliant, rollicking life that helped open up the Antarctic, building on the pioneering work of Mawson, Scott and Shackleton, had the advantages of aircraft and radio communications. But in an environment so extreme, it sometimes came to back to raw instinct.

Such as the time he had been flying for three hours, leaving his ship in an open pool of water more than 1.5 kilometres wide – a ''pond'' that could be seen from a distance and guide him back to the ship. But when he made his return, the pack ice had set in, the pond was no more and there were no landmarks.

''So we were flying round trying desperately to think of some way of finding the ship,'' Law recounted years later to the Australian Academy of Science.

''Finally, I radioed the ship, 'Get every pair of binoculars on board, give them to the men and then assemble them on that monkey island above the bridge. Divide the sky into sectors and let each man look for us in one sector.' One bloke picked us up as a spot in the sky and then they were able to talk us in by radio.'' The landing was completed, not without hazard, and the day was saved.

Phillip Garth Law was born on April 21, 1912, at Tallangatta, Victoria, second son of a schoolteacher, Arthur Law, and Lillie (nee Chapman). He went to Hamilton High School, but from his teenage years was attracted to the wild, first to the nearby Grampian Ranges, then to the Australian Alps.

He took to reading the Antarctic books and the feats of the earliest explorers. He studied science at Melbourne University, went school teaching and skied on home-made skis. He also played music and boxed as an amateur. In 1939 he returned to study full-time and completed an MSc in physics in 1941. That year he married a teacher, artist and writer, Nellie Allan.

Law was employed on wartime research projects, becoming secretary of the Scientific Instruments and Optical Panel. He even went on a three-month tour of the battlefronts in New Guinea to look at problems of munitions optics.

Law grabbed the chance when Australia started its Antarctic research in 1947 to become chief scientist and went on the first of 28 trips with the Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions.

In 1949 he was appointed its head and director of the Antarctic Division of the Commonwealth Department of External Affairs. His task was to map more than 5000 kilometres of coast and more than a million square kilometres of territory.

''We had a claim in Antarctica based upon Mawson's work, and the government, in supporting the expeditions, wanted to consolidate that claimed territory,'' Law said later. ''So it was a question of our landing on unknown coasts, raising the flag and claiming territory for the Queen (or the King, as the case might be). The whole idea behind it was the possible ultimate value of Antarctic territory from a commercial point of view.''

In 1954, Law established Australia's first permanent base, Mawson. During the International Geophysical Year in 1957, it became apparent that the Soviets were intent on setting up stations in Australian Antarctic territory. Law advised the Australian government on where to set up Davis station in the Vestfold Hills. The Americans set up Wilkes station in the Windmill Islands, which Australia then took over. These stations deprived the Soviets of the only viable places on some 6400 kilometres of coast. Another base, Casey, was built to replace Wilkes, which had become uninhabitable.

But Law encountered infighting in the Commonwealth bureaucracy. When in 1960 he was awarded the Royal Geographical Society's Founder's Medal, an honour also bestowed on the likes of David Livingstone, Robert O'Hara Burke and Sir Douglas Mawson, the boffins declined permission for Law to travel to Britain to pick it up personally. But he received excellent support from the Minister for External Affairs, R.G. Casey.

In 1961, he achieved two things. One was becoming a Commander of the British Empire. The other was that, with last-minute approval from his then minister, John Gorton, he got Nellie aboard an Antarctic vessel – she was the first Australian woman to set foot on the Antarctic continent. In 1962, he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Melbourne.

In 1966, frustrated by the lack of government funding and by public service obstruction, Law moved on, though he became chairman of the Australian Committee for Antarctic Research.

He served on a committee investigating the administration of the University of Melbourne. As executive vice-president of the Victoria Institute of Colleges, he ran into further political and bureaucratic squabbling but changed the status and scope of colleges and won the battle to replace diplomas with degrees. He also served as president of the Royal Society of Victoria and president of the Victorian Institute for Marine Sciences.

In 1975 he was awarded the Order of Australia (AO). From 1978 to 1980, he was foundation president of the Australia-New Zealand Scientific Exploration Society. In 1987, Australia established another base, in the Larsemann Hills in Antarctica, naming it Law.

Continuing his links with Antarctica, in retirement he gave lectures and wrote books. Nellie died in 1990. Law was made a Commander of the Order of Australia (AC) in 1995.

Law is survived by his brother, Peter, sister, Wendy, and many nieces and nephews. A memorial service is being planned in Melbourne next month.

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Citation details

Malcolm Brown, 'Law, Phillip Garth (1912–2010)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 22 June 2024.

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