Doctor Phillip Law: Explorer who led more than two dozen expeditions to Antarctica

Click to follow

Toward the end of of a tumultuous, death-defying life Phillip Law felt moved to write a book because he was fed up with people assuming that his being still alive proved that he never took risks.

Law was Australia's "Mr Antarctica". In the 1950s and '60s he was the be-all and end-all of Australia's Antarctic programme, which he created and drove. But fame, he claimed, came 50 years late to survivors like him while spectacular failures had books, films and hero worship devoted to their tragedies and travails.

"If I'd died of natural causes 50 years ago I would have been nothing", he said wryly in 2008, adding: "Scott, Shackleton, Mawson and such men ... I explored 10 times as much as all of them put together."

It was true. Phillip Law personally led 23 voyages to Antarctica, made 28 first landings at sites hitherto unvisited by man and directed Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions (ANARE) activities which resulted in the mapping of 4,000 miles of coastline and 800,000 square miles of territory. He set up Australia's three Antarctic stations and firmly established his country as a world leader on the icebound continent.

In his book Law reckoned to have faced the imminent prospect of death at least 25 times in Antarctica, and there were other adventures from his youth in which he might also well have died. Yet he insisted that as a lad he was a risk-averse conformist by nature. It was his brother Geoffrey, he insisted, who was the rebellious one, contemptuous of authority. It was a conscious decision at the age of about 15, Phillip Law said, that he would have more fun and enjoy life better if he abandoned his cautious attitudes and followed Geoffrey's example.

Phillip Law was one of six children. His father, a teacher, was a disciplinarian with a propensity to beat his children with a strap or lock them in a dark cupboard for misbehaviour. The infant Phillip had a happier relationship with his grandfather, who took him up the hill behind their house to cook sausages and make billy tea in the "mountains", experiences which Law remembered as "magic".

Phillip Law did well at Hamilton High School, and started teaching at 16 to help pay for further studies at Ballarat Teachers' College and Melbourne University. He went camping, bush-walking, mountaineering and rock-climbing in the Grampians and Australian Alps, took up skiing and was an all-round sportsman, boxing, swimming and playing football before gaining his MSc in physics in 1941. He married shortly after graduating.

He volunteered as an RAAF trainee pilot and navigator, but was told it was more important for him to remain at university, so he set up and vigorously promoted a student organisation which he called University National Service intended to help the war effort. Recruited as a physicist to the optical munitions panel of the Department of Munitions he was sent to New Guinea to find a way of inhibiting the fungal growth which quickly obscured optical instruments in tropical humidity.

When he heard after the war that Australia wanted to resume research in Antarctica, Law jumped at the opportunity to put himself forward to join the expedition. He was seconded from Melbourne University, where he was lecturing and doing a PhD in classical physics, to be the expedition's senior scientific officer, planning and organising a scientific programme which included measuring the variation in cosmic rays at different latitudes (work later important in identifying and repairing holes in the ozone layer).

The voyage was a miserable one, the weather terrible, the ship, the wooden-hulled HMAS Wyatt Earp, unfit for purpose and overcrowded, with its living quarters six inches deep in ice-cold water for much of the trip. In addition Law was violently seasick. Yet arriving in the "glorious beauty" of Antarctica was "unbelievably wonderful", and Law was eager to return. In 1949 he was appointed not as assistant officer in charge (the job he had applied for) but as leader of the ANARE and director of the Antarctic divison of the Commonwealth Department of External Affairs.

Preparing his next expedition, Law thought it would be necessary to design and build his own ship, and he devoted two years to the task before finding an ice-strengthened Danish ship, the Kista Dan, which could be available for six months of the year, the European summer and Antarctic winter.

In 1954 Kista Dan was used to establish Mawson station (named after Sir Douglas Mawson, whose 1911 to 1913 expedition Law regarded as "the greatest of the heroic era") on MacRobertson Land. To do it they had to dynamite their way through pack ice and spend two days digging with pick axes and hammers to free the ship when dynamite was no longer available.

On the journey home they had also to survive a 26-hour hurricane in which the unballasted vessel was pummelled with massive "growlers", great blocks of ice thrown down on her by gigantic waves. Law said afterwards that during the hurricane he was so convinced that they were doomed that he did not even think of taking photographs.

Mawson was followed by the establishment of Davis station, in the Vestfold Hills on an ice-free area of Princess Elizabeth Land in 1957, and in 1959 Law negotiated the transfer to Australia of the Americans' International Geophysical Year Wilkes station in the Windmill Islands, which he rebuilt and renamed Casey in tribute to the minister for external affairs, R. G. Casey, who had crucially supported him.

A newer and larger Danish ship, Thala Dan, was used for coastal surveys of Oates Land and Enderby Land, and in 1961 Law succeeded in taking his wife Nel, a landscape artist, along on one of his trips so that she became to first Australian woman to set foot on Antarctica. The ANARE's third ship, Nella Dan, was named after her, and as well as painting Antarctic landscapes she designed the ANARE badge.

On all his expeditions Law displayed obsessive, resolute and apparently fearless leadership. He scorned the timidity of sea captains, often refused to go with the same individual again, sometimes seized the ship's helm himself, and telegraphed owners to have them overrule their captain's refusal of an undertaking he was set upon.

He reasoned that anyone who calculated the risks of going to Antarctica would never get there, so while never absolutely reckless, he was scarcely ever deterred. On the lighter side, he did like to take a piano accordion and his clarinet along on his voyages.

Autocratic by nature, frustrated at the Australian government's reluctance to accept all his recommendations, and annoyed at the difficulty of getting what he regarded as enough properly salaried positions for his senior staff, Law resigned from ANARE in 1966. Though he remained chairman of the Australian Committee for Antarctic Research, he took on a completely new and challenging career in education, becoming vice-president of the Victoria Institute of Colleges and retiring from that work in 1977.

Law revisited Antarctica twice late in his life, once on a cruise ship at the age of 85 and finally aboard an airliner when he was 91. He was contemptuous of conservation concerns in Antarctica, which he considered "grossly overdone", believed Greenpeace had done harm by banning rather than regulating commercial exploitation, and was all for promoting tourism to the continent. He was still playing five sets of tennis a week at the age of 93. He is survived by one brother and a sister, and numerous nephews and nieces. His wife died in 1990 and they had no children.

Phillip Garth Law, physicist, Antarctic explorer and educational administrator: born Tallangatta, Victoria, Australia 21 April 1912; director, Australian Antarctic Division 1949-66; Founders Gold Medal, Royal Geographical Society 1960; CBE 1961; Officer of the Order of Australia 1975; Companion of the Order of Australia 1995; married; died Melbourne 28 February 2010.

Comments