Australian Biography

Phillip Law - full interview transcript

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So what voyages did you read about?

I think to begin I homed in on several Antarctic leaders: Scott, Shackleton, Mawson and Byrd, the American. I read all the Scott, Shackleton, Mawson stuff, of course, before I got onto Byrd, who came later. Scott's first expedition was tremendously important because he went down to the Ross Sea and did the first real exploration in that area. Shackleton came later. Scott's first expedition was about 1902, I think,and Shackleton about 1906. The Shackleton work was scientifically good. I think in exploration he doesn't compare with Scott. As a matter of fact, I wouldn't rank Shackleton as a very important explorer because most of what he did in the Ross Sea had already been seen and mapped by Scott, and about the only thing that he did which was highly original in exploration was mapping about 200 hundred miles of the Beardmore Glacier. The important thing about Shackleton, for Australians, was that Mawson accompanied him, and Edgeworth David, a more senior man. But Mawson shone out in that expedition with his exploring and his geological work. And he and David were members of a party that made the first ascent of Mount Erebus, which was an exploring exploit credited to Shackleton, you might say. Later on, Mawson of course led his Australasian Antarctic Expedition in 1911-13, and at the end of the time Shackleton took his trans-Antarctic expedition down, which failed. The one where he was going to cross the continent but in the Weddell Sea his ship was crushed. Now in that trip he made no exploring at all because his ship was crushed before he got anywhere. So I would rate Shackleton as a very great adventurer, one of the world's greatest, and a very great leader in the field, but I wouldn't put him on any list of great explorers because of the amount of exploring he did, which was very little. Mawson was great in several ways. First, he led one of the finest of all the heroic era expeditions. Because he was a scientist he directed the scientific work very thoroughly and produced very good results. And he had two parties in Antarctica: one on Macquarie Island and all of them did fine work. And he did a lot of exploring around Commonwealth Bay and his Western Party did a lot of exploring around the Shackleton Ice Shelf for which they've had very little credit and of which people know very little, because it's never been published as a narrative. And, that was the great Mawson era. Later on in 1929-31, Mawson went on another exploration of the coast of Antarctica, covering two summer seasons. [INTERRUPTION - SLATE]

What was Mawson's great achievement?

The Australasian Antarctic expedition, 1911-13 was arguably the greatest of the heroic era expeditions. I think it's doubtful whether Scott's or Mawson's was the most important or most effective but they're pretty closely balanced. I think each of them is well ahead of Shackleton's. Although Shackleton's scientific work in Ross Sea in the 1906 expedition was highly competent because he had some very fine scientists under him who did very good work. But when Mawson carried out his 1911-13 expedition he had three stations: one at Macquarie Island, one at Commonwealth Bay and the Western Party, as they called it, led by a man called Wild, on the Shackleton Ice Shelf. Now that was a tremendous expedition. They explored about 600 miles round about the Commonwealth Bay area of coast and about another 300 or 400 miles of coast up the Shackleton Ice Shelf. Mawson came back again in 1929-31 with what he called BANZARE - The British-Australian-New Zealand Antarctic Expedition, and that covered two summer seasons, but it was only voyages. [INTERRUPTION - SLATE]

So what was Mawson's greatest achievement?

I think, the Australasian Antarctic Expedition of 1911-1913, where he had three bases. He set up a station at Macquarie Island, one at Commonwealth Bay and one called the Western Party on the Shackleton Ice Shelf, which was lead by a man called Wild. They produced fine exploration and fine scientific work and I think that expedition rates as highly as any other in the heroic era - marginally ahead of Scott and well ahead of any of Shackleton's work. Mawson was unlucky in the sense that he would like to have pressed on with further work but the war intervened, so it was quite a number of years before he could get back again. But back he came in 1929-31 with the British-Australian-New Zealand Antarctic Expedition. BANZARE they call it, in which he carried out two summer cruises along the coast of the Australian Antarctic Territory, but that wasn't known as our territory then. To me a very disappointing voyage. Mawson was much more interested in the Oceanographic work done on the ship than he was with the exploration of the coast. He was inhibited by the reluctance of his two captains in those two seasons to go in. The captains were timid. They were fearful of the ice, fearful of being trapped and they wouldn't go where Mawson wanted them to go at the critical times. The result is that Mawson didn't achieve as much in exploration as he should have. There's another reason in that he didn't seem nearly as interested in exploration at that stage. For example, in two summer seasons they only made three new landings and then only for a few hours each time, and without any survey work. As a matter of fact, so far as I could see, he didn't even take his surveyor ashore with him. It would seem quite remarkable. So I think Mawson's Antarctic reputation rests almost entirely on the 1911-13 expedition.

Did you know Mawson?

After the BANZARE trip, again he was frustrated because he wanted to do more work but the Second World War came. I'm sorry, the first thing that came was the Depression. So he got back in 1931 and that was the middle of the Depression years, and it was quite a few years before the economy revived that it was worth talking about expeditions. And then the Second World War came. So by the end of the Second World War, he was too old to bother about further expeditions. But he returned to the fray by making strong representations to the Australian Government that they should carry out more Antarctic work. And to Mawson must go the credit of creating the ANARE - that's the present Australian Antarctic Research Expeditions - because it was due to his representations to the government at that time that a committee was set up and in 1947 the ANARE was established. And I became the senior scientific officer, and as you know at the end 1948 I was appointed leader. So that I can relate the whole business of my career to the fact that Mawson urged the government to create this system in which I was to then operate for so many years. I met Mawson, of course, on many occasions. One of the first things the government did was to set up a planning committee to organise this expedition, and Mawson was a member for that committee. And when I was appointed chief scientist I became a member of the committee and later, when I was leader of the ANARE, I became chairman of that committee. But over the years of that committee Mawson served on it from 1947 right up to 1958, I think, so that for ten or eleven years, I saw quite a lot of Mawson and had his support in the committee for my ideas. I found him not only a most gracious and charming person, but a vigorous exponent of Antarctic ideas, and a man who was always looking forwards, looking for new ideas, looking for new things, supporting innovative projects, whereas Captain Davis, his old captain, who was also on the committee, tended to be very conservative, fairly negative and backward looking. So, for example, when we designed that new Antarctic ship in 1950-52, J.K. Davis was insisting it must be steam, whereas all of us knew it had to be diesel, but he couldn't see forward into this new era and he was hooked on the old steam engine and how reliable it was and so on. Mawson - the whole thing I admired tremendously, is that he never showed any envy or antagonism to me. Here was I, a young, brash person with all the government financial support he'd never been able to muster, with an era expanding out in front of me, which embraced all the things he would have loved to have done. He was never jealous of the fact that I had these chances and he was very supportive in everything I wanted to do.

Would you have liked to have been an explorer in that earlier, heroic age?

No I think I was lucky to be in the more important period. You see, those early explorers really didn't explore very much. They scratched the edge of the Antarctic here and there, but more than eighty per cent of the Antarctic was still unexplored when I came into the picture. And if you take the Australian Antarctic Territory, Mawson had explored about a quarter of it. The other three quarters was left to me and my men for the next twenty years. We happened to be there just when the whole thing was expanding. The great step forward in exploration in Antarctica occurred in 1957-58, when they created the International Geophysical Year. Before that the British, Argentineans and Chileans had a few little stations down on the peninsula south of South America and we had Mawson and Davis ... Mawson, I'm sorry, Mawson only, right across on the other side of Antarctica, and that was all there was. But when the IGY cropped up, eleven nations were concerned, and they set up stations, nicely placed around Antarctica, to get a nice broad regulated coverage, particularly in meteorology. And from each of those stations, exploration went on. So the great era of exploration was from '57 to about 1970. About 1970 you could say the exploration of Antarctica had been completed. Everything had been photographed and mapped. Of course, there are huge areas that no man has ever set foot upon, but there's no part of it any longer that is unknown. And I've often said that if I had come along ten years earlier or ten years later, I'd have probably died of frustration. But I just happened to be there at the time when it was exploding, which was wonderful.

Tell me a bit about your wife, Nell. When did you first meet her?

In 1936, she was doing a primary teacher's course at Melbourne Teachers' College. My father was the vice-principal of the college and our family lived in the residence at the college. And, of course, I was living in Melbourne that year and teaching at Elwood and was visiting home quite often and I'd formed the habit, because I didn't know that many people, of attending the weekly dance, which the Teachers' College students held in one of the halls of the Teachers' College every Saturday night. They called it the Palais. So I used to go to Saturday Night Palais and play the piano to help them with the music for quite a few of the dances. For the rest of the evening I'd dance with the others and I ... during this period, I noticed a very attractive girl and I started dancing with her, and that's the beginning of our relationship. By the end of that year we were both madly in love, and although it was about five years before we could get married, that was the beginning of it all. I saw a lot of Nell the following year because she topped the Teachers' College and got what they called the Gladman Prize, and as I had done at Ballarat College, she had got what they called a second year to enable her to stay on and do a first year university course. So she spent 1937 at the Teachers' College doing first year Arts and I was then doing my Part Three physics and so I was a student, she was a student, and we used to meet every night between seven and 7.30 and then go back and swot, and on Saturday night or on Sunday night, I'd take her out and walk round South Melbourne in the rain, or go to pictures or ballet or theatre or something. So that was the beginning of it all.

What was she like?

Oh she was remarkable person. She was vivacious - beautiful both in features and physically. And a very exciting person because she was highly original in everything she did. She was a very fine creative artist. A person with tremendous natural good taste that had been built upon by omnivorous reading of everything to do with art and culture. She was a person of great background knowledge in art [and] literature. She taught English and Art at high schools, and her painting, I think she could have become one of Australia's greatest painters if she'd had the physique and the nervous energy and the strength to work hard. But she'd been born with a hole in the heart and she was always frail and always lacking in the sort of dynamic energy that you need to prosecute a career, so that she tended to become exhausted fairly easily. One reason we didn't have children was that she was afraid that childbirth might kill her, so she was never game to expose herself to that risk.

Would you liked to have had children?

What was that?

Would you liked to have had children?

It's an interesting question and in the first couple of years of marriage I'd think. yes. One always has a curiosity to know what sort of person one will reproduce in one's offspring. After the first two or three years, I lost that element of curiosity and for most of the rest of the time I've been very grateful that I didn't have children. If I had had children I'm sure I would have resigned from the Antarctic work after about five or six years because I would've wanted to devote more of myself to my family, and in that job for so many years, I was away from home for six months every year, either in Antarctica or travelling around Australia interviewing candidates, or going overseas to conferences, and Nell being a very self-sufficient person with her own interests in art was quite happy to be left alone. She was a bit of a loner. She could cope very nicely without the help of outside people. I was very lucky to find someone of that sort, who complimented my life. Added to which she was a most elegant person, which was a tremendous help to me in my career, both in Antarctica and later in education, where she could grace any assemblage of people at any level of society with dignity and charm.

It's an unusual situation for a couple to be separated for half of every years over decades?

Yes. Yes. For nearly twenty years we had this sort of life.

Did it create some stress?

Not in that sense, no. We had lot of stress in the sense of both being very strong personalities. We used to clash quite often on all sorts of things. Have furious fights. But we were both very much in love with each other. We used to survive these things and we didn't have any stress whatever, as a result of prolonged absences.

Did she accompany you on any of your trips, to the Antarctic?

Yes, finally. She'd always wanted to go. Not only out of curiosity, but she wanted to be more a part of my life and feel more understanding of what it was like to be what I was. And of course she very eager to paint in Antarctica. I knew it would be hopeless to ask for permission for her to go. I'd already tried to get a woman down to Macquarie Island as one of the party. An occasion arose where it would have been quite appropriate to have a woman expeditioner but the Department of External Affairs was a very cautious department as you can imagine being concerned with Foreign Affairs and being made up mainly of lawyers. So I knew that ... oh, they'd refused my request about Macquarie Island and I knew that they wouldn't be happy about Nell accompanying me. So I made a plan to smuggle her down on the ship and that was quite exciting. I managed to smuggle her down to Macquarie Island and back, and the next part of the plan was to take her down from Fremantle to the Mawson and Antarctic area. But the night before we sailed, The Herald in Melbourne burst the story and the day we were due to sail my Minister, who was John Gorton, and he was in Perth, and the Secretary of the Department of External Affairs rang me up. Luckily he was the Acting Secretary. If the full-time Secretary had been there, he'd have blasted me and prohibited it. But this man was a very sensitive, kind sort of person and he said, 'Well Law, I don't want to make a decision. You go and see John Gorton, the Minister. It's up to him'. So it was just good luck- the Law Luck - in that we had already invited Gorton and his wife and a senator and his wife on the ship to have a look at it, because they were in Perth. So when they came down to the ship, I had a long talk to Gorton, explained the whole situation, all sorts of reasons why I should be allowed to take Nell and Mrs Gorton's wonderful. She said, 'Go on John, let her go', and the Senator's wife said, 'Let her go', and one way or another, John Gorton agreed, and some of the members of External Affairs were furious because they felt it shouldn't have happened. And the top, the real Secretary, whom by the time I'd got back, had come back from overseas and he dressed me down. I always felt it was after the event so it didn't really matter much. He gave me a tongue bagging in his office and I sat there demurely and I took it all on. But it didn't matter really. Nell loved me, and I'd been and we'd had a wonderful time, and she enjoyed it so much that she said she'd have gone time after time if that would have been possible. And I was staggered at her physical strength in putting up with all the sorts of discomforts and hardships. I actually took her to the crow's nest, up a ladder, and pushing up in front saying, 'Go on. Go on. I'm here to catch you', and got her up the crow's nest so that she could see the view from there. And I took her ashore exploring at unknown places in the motor boat and one place she nearly froze stiff and had to crawl back over ice she couldn't stand up on, and get back into the motor boat and huddle over the diesel engine and try and thaw out. Wonderful stuff.

What happens when you take a woman into that all male environment?

I think it has a very ameliorating influence, a softening influence. I think it made life on board the ship much happier, much softer, warmer, more cultured. The men enjoyed her company and she joined in organising parties and fancy dress and things of this sort. It was a wonderful period altogether.

Did you encourage men to take women on the trips?

No, in my day women were not admitted to this Antarctic male environment. It's only in the last few years that they've allowed women down there and they're now part of the scene. But many people still think it would be better if they weren't there. They do raise all sorts of problems. There wouldn't be nearly as many problems if there were just the same number of women as men. But you've only got two or three women amongst twenty-five men and it can become very awkward, particularly if the woman forms an attachment of some sort with a specific man, and you get the jealousy of the other people, who are deprived of female companionship. This one person has prior rights you might say on this, perhaps, one woman in the station.

How did you go about selecting the men that you would take to the Antarctic? What kind of things were you looking for?

Oh, that makes a long lecture in itself I think: the personality problems of Antarctic stations, and the steps you take to select people, and the procedures you go through to select them. I might say that Casey, our Minister, had a very simplistic attitude on this. After we had a problem with a man, who was schizophrenic at one stage, he said, 'Law, you've got to have a psychological test'. He had an idea that you'd have a half hour test of some sort and the goats would go out this door and the sheep would go out that door, and it turned out to be a very long exercise. I went to the Professor of Psychology at Melbourne University, Professor Erza, whom I knew. I said, 'Look, I want you to help me design a test, a psychological test, for people going to Antarctic stations'. He said, 'Well, what are the qualities of the people who are a success at the Antarctic stations?' I said, 'Oh, that's what I want you to find out'. He said, 'No'. He said, 'You tell me what those qualities are and I'll design a test to test them, but it's your job to find out what they are'. So we embarked upon an analysis, you might say, in which we took a psychologist down on a ship for two or three years to interview men, to look at station work, to look at the results and talk to the officer in charge and so on. And after two or three years he worked out the sorts of personalities that were most successful, and he spent another couple of years drawing up tests and then another year testing the tests. So at the end of seven or eight years, we had a psychological test, and these psychological tests of a somewhat more elaborate nature now, have been going ever since then.

So what sort of man did you decide you were looking for?

The most important thing, is that the man should love his work. When you're down there, the only thing you have to keep you interested and vigorous, is the job you're doing. If you love that job and you're prepared to do it twelve or fourteen hours a day, that's fine. If he's the sort of person whose not interested in his job or gets bored with it, then you have problems. And that's the most basic fact. I think the other thing is you want people who are rather laid-back, easygoing, easy to get along with, non-aggressive, tolerant. You have to put up with other people's failings and make allowances, and it's better to have people a little bit introverted, rather than excessively extroverted. The excessive extrovert wants to be the soul of the party and tell you his stories and wants to entertain everyone. You get very bored with that sort of a person after a short time, whereas a fellow who is very introvert wants to sit in the corner and not particularly mix in, that doesn't impinge on anyone. Their quite happy to have him over there if he wants to be, so long as he doesn't worry them.

What things does that sort of isolation do to people when they're in a place like the Antarctic?

I think there is a general decline in morale as you move into this long dark winter. If you're not used to twenty-four hours darkness, it can be quite depressing. It's depressing for another reason, that, if you have a job that is normally outside then that's inhibited, so if you're a geologist or a surveyor and so on, who would normally be out on field work, then you're couped up inside, then that's a bit concerning. But I think everybody in this long winter period, towards the end of July, August, there's a sort of dip in the morale at the station, even though it's not anything of great moment, it's there. Then people's spirits rise as they begin to come out of it and the end of year's approaching and the prospect of coming home again. The spirits all soar upwards from there and onwards. One of the fascinating things though is that when men have mental breakdowns, as we've had two or three, and I've read a lot of literature about what happens in other expeditions, they found much to their surprise that these mental breakdowns don't happen in this long period of midwinter depression. They have them right back at the beginning, within three or four weeks of the ship sailing. And that's because, people in our society have escape routes and by the time they're adults, they've explored these escape routes pretty carefully and they've worked out escape routes that suit their forms of escape from their sorts of tensions. And most of these escape routes are escapism rather as, if you live the street and you quarrel with all the neighbours you keep moving your position of residence as people get sick of you. Or if you're a person, who doesn't get on well with the people in your job, you tend to change jobs. So you can avoid lots of problems. Some people keep sane literally by just constant movement from the stress situations to new positions. Now, a person like that gets to Antarctica, suddenly finds on a ship that sails, that the escape routes are all closed off. They're there and they're going to be there for twelve months and there's no earthly way they can get away and this really hits them. And they collapse. And it's a well-established pattern. Happily, it doesn't happy to often because you select people as well as possible to avoid those problems.

What happened in some of the incidents that you ... you're referring to?

Well the worst incident, we had a chap who had to be closed up in a padded cell. The only person who could attend to him was the doctor, and for four months the doctor tended to him in this artificial sort of situation. The other men became very demoralised by the whole business and they had to wait until a Russian aircraft could come in in Spring and pick him up and take him across to the Americans and fly him up with the Americans in New Zealand and then back to Australia. We put him in out ... Park or Royal Park, whatever the place is.

What effect did that have on the other men?

Very depressing one. If anything goes wrong with a person at a station: a severe illness, a death, or some major psychological disturbance, it has a very demoralising effect on the party. Again, fortunately, it very rarely happens.

What was your role in this as their leader?

Well my main role was choosing men in the beginning. I made a point of interviewing and choosing every person for every party because that was one of the most important jobs I had and it's a job whose success depends on experience. So the further I went, and the more years I did it, the better I became at it. When the job became too big for me to handle alone, I had my deputy do it. But he had been on numerous trips with me and he'd been well indoctrinated and he knew the scores as well as I did, and between us we managed to chose very good teams towards the end. But the early three or four years, we made a number of bad mistakes.

I suppose a lot of people would think you were looking for, what's called, macho qualities?

Yes, the first leader of the expedition, a man called Group Captain Stewart Campbell, and he picked men on that criteria. He looked for tough, aggressive, expeditioner, you know. And this was not good at all. You pick twenty men of that sort and put them all together you are going to have trouble. And I disagreed quite violently with his sorts of selections and his method of selecting and I made a rule that I'd advertise all over Australia for people. Give adventurous men the chance to go, whereas the first two years, men were picked on the old chum basis. 'Do you know someone who wants to go to Antarctica?' and asking amongst friends, and amongst people in the airforce, in the army, the navy and so on, and that's not the way to go about it.

How much ... what was your role of keeping up morale when you were actually down there?

Well you see I would go back to Melbourne at the end of the cruise and leave the officer in charge there to run it. And first of all we'd do everything possible to provide them with amenities. We'd provide them first class food, a number of cine programmes for Saturday night movies, a good collection of records and record players, a first class library, all the games we could think of like chess and scrabble and drafts and so on. And that, plus the fact that they worked so hard and don't have much time for entertainment anyway, meant the year would go through pretty quickly.

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