Les Heathcote (Griffith Taylor Medal)

Citation for the Griffith Taylor Medal

R.L. Heathcote
Conferred Hobart, January 1997

The Institute of Australian Geographers periodically awards its Griffith Taylor Medal to geographers whose sustained research activities have contributed in outstanding fashion to the national and international recognition of the subject, and which address a broad spectrum or interests represented in the profession.  The recipient of the first medal was Ann Marshall, in 1989.  The second award is made to Dr. Ronald Leslie Heathcote, Reader in Geography at the Flinders University of South Australia.

Les Heathcote is one of a pioneering group of British immigrants who were closely associated with the surging expansion of Australian tertiary education during the 1960s and 1970s, and who remain deeply committed in the anxious 1990s.  As a doctoral student at the Australian National University in the early 1960s he was supervised by Oskar Spate, encountered an octogenarian Griffith Taylor, and witnessed the commencement of this Institute under Taylor’s presidency, together with the birth of Australian Geographical Studies and bustling new geography departments around the country.  Yet if such beginnings lend a certain historicity to a career, its real distinction lies in the personal efforts and achievements of one of Australia’s most highly regarded social scientists.

With roots in Derbyshire, the younger Heathcote moved from the local grammar school to read geography at University College London.  The renowned historical geographer Clifford Darby was then a powerful influence, and an impressive list of student contemporaries comprised urban geographer, planner and economist Brian Berry, historical geographer Dennis Jeans and other future luminaries.  We begin to pick up rather more Heathcote identifiers in the next sequence, which includes a masterate at Nebraska and the production of an international benchmark in historical geography and environmental management—an analysis of the evolution of environmental appraisal and associated regional development in the vast, semi-arid plains of Queensland and New South Wales.  Back of Bourke, the ‘book of the thesis’ as they say, is indeed still regarded as a benchmark study.

A small insertion assists the interpretation of the sequence.  From a grammar school in the green heart of England to the dry plains of the New World: where to locate the initial research stimulus?  Part of the answer lies in one Heathcotian resumé entry: the first item noted under ‘Administration’ is ‘corporal in the British Army’.  While engaged in compulsory national service in Cyprus, he took advantage of a lull in the EOKA uprisings to examine the semi-arid sector of the island.  That absorbing encounter, and exposure to the writings of the (then greatly under-rated) ecological historian James C. Malin, began to fix his sights on the interactions of people and place in the world’s drier regions.  And so to Nebraska and ultimately to Australia.

A compelling environmental ‘appraisal’ theme signalled in the early research encompassed a wide array of problems emphasising multi-tiered policy formation, environmental perception, resource management and regional planning.  Ecological, economic, legal, political, psychological and social concerns were nominated from the outset as central parameters, with the last of these subsuming important aesthetic considerations.  The Nebraska experience remained a robust influence down the years, helping to produce a number of successful ‘comparative’ studies of rural settlement in North America and Australia.  There was, in addition, a natural progression to closely-textured analyses of drought perception and drought management policy on both continents, and to still broader teaching and research focused on global ‘arid lands’ studies.  After Back of Bourke came several major texts and monographs exhibiting the same intradisciplinary and interdisciplinary preoccupations: Australia (1975 and 1994), with its bold emphasis on the interpretation and transformation of landscape; The Arid Lands (1983), lit with interdisciplinary insights and ranging across the globe; and editorship and dominant authorship of Perception of Desertification (1980).  These achievements accompanied scores of journal articles and chapters in books, continuing the arid lands thrust and elaborating the perception, resource management and environmental policy line at local, regional and national levels.

Elected a Fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia in 1981, Dr Heathcote was President of the Institute of Australian Geographers in 1985-6, and in 1989 received an Honours Award of the Association of American Geographers for his extraordinary sustained research into the perception and management of arid and semi-arid lands.  He has served for a number of years as a member of the Australian Academy of Science’s National Committee for the Environment and its National Committee for Geography, and he currently chairs the latter.  His long-standing reputation in the galvanising interdisciplinary field of environmental hazards research is reflected in a key involvement in the organisation of national and international conferences which attract experts from remarkably diverse backgrounds, and have led to persuasive publications under his editorial guidance including Natural Hazards in Australia (1979) and most recently Conference on Natural Disaster Reduction (1996).

This award therefore recognises the distinguished achievements of a leading Australian geographer whose works have already won international acclaim, and which continue to provide inspiration and practical exemplars for our own research and teaching.

On receiving the medal Dr Heathcote replied as follows:

I am deeply honoured by the award of this Griffith Taylor Medal.  Griff was a person for whom I have the highest regard both as a scientist and as a person.  His wide experience and particularly his obvious interest in everything and everywhere were an inspiration to me.

I met Griff in Canberra while I was a student at the ANU.  It was September 1960 and Griff was staying at University House, which then was the required residence for all un-married research scholars.  Griff expressed an interest in a hike to the top of Black Mountain to compare the view with what he had last seen in the 1920s.  So Geoff Mosley (a fellow student from Derbyshire who was to go on to be the first Director of the Australian Conservative Foundation) and I offered our services as guides.  Off we set with Griff out in front and us puffing behind.  Half-way up we passed a small quarry.  ‘Oh’, said Griff, ‘there’s an unconformity there I hadn’t seen before’, and out came the pocket book and in went a quick sketch.

Having commented on the changes in the views from the top and realising that we were running late for dinner in University House, we took a short cut back which involved crossing Sullivan’s Creek which was in flood (this being before Lake Burley-Griffin had been formed).  There was no proper bridge but two stout planks were available, one of which already spanned the torrent  ‘Hang on Prof.’ I said, ‘I’ll get the other plank’.  ‘I’m alright’ he said and set off across the plank, only to fall in half way across.  Afterwards, both Geoff and I had to confess that at that precise moment we had the same simultaneous image of the following day’s Canberra Times headline—‘Eminent Professor Drowns in Creek.  Two students helping police with their enquiries’.  But, of course, being Griff he didn’t drown and, as we fished him out and jugged him across the paddocks to University House, all he said was: ‘Huh, the last time I did this was with Scott, in the Ross Sea!’  A great character.

As implied in the kind words of the citation, I have been incredibly lucky in a career in geography.  At the end of my undergraduate degree I confess that I had had enough of the subject—‘burned out’ would have been the contemporary verdict—but luckily I had to do National Service and in the fading evening of the British Empire, outposts still had to be manned and mine happened to be Cyprus.  The birthplace of Venus was also a geographer’s paradise: sandy beaches, scuba diving through the drowned streets of Salamis which St Paul visited, Crusader castles, Nicosia’s circular walls with the dried moat filled with soccer pitches and tennis courts, and the magnificent Troodos Mountains.  At the time when Nikita Krushchev was pounding the lectern at the United Nations with his shoe and threatening to rocket everyone into oblivion, the British Army in Cyprus called for volunteers for a ski-training course in those mountains—we volunteered to a man.  What, you might ask, was the relevance of this to my career?  Well, immediately to the north in the rain-shadow of the Troodos Mountains is a fascinating semi-arid area and once seen, from then on the arid lands had me hooked.

Let me conclude with my special thanks: to Murray McCaskill for inviting me to Flinders University and providing a strongly supportive environment for teaching and research, and to Dean Forbes for carrying on that Flinders tradition; to my colleagues at Flinders for stimulus in adversity and infectious hilarity in the face of the increasing university managerial bloody-mindedness: to colleagues in other geography departments in Australia and overseas who have always impressed me with their hospitality and cooperation, freely given; and finally to my wife and daughters for constant support and for sharing the ups and downs of academic life.  I owe them all a great debt.

Geography has much still to do: to make our society aware of its linkages with and dependence upon the physical environment; to remind our political leaders that the earth is not a level playing field; and to build bridges between the natural scientists and the social scientists to make sure that the planners don’t overlook the big picture.  There is much to do, I have been privileged to share in the effort, and I could not ask for a better reward than this medal, which I would like to think in part comes from Griff himself.  Thank you.