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McArthur, Alan Grant (1923–1978)

The Institute of Foresters of Australia has awarded the N. W. Jolly Medal, its highest award for merit in forestry, to Alan Grant McArthur. The citation leading to this award is as follows:

Alan McArthur, a New South Welshman born at Sydney on 21.7.23, was educated at Yanco Agricultural High School, Sydney University and the Australian Forestry School, and commenced his career with the Forestry Commission of New South Wales.

His initiation into the profession followed the traditional plantation inventory and establishment pattern of the young field forester, working in the Tumut and Orange districts. In 1951, he commenced work on what was to be his major specialty; he became the first full-time Fire Control Officer of the Hume/Snowy Fire District. He soon put the McArthur stamp on things by developing a regional fire prevention scheme which was to become a model for such organizations throughout his and some other States.

Late in 1953, he transferred to the Forestry and Timber Bureau becoming a full-time bush fire researcher, another first in Australian forestry. The next decade and a half was the most fruitful and productive period of his career. His work transformed forest fire behaviour into a science and quantified it to a level of precision that had previously not been thought possible. He studied fire behaviour in a wide range of fuel types and developed systems of fire danger rating and guidelines for prescribed burning which bushmen could interpret. He then helped develop techniques to implement the systems and guidelines in the field. His work included mass fire behaviour, and ratings and burning guidelines for sclerophyll forests, grasslands, exotic pines, brigalow, and sugar cane; yet somehow he found time as well to develop a watershed research programme to investigate the hydrological characteristics of eucalypt and pine catchments and the measurement of water quality.

Another major activity from 1954 to 1970 was lecturing students in forest fire behaviour and control, first at the Australian Forestry School, then at the Australian National University.

His work and interests took him to all parts of Australia, while the overseas trips he made soon established him as a figure of world stature in his field. Indeed, his Fire Index Rating System has been adopted by F.A.O. as an International system. In 1964, he led an Australian delegation of five on the first International Fire Study Tour held in North America, and headed the organization of the successful 1970 follow-up school in Australia.

Alan McArthur's acknowledged expertise in bushfire behaviour and control, and in the administration of bush fire organizations, resulted in his involvement as an expert advisor in most official enquiries into major bush fire disasters in Australia over the past two decades.

As his work grew, he built a team around him, so that when he became Director of the Forest Research Institute in 1970, he was able to maintain an involvement in fire research while performing his new role with distinction. Following a re-organization in mid-1975, the research functions of the Forestry and Timber Bureau were transferred to the newly formed Division of Forest Research of CSIRO, and McArthur became a Principal Research Officer. He had by then a major chronic problem of ill health; but prior to its forcing his retirement in mid-1978, he carried out revisions of some of his earlier work, and completed, with Harry Luke, work on the book "Bush fires in Australia". This book is comprehensive in its coverage of all aspects of bush fires in Australia, and appears destined to be the authorative text for decades to come.

Alan McArthur was sole or principal author of some sixty papers on fire behaviour, fire effects and watershed management, and contributed chapters on fire protection in the major Forestry and Timber Bureau publications "Growing Trees on Australian Farms" and "The use of Trees and Shrubs in the dry Country of Australia".

He had a long and active association with the Institute at the Divisional level; and was a member of Council and Chairman of the A.C.T. Division in 1964-65.

McArthur was something of a maverick in the world of researchers. By the nature of the man and his work, he could never be a backroom boy. The bush was his laboratory, sweating students were his lab. assistants, and fire was the element he worked with. And he was able to use continually his ability and breadth of knowledge of forests and forestry to great advantage in his research work and administration.

Anyone who lectures to as many hundreds of students as Alan McArthur did over the years must have a profound influence on Australian forestry. But more profound than that was the effect of his authoritative but understated manner in the field. Be it experimental or wildfire, he taught those who worked with him by example. The lesson was that fire was going to be a part of their professional lives, and the sooner they learnt its ways the sooner they would become useful foresters. He turned their fear into confidence. In his early retirement, he was again teaching by example.

His determination to keep writing up his work, his stoicism, cheerfulness and resilience were an inspiring lesson to those fortunate enough to know him.

The N. W. Jolly Medal recognizes outstanding service to forestry in Australia. In his professional excellence in his field of fire protection work; in his major positive contributions to policy and practice in his specialty; in his profound influence on the thinking and action of most of his colleagues; in the world-wide recognition of and respect for his work; in his long and distinguished service to his professional association; and in his fine personal qualities, Alan Grant McArthur's contribution to forestry in Australia can be reckoned at nothing less than outstanding.

Original Publication

  • Australian Forestry, vol 42, no 2, 1979, pp 57-62

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Citation details

'McArthur, Alan Grant (1923–1978)', People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://peopleaustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/mcarthur-alan-grant-10889/text30017, accessed 9 August 2020.

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