Alfred William Howitt was a 19th century polymath who led an adventurous and eventful life, full of achievement.
Alfred came to Australia as a 22 year old in 1852 from England with his father William and younger brother. His family life had been stimulating, with both his parents interested in science, literature and the arts. For a few years the Howitts experienced life on the goldfields in central Victoria before his father and brother returned home. Alfred had become ‘Australianised’, so stayed, and led a roving rural life as an explorer, drover and prospector, in particular in the wilds of eastern Victoria. His reputation became such that in 1861 he was appointed leader of the party sent in search of Burke and Wills, then a second journey to return their remains in 1862. His contacts with aboriginal people during these expeditions led to a lifelong, and sympathetic, interest in indigenous culture, which yielded several publications.
It wasn’t until 1869 that Alfred developed an interest in geology, strangely enough through reading the works of Lyell and Darwin! This was an ideal complement to his interests in anthropology and botany. During the 1870s he traversed and surveyed much of remote north and east Gippsland, including Bindi, the Moroka district, Tabberabbera and Bairnsdale, where he had settled in 1866. He also served as police magistrate in Omeo and Beechworth.
Before his retirement in 1901, he had been appointed Secretary for Mines and Water Supply, an Audit Commissioner, and member of the Public Service Board. In 1903 he was a member of the Royal Commission to choose the site for a national capital. He died in 1908 at his home at Metung.
Aside from his contribution to public administration, Howitt made a very significant contribution to Victorian geology after the demise of the first Geological Survey in 1868. He was a pioneer of thin section petrology in Australia and his rock collection (what remained) is in Museum Victoria, and his botanical collection is in the Herbarium.