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Howchin, Walter (1845–1937)

by N. H. Ludbrook

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

Walter Howchin (1845-1937), by Hammer & Co

Walter Howchin (1845-1937), by Hammer & Co

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 6112

Walter Howchin (1845-1937), geologist and clergyman, was born on 12 January 1845 at Lakenham, Norwich, Norfolk, England, one of eleven children of Rev. Richard Howchin, Primitive Methodist minister, and his wife Mary Ann Ward, née Goose. He left the Academy, King's Lynn, at 12 to become a junior clerk in London; then, joining his father at Great Yarmouth, he was apprenticed in the printing trade. In his spare time he studied for the ministry and was admitted to the Primitive Methodist Society at King's Lynn in 1860; he was called to his first circuit at Shotley Bridge, Durham, on 16 October 1864. On 25 August 1869 at the Primitive Methodist Chapel, Howsham, Lincolnshire, he married Esther Gibbons; they had one son and two daughters.

During his ministry in Northumberland, Howchin became interested in geology and, through his association with H. B. Brady, in the study of foraminifera. His first papers, published in church journals in 1874-75 were on scientific deep-sea dredging. In 1876 he collaborated with Brady in a monograph on Carboniferous and Permian foraminifera and on 6 November 1878 he was admitted a fellow of the Geological Society of London.

At this time Howchin developed lung disease, probably tuberculosis, and was forced to retire from the ministry. On medical advice he migrated to Australia with his family on 27 August 1881 and settled in Adelaide. His health restored, he was elected to the Royal Society of South Australia in 1883, beginning an association of fifty-three years; he was editor for most of the time until 1933, president in 1894-96 and published seventy-seven, mostly geological, papers in the Transactions, the first in 1884, on South Australian Cretaceous foraminifera.

Although he remained an ordained minister of the Methodist Church and occasionally took the pulpit as a supernumerary, Howchin never held a circuit in South Australia. Within the Church, at a time of controversy following the publication of Darwin's works, he was regarded both as a man of science and as a humble Christian engaged in the reconciliation of science and religion. He enlisted the help of friends among the clergy to collect and record material and demonstrated the use of the microscope to students.

In his early years in Adelaide Howchin worked as a journalist and in 1886-1901 as secretary of the Adelaide Children's Hospital. In 1901-23 he was a governor of the Public Library, Museum and Art Gallery and was subsequently honorary palaeontologist to the museum. He was lecturer in mineralogy at the Adelaide School of Mines in 1899-1904 and, following the death of Professor Ralph Tate, he was appointed lecturer in geology and palaeontology at the University of Adelaide in 1902; in 1918 he was designated honorary professor. On retirement in 1920, when he retained the title of professor, he continued his extremely productive work in geology. Short with a white beard, in old age he still searched vigorously in the field for specimens. From 1894 he was closely associated with (Sir) Edgeworth David.

With the exception of Tate's pioneering work on the Tertiary period, Howchin laid the foundation of South Australian stratigraphy. His great contributions were first, tracing the extent of and describing the two great glaciations affecting South Australia, the oldest in the Precambrian (which Howchin believed to be Cambrian) and the other in the Permo-Carboniferous; and second, the clear definition of the stratigraphic sequence in the Adelaide geosyncline. His book The Geology of South Australia (1918) remained a student text for forty years. In 1925-30 he contributed to the series of handbooks on the flora and fauna of South Australia The Building of Australia and the Succession of life, with Special Reference to South Australia. A list of his scientific works was published in the Transactions of the Royal Society of South Australia in 1933.

In 1914 the Geological Society of London awarded Howchin a moiety of the Lyell fund and in 1934 the Lyell medal. He was awarded the (W. B.) Clarke medal by the Royal Society of New South Wales in 1907 and the Ferdinand von Mueller medal by the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science in 1913; he was also the first recipient of the Royal Society of South Australia's Sir Joseph Verco medal in 1929. Several fossils were named after him.

Howchin died in Adelaide on 27 November 1937. Survived by his two daughters, he was buried in Mitcham cemetery with his wife who had died in 1924. The Methodist Church, the Royal Society of South Australia and the University of Adelaide were among his beneficiaries as was the South Australian Museum which received his collection of foraminifera and literature relating to this group of animals.

Select Bibliography

  • Royal Society of South Australia, Transactions, 61 (1937)
  • Geological Society of Lond, Proceedings, 94 (1938)
  • Australian Christian Commonwealth, 50, no 1 (1937)
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 29 Nov 1937.

Citation details

N. H. Ludbrook, 'Howchin, Walter (1845–1937)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/howchin-walter-6744/text11651, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 29 September 2016.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

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