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Loewe, Fritz Philipp (1895–1974)

by Mark Richmond

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

Fritz Philipp Loewe (1895-1974), meteorologist, was born on 11 March 1895 at Schöneberg, Berlin, son of Eugen Loewe, judge, and his wife Hedwig, née Makower. Educated (1904-13) at the Königliches Joachimthalsches Gymnasium, in 1913-14 Fritz began to study law and French at the universities of Grenoble, France, and of Berlin. His love of heights and interest in ice and snow had begun in 1909 on a visit to the Swiss Alps. At Grenoble he first observed the diminution in the substance of glaciers, which became an enduring preoccupation. He served (1914-18) in the German Army as a wireless operator, rose to corporal and was awarded the Iron Cross (first class).

Having qualified as a physical-education teacher, Loewe returned to the University of Berlin (Ph.D., 1926); he studied (1919-23) geography, physics, mathematics and meteorology, and graduated magna cum laude. He took part (1924-25) in the first direct measurement of oceanic depth currents, worked at meteorological observatories at Davos, Switzerland, and in Germany, headed (1925-28) the aeroplane branch of the Prussian Meteorological Institute, and joined (1928) the weather service, Tempelhof Airport, Berlin. On 3 September 1927 in Berlin he had married Else Koester, a geography student; their honeymoon in Central Anatolia, Turkey, included geological and hydrological studies.

Loewe accompanied Professor Alfred Wegener, pioneer of continental-drift theory, on his last Greenland expeditions. In 1929, with Ernst Sorge, he made the first seismic measurements of the surprising thickness of the ice-cap close to its margin. During the over-wintering (1930-31) Loewe's toes were crudely amputated at Eismitte camp when gangrene followed frostbite. He and Wegener observed that the bulk of snowdrift transport occurs at considerable heights above the surface. When Wegener died attempting to reach the coast, Loewe became acting-leader. With Else, he returned to Greenland in 1932 as adviser for the film, S.O.S. Eisberg. He was to assist Wegener's widow to publish Greenland Journey (London, 1939), an account of the 1930-31 expedition.

Because he was Jewish, Loewe lost his civil-service position in 1933. After a brief incarceration he left Germany with his wife and daughters. He investigated (1934-37) meteorology at the Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge, England, where contact with (Sir) Raymond Priestley led to his emigration to Victoria on a Carnegie grant. Loewe reached Melbourne with his family on 1 March 1937. At the University of Melbourne (M.Sc., 1959) he established the meteorology department in 1939. Priestley admired 'his really fine attitude to a world which has deprived him of all his toes, of his livelihood, and of his country'.

Although he continued to produce papers, Loewe devoted his time to teaching. The exigencies of World War II increased demands on his aerial meteorological expertise; he also trained Royal Australian Air Force navigators. Initially classified as an enemy alien, he helped to have the new category 'refugee alien' recognized, and was naturalized in 1944. When the war ended he made several research expeditions to Antarctica. On the aborted voyage of H.M.A.S. Wyatt Earp in 1947, he studied the pack-ice which blocked their progress. He accompanied the French Commandant Charcot expeditions and in 1950-51 wintered in Terre Adélie. There he drew up a detailed mass balance of the Antarctic ice-sheet: his measurements of the intense but shallow layer were described as 'classic'. In 1955 he was awarded the Polar medal.

Loewe was seconded to the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization in 1958 to establish meteorological training in Karachi. He surveyed glaciers in Pakistan's Nanga Parbat region, again observing glacier diminution in contrast to the increasing substance of the Antarctic ice-sheet. In 1960 he retired as senior lecturer-in-charge, but continued to spend time at the university until his death. From 1961 he was a visiting professorial research fellow with the Institute of Polar Studies, Ohio State University (Hon. D.Sc., 1970), United States of America, and 'showed great resource in finding odd and unexpected routes' to and from his Melbourne base. He revisited Greenland in 1962, 1964 and 1967.

'Most learned, tolerant, and kindly', Loewe was tall, with a domed forehead, prominent teeth and a goatee, and recognizable in later life by his awkward gait. He was a conscientious liberal who worked with Rabbi Herman Sanger in the Association of Jewish Refugees to win recognition for 'refugee aliens'. Loewe chaired (1944) the Temple Beth Israel's religious-school parents' committee and contributed to the Jewish press. He wrote romantic verse using imagery drawn from his experience 'on the heights'; his prose revealed a vivid appreciation of the power and beauty of place, and a gift for its evocation.

As a teacher, Loewe produced Australia's first generation of graduate meteorologists. As a researcher, he was an empiricist with a passion to measure natural phenomena at the extremes of latitude and altitude. He reported his findings in several articles a year. 'In each case his measurements opened new horizons on known conditions'. His overview of meteorological science emphasized his conviction that theoretical 'justifications' should succeed empirical results. 'One of the great men of the heroic age of geophysical exploration', Loewe died on 27 March 1974 at Heidelberg, Melbourne, and was buried in Fawkner cemetery; his wife and two daughters survived him. A lecture theatre at the University of Melbourne was named after him in 1976.

Select Bibliography

  • E. Wegener (ed), assisted by F. Loewe, Greenland Journey (Lond, 1939)
  • Neue Deutsche Biographie, vol 15 (Berlin, 1986)
  • P. G. Law, The Antarctic Voyage of HMAS Wyatt Earp (Syd, 1995)
  • People (Sydney), 11 Mar 1953, p 24
  • Zeitschrift für Gletscherkunde und Glazialgeologie, 10, 1974, p 259, and for publications by Loewe
  • Journal of Glaciology, 14, no 70, 1975, p 191
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 3 Mar 1955
  • R. E. Priestley diary, 1936, and Loewe collection (University of Melbourne Archives)
  • University of Melbourne, Registrar's correspondence, and Science Faculty minutes, 1937-74, and Council minute books, 1936-38 (University of Melbourne Archives)
  • naturalisation file A446/172 item 61/24003, A367 item C82613 (National Archives of Australia).

Citation details

Mark Richmond, 'Loewe, Fritz Philipp (1895–1974)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 24 July 2016.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

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