My father, Peter Schwerdtfeger, known to me as Pa, his grandchildren as Opa, to his friends as Peter and to his many students simply as Prof was a consummate polymath of fascinating contrasts and a multiplicity of interests. We remember him as frequently eccentric, often brilliant and always dedicated to his work.
As a child I don’t recall him sitting still for longer than it took to down a cup of coffee, unless he was sitting at the piano or the typewriter.
He was shaped by a peripatetic childhood, his parents leaving Germany for political reasons when he was still a babe in arms. His education began at the Russian kindergarten in Prague at a mere 18 months of age and was interrupted by the German invasion of 1938. The family fled to Switzerland where my father was baptized in Zurich cathedral. Their stay in that small country was brief however and as my grandfather was determined to put as much distance as possible between himself and the Nazis the small family arrived in Australia in August of 1939, literally moments before Europe erupted into chaos.
Pa’s education continued at Westbourne Park Primary school under the sketchy guidance of teachers whose attitude to small boys with German surnames was conditioned by their experiences in the first world war. As a consequence his early schooldays were often uncomfortable. Some years later he transferred to Prince Alfred College, which seems to have been an improvement in circumstances [in recent years he was certainly an enthusiastic participant in the PAC Old Old Boys]. Sadly his days there were cut short by his parents deciding to transfer to Melbourne.
From academic beginnings [to quote him directly] as a grease-monkey on a cyclotron [which he was involved in building] he was awarded an MSc at Melbourne University, followed by a PhD at McGill University in Montreal.
Adelaide and the Mount Lofty Ranges continued to hold a place in his heart so when he was invited to take up the foundation Chair in Meteorology in 1971 he accepted with alacrity. In doing so he became the youngest professor in Australia at the time. This gave him particular delight. At heart he was not just Peter but Peter Pan, the boy who never grew up. I recall it pleased him enormously when my fellow students at Adelaide University assumed he was my brother when he occasionally called into the Architecture studios.
He remained Professor of Meteorology until he resigned in 1999. The list of his achievements is far too long to read in full here, so I will be brief. In 1977 he was invited to chair the inaugural board of the South Australian Country Fire Service, a position he held until 1984. In the early 80s he achieved his ambition to fly, gaining both solo and twin engine endorsements. He was the foundation president of the Australian Association of von Humboldt Fellows, continuing in that capacity until 2009. The Association has established an annual award in his name. In 1988 he was elected a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering. In 1991 he was awarded the prestigious Max Planck Research Prize together with professorial colleagues Hacker and Kraus; cofounding Airborne Research Australia with the former in 1995.
My father was a keen gardener who enjoyed shaping landscapes, building stone walls and planting trees. The glorious avenue of liquidambars [now listed on the national register of significant trees] that bring colour to the main street of Stirling in autumn each year are there thanks to my father mobilising fellow tree lovers in the local community and organising their planting in 1972.
He was an enthusiastic if occasionally misguided cook. Sometimes it seemed as though he had a mission to bring breadcrumbs to the whirled, including them as a key ingredient in pasta, pancakes and even pumpkin pie: his ability to cover every horizontal kitchen surface (and a good many vertical ones ) with flour is the stuff of legend. I have been trying to expunge the memory of his interpretation of poulet au cocacola for over thirty years and if I may borrow from a movie popular late in the last century… The recipe for spam and aubergine pizza fortunately goes with him to his grave. His baumkuchen, on the other hand, prepared annually to distinguish my mother’s birthday, was exceptionally good.
My father loved music and as a small boy longed to play the violin, an ambition his parents did not take seriously until he actually built an instrument for himself, whereupon they relented and allowed him to take lessons – on condition he confined his practice to the shed at the bottom of the garden. Despite this daunting beginning he persevered and by the time he had completed his secondary schooling at Melbourne University High had attained concert standard on both the violin and the piano. As a child one of my great pleasures was to sit underneath the piano as he thundered out a Bach prelude at the end of his working day.
I recall asking him why he had not pursued a musical career. His response was unequivocal, declaring that he had given his four major interests [music, astronomy, architecture and physics] equally serious consideration when deciding on potential tertiary study; and that he had decided to keep the first three for recreational purposes, primarily because he hoped that a career in the sciences would always offer him new challenges and the potential for discovery.
He indulged his interest in architecture by shaping our living environment – I don’t recall any of the houses in which we lived being without a construction of some kind in process – as well as designing both the ANARE Ski Lodge on Mount Baw Baw and the Melbourne University meteorological research station at Mount Derrimut. I recall the latter as an elegant post-modernist arrangement of two equilateral triangles connected by a glass bridge. His fascination for astronomy was furthered by building a telescope from an old artillery shell, beginning with the grinding of the lenses.
Pa was the only person I know who could choose to speak French with an Indian accent. It was hilarious. He gave me the gift of curiosity and showed me the joy to be found in words, instilling a love of language in his grandchildren as well. His pithy dismissal of persons who had incurred his disapproval as ‘quivering masses of gelatinous protoplasm’ puts Paul Keating’s invective firmly in the shade.
Pa’s first scientific paper was published whilst he was still a schoolboy setting the foundation for a prolific catalogue. He published several meteorological textbooks, contributed to other volumes on natural history and served on the editorial boards of a number of scientific periodicals. I think that of the International Glaciological Society may have been his favourite.
His descent into dementia was swift and tragic and the last twelve months of his life can only be described as a living hell.
It is hard to say exactly when I realised that the father I had known and loved had slipped away and been replaced by a being who seemed to actively dislike me and with a propensity for arson, but from the middle of last year it became clear that he would need to be confined, for his own safety and that of others. Visits to him were sometimes difficult as he would run away when I came into sight. At other times I was able to connect him to his brother in Colorado thanks to the miracle of the modern pocket telephone. Somehow our last visit together was surprisingly pleasant. I had brought him a book about his beloved polar regions and many of the images triggered lucid memories of his work in both. At the conclusion of our afternoon together he whispered that he hoped he would survive until I returned.
He did not.
Peter Schwerdtfeger on the web