Discovering Australia’s first weather record

As a young American researcher working in Australia in the late 1970s, Robert McAfee made a startling discovery that would have a huge impact on Australian Climate History research, the weather diary of Lieutenant William Dawes. This is his story.

When I was a grad student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison I received a telegram from Professor Edward Linacre of Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. To say I was stunned to receive this would be an understatement. The telegram offered me a position as a tutor in climatology in the School of Earth Sciences. I accepted this offer without hesitation.

During the next few months I completed requirements for my M.Sc. and arrived in Sydney.

Almost immediately Prof. Linacre put the idea in my head that my PhD thesis should focus on climate and history in Australia. This was very attractive to me as I enjoyed ‘digging’ around libraries and archives; it was like solving a great mystery.

My first task was to become familiar with Australian history. As an American I had no idea about the history and only a very elementary knowledge of the geography. Stereotypically my knowledge of Australia was limited to kangaroos and koalas and that classic film On the Beach. I read a number of general history texts and audited some history classes at Macquarie.

Prof. Gentilli in Perth, who was Australia’s premier climatologist made mention of some early sources, but on the whole he concluded there was little useful information for climate before about 1850. This did not discourage me, it only made me more determined.

So I began what would become nearly weekly forays to the Mitchell Library in Sydney where the historical records and archives of early Australia and New South Wales were kept. Initially I examined the published accounts of written by members of the First Fleet who arrived at Port Jackson in 1788. From these came leads to other sources, many unpublished. A great source of leads as well as data was the multivolume collection, “Historical Records of New South Wales.”

On one my expeditions of discovery to the Mitchell Library I made what I considered to be the crown jewel of my searches. While examining volumes of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society I was reading through a section called “Gifts Received”. This was a lengthy list of items donated, general a single line or two. Then an entry appeared: A Meteorological Journal at Port Jackson, 1788-1791 by Lieutenant William Dawes. I was excited beyond description. Immediately I asked one of the Librarians about the possibility that this might be in the Mitchell Library. There was an exhaustive search and it was not in the Mitchell.

Robert McAfee and David Karoly
Robert McAfee and the SEARCH Project's David Karoly

I wrote to the Royal Society in London and asked it the Meteorological journal was still in their possession. After some time I received a reply that it was there and would I like a copy. I was told it was quiet a large journal. I requested a copy and agreed to cover any costs for reproduction and postage. I received the journal compliments of the Royal Society.  This would form a very substantial foundation for a history of climate in Australia.

The great climate history mystery unfolded brilliantly and I accumulated a hundred times the ‘clues’ which I had thought possible when I began this.

In 1981 I returned to the US to write my PhD thesis which was submitted in August of that year. The thesis was the culmination of five years of exhaustive research, documentation, and putting together as comprehensive as possible a history of the climate in SE Australia.

Looking back at this period some 30 years later it still brings joy to me for the good work which was accomplished there. It was an extraordinary humbling experience to be one of the fathers of historical climatological research and discovery for Australia. It enriched and made a positive impression for the rest of my life. Now it is gratifying to see my research being put to good use to expand the Australian climate history with the University of Melbourne’s expansive research undertaking on the subject.

By Robert McAfee