George Melvyn Howe

7 April 1920–27 August 2012



Professor George Melvyn Howe

Source: Photograph by Brian Haberfield, reproduced with kind permission

Melvyn Howe was President of the Institute of British Geographers (IBG) in 1985, the year in which he retired from his Chair in Geography at the University of Strathclyde, and became an Emeritus Professor. His presidency was a fitting reflection of his professional commitment to the discipline, and he continued to publish in retirement.

Typically, he decided to stand for election as President because he felt able to give time to the role. Whatever the task, chief examiner for an advanced level board, governor of a school, professorial member of University Court or longstanding member of the Military Education Committee, he carried out his duties diligently and in good spirit. Few may have matched joining a lengthy reconnaissance flight over the North Atlantic in a Nimrod patrol for exhilaration.

He published widely but his name is primarily linked with medical geography, earning the nickname ‘Mortality Mel’. In 1963, on behalf of the Royal Geographical Society (RGS), he published the National atlas of disease mortality in the United Kingdom. After a second edition in 1970, more publications followed, including Man, environment and disease in Britain: a medical geography through the ages (1972); Environmental medicine (1974, with John Loraine); A world geography of human diseases (1977); Global cancerology (1986); and People, environment, disease and death (1997).

He had a career-long interest in the Soviet Union. His visit in 1955 was the first by a British geographer in the cold war era. Another trip, some years later, included taking the road to Samarkand, a journey retold in lectures to Royal Scottish Geographical Society audiences. It also informed his textbook The Soviet Union: a geographical survey (1983).

Melvyn Howe was born at Abercynon in the Welsh valleys. From Caerphilly Grammar School he went to Aberystwyth to read Geography but his studies were put on hold in 1940 when he joined the RAF. Commissioned in 1942, he spent most of the remainder of the war in Air Photographic Intelligence in the Mediterranean and Middle East theatres of action.

He returned to university graduating with a First Class Honours degree in 1947. In the same year he married Patricia Fennell. He worked for two years at the Commonwealth Bureau of Pastures and Field Crops, simultaneously completing an MSc before returning to Aberystwyth as an assistant lecturer. Initially his interests spanned aspects of physical geography and of the Soviet Union, but he developed a keen interest in medical geography. His publications led to promotions to senior lecturer and then reader. Externally his work was recognised by the award in 1964 of the Gill Memorial Award of the RGS.

In 1967 Dr Howe (he completed his PhD in 1957) was appointed Professor of Geography and Head of Department at the University of Strathclyde. He joined at a crucial time when an Honours programme had been approved in principle but needed launching and embedding. The success of this venture was due to the collective efforts of the staff, including a conscientious secretary, and to Melvyn's leadership.

The department quickly established a distinct catchment and attracted many enthusiastic students. Melvyn made a point of knowing the name of each final year student, using a photo list as his aide memoire. He was generous in his references for students.

Melvyn and Patricia soon settled into life in the Glasgow area and became generous hosts at their home in Bearsden. Both at Strathclyde and beyond Melvyn built a new circle of friends drawing upon his interests, curiosity, bonhomie and charm.

In 1974 his work was recognised by the award of a DSc from Strathclyde University. Subsequently he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE). As well as commitments to geography, which included membership of the Council of the IBG, the Medical Education Committee of the International Geographical Union and the Medical Geography Committee of the RGS, his link to the armed services was retained through longstanding membership of the Military Education Committee of Glasgow and Strathclyde universities (convener 1983–5).

Despite friendships forged in the Glasgow area it was no surprise when Melvyn and Patricia decided to retire to Porthcawl on the South Wales coast. He soon became involved in local clubs and activities, continued to publish and made frequent visits to Scotland, combining social tasks with events at the RSE and opportunities to update on developments at Strathclyde.

He is survived by his wife Patricia, daughters Jill, Lise and Clare, and eight grandchildren.