Finally, the story of East Gippsland's forgotten hero

Alfred Howitt will finally have his life up in lights when Deakin University PhD candidate Jenny Herbert competes in the Three Minute Thesis competition final.

One of Australia's and it would seem East Gippsland's overlooked heroes, Alfred Howitt, will finally have his life up in lights when Deakin University PhD candidate Jenny Herbert competes in the University's Three Minute Thesis competition.

Ms Herbert will compete against the University's other doctoral candidates on July 7 for a spot in the national final to be held in September.

Her PhD, which is in two parts will involve the production of a creative work, along the lines of historical fiction works such as Kate Grenville's The Secret River as well as an academic body of work which looks at the life of Alfred Howitt within the context of the creation of national identity.

"Alfred Howitt earned international recognition in anthropology, geology and botany, although he is mostly remembered as the leader of the recovery mission that discovered the fate of Burke and Wills," she said.

"Although he was a significant man in his time, Howitt is now largely forgotten yet Burke remains a hero.

"The creation of the Australian identity can be quite exclusive at times, about who it involves and mythologises.

"How is it our national identity is built on such flawed and incomplete foundations?"

Ms Herbert said she was attracted to write about Alfred Howitt because of his achievements and because he spent much of his life in East Gippsland: it's an area which is marginalized in both history and literature– no-one writes about East Gippsland."

"I was really interested in his anthropological work and wonder how could he have known what he did at the time," she enthused.

"He is probably the most important historical figure East Gippsland has and he is largely forgotten, so it's a good project."

Ms Herbert acknowledged one of the difficulties with the thesis was mixing historical fact with fiction.

"That debate goes back to Plato," she laughed, "who has got the right to talk about the past?

"All history is in part fictional, engaging in leaps of interpretation and assumption that border- more or less -on fabrication.

"Those who write about the past are influenced by ideology – both their own and in the records they examine.

"And, unlike fiction writers, historians are constrained by inaccessibility into the hearts and minds of protagonists.

"Historical fiction unashamedly mines and manipulates the records and fills the gaps with imagination.

"Yet such freedom can lend history a richer and deeper meaning."

Further information

  • Finals of the Three Minute Thesis will be held in Western Australia on Thursday 29 September 2011.
  • Research students have three minutes to present a compelling oration on their thesis topic and its significance in a language appropriate to an intelligent but non-specialist audience.
  • Last year's 3MT finalists on the Deakin Research Channel

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