Alan Cowan: a generous doctor, classical music enthusiast and avid bird watcher The Canberra Times

Alan Cowan: a generous doctor, classical music enthusiast and avid bird watcher  The Canberra Times

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1929 – 2021 Alan Cowan was fatally wounded in a car accident near his home on July 22, a tragedy for himself, his family and everyone who knew him. Alan was one of my closest friends and we went far back together. He was born in London in 1929 and then completed his schooling in Surrey, where he and his family were evacuated due to Blitz. In 1946 he entered Medical School at London University, qualified in 1951 and married Anne Gammon the same year. They had four children. In those days, two years of national service in the armed forces was compulsory, and he spent 1953-1955 at the British Military Hospital in Libya, where Britain still had a significant military presence. After the Army, he continued his hospital work to obtain his surgical specialization, FRCS, in 1957. In 1966, he and his family moved to Australia. They settled in Canberra, where Alan worked for the rest of his medical career, both as a specialist surgeon and general practitioner. In 1969, I joined a party of 40 Bird Observer’s Club members for a three-week camp on the Cape York Peninsula. Alan and Ann were both there, but Anne had volunteered to be one of the two tenant chefs, and under outdoor and primitive conditions, she had virtually no free time other than her cooking duties. It was not long before Alan and I met and realized how much we had in common. We were both from England, both doctors and both with an eagerness to see and learn as much as possible about the remarkable birds around us, not just for the purpose of putting a tick on a list. The only thing we did not have in common was smoking pipes, and I was happy to leave that to him. We spent a lot of time together on that trip. A common interest was classical music, and Alan’s knowledge was clearly profound, especially about JS Bach’s works. I had sung in Bach’s B minor mass at school, but Alan’s knowledge went far beyond this, especially with the sacred cantatas I knew nothing about. He grew lyrical about them and talked about who had recorded them and what performances he thought were the best. On the flight back to Sydney, he then compiled a comprehensive list of what he thought were the best fifties, along with notes on their vocal and instrumental features, and why he thought different were the finest. He had nothing to refer to. It was all in his head. A remarkable intellect. Alan was not only a Bach enthusiast. He had a fine voice and was a member of the Canberra Choral Society for many years. He loved almost all classical music and I remember sitting transfixed with him in Canberra at a great concert with Haydn symphonies. Another of his great loves was bird watching, especially seabirds. He embarked on a series of oceanic expeditions, and it was seabirds behind his decision to go to Antarctica, where he spent the winter as a doctor at Casey Station and returned to be awarded the Queen’s Polar Medal. Antarctica is not for the faint of heart, and there were many dangerous situations there in rubber boats, but nothing to compare with the journey in Totorore. This was a small 11 meter yacht that was sailed by the owner around Cape Horn and then up the western side of the tip of South America, all in search of seabirds. He needed a crew to make the venture possible, and Alan reached out and flew to the southern tip of the continent to join the boat. By all accounts, it was a successful but very testing journey through some of the wildest seas in the world. Sometime later, I’m not sure how long Totorore and its lord disappeared at sea without a trace. Alan had been very lucky. Alan’s marriage to Anne ended, and for some time he was alone and not very happy. It was a source of great joy to him when he met and married Susan Poultney; the renewed strength and enthusiasm that emerged was inspiring to all who knew him. They met through choir singing and continued to sing and travel a lot. In 1999, I studied and photographed owls around the world, and high on the wanted list was Snowy Owl, the great white owl in the Arctic. I asked Alan if he would come and he eagerly accepted and said Susan would come too. This was especially gratifying as Margaret, my wife, had an aversion to cold places and did not look forward to being alone in an Eskimo village while sitting in a hideout on the tundra. The trip was a huge success and I still have a photograph of Alan, dressed as an Eskimo fighting the wind to put my bird hide in the snow. Three years later, I called Alan again. This time, the quarry was Blakiston’s fish owl in Japan, the largest owl in the world and one of the rarest. Sumio Yamamoto, our host, had organized accommodation in a traditional Japanese guesthouse, an experience in itself. The conditions were very cold, with heavy frosts at night, but Alan’s experience of Antarctica suited him well, and we both enjoyed the experience of working with this mythical bird. In recent years, Alan did not have the best health, but to talk to him one would never have guessed it. He had heart problems and some major hip complications, but did light on both and remained as positive and turned on to the world as he had ever been. Over the years, he had been a regular contributor to letters to The Canberra Times, and I realize that this tradition continued to last, with his last letter to this paper yet to be published.


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