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Harold Oswald Fletcher was Curator of Fossils at the Australian Museum from 1941 and its Deputy Director from 1957 to 1967. Determined not to be deskbound, he became a keen expeditioner, travelling to the top of Mount Kosciuszko, across the Simpson Desert and to Antarctica.
Born on 26 February 1903, Fletcher joined the Australian Museum at the age of 15. His main area of study was marine invertebrate fossils, particularly those of the Permian period (about 250–300 million years ago), but he was fascinated by nearly everything. In 1922 he joined an expedition to Lake Eyre, led by hydrographer Gerald Halligan. The water was never more than about eight centimetres deep, so the expedition boats were virtually useless.
In 1929 Fletcher went to the Kosciuszko plateau to collect insects, spiders and earthworms. Then, in one of the highlights of his career, he joined Sir Douglas Mawson’s 1929–31 British, Australian and New Zealand Antarctic Expedition. Marine studies were made to depths of 4700 metres and the party confirmed that underneath the ice cap were immense land masses. Mawson spoke highly of Fletcher, saying he was one of the ‘staunchest’ members of the team. “He is of splendid physique and excellent temperament for meeting unusual and trying conditions.” Fletcher was awarded a King's Polar Medal and Bar.
After more expeditions to collect fossils in northern New South Wales, the Northern Territory and north Queensland, Fletcher was asked by South Australian geologist and explorer Cecil Madigan to be second-in-command of an expedition to cross the Simpson Desert. Using camels, the group became the first white party to complete the crossing. Madigan commended Fletcher, saying he was a “strong, resourceful man, not easily put off by any sort of adversity”.
During World War II, Fletcher served briefly with the Anti-Aircraft Brigade, before returning to the Museum. He led the 1952 Australian Museum Scientific Expedition across central Australia to the Kimberley, returning via Queensland, studying Permian marine fossils south of Darwin, and collecting many animal specimens.
On an expedition to Canowindra, in central New South Wales, he helped secure one of the most remarkable fossil discoveries ever made in Australia – a large slab of more than 100 Devonian fish of eight species. The slab is currently on display at the Age of Fishes Museum in Canowindra (NSW).
Harold Fletcher retired in 1967 and died in 1996.