Emeritus professor of geography

Born: April 7, 1920; Died: August 27, 2012.

Melvyn Howe, who has died aged 92, was Emeritus Professor of Geography at Strathclyde University and a leading international expert on medical geography.

His interest in medical or health geography was sparked by a casual conversation he had in the early 1960s with his GP in his native Wales about the lack of any meaningful statistics on the incidence of cancers in their local Aberystwyth area. Following the publication of a number of papers on the subject he was invited to join the Royal Geographical Society's medical geography committee. In 1963 he compiled the first atlas of disease mortality in the UK and the following year he received the RGS Gill Memorial Award in recognition of his work.

In 1967, after 20 years on the staff of Aberystwyth University, he moved to Scotland to become Foundation Professor of Geography at Strathclyde, retiring from the post in 1995.

George Melvyn Howe was born in the village of Abercynon in the Welsh Valleys, the son of a railway station master. He was educated at Caerphilly Grammar School, where he was head boy, then went on to read geography at the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth.

His studies were interrupted by military service in 1940. He spent a brief period as an RAF meteorologist on the Hebridean island of Tiree before being commissioned and dispatched to the Middle East Air Photographic Intelligence Unit in 1942.

For the remainder of the war his geographical expertise was put to good use as he saw active service in north Africa, the Middle East, Greece and the eastern Mediterranean. His job was to chart troop and shipping movements, identify land and sea defences and plan glider landing sites.

He was also dispatched to Athens during the period when Greek Communists attempted to take control of the country after German forces were expelled.

He was demobbed in 1946 and returned to Wales to complete his studies. He met his future wife, Patricia Fennell, at a party and the couple married in 1947. The same year he graduated with a first class honours degree in geography and anthropology and soon took up a post with the Commonwealth Bureau of Pastures and Field Crops.

In 1949 he returned to academia when he was appointed assistant lecturer in the geography department at Aberystwyth University. The same year he was awarded his MSc and, in 1957, he gained his PhD.

During his time at Aberystwyth he was promoted to lecturer, then senior lecturer and finally reader. His teaching and research interests included physical geography and the then USSR. In 1955 he became the first British geographer since the Second World War to visit the Soviet Union and a plaque to "Dr Melvyn Howe" in Moscow's Institute of Geography commemorates the visit.

In 1967, by then an expert in the field of medical geography, he was appointed Foundation Professor of Geography at Strathclyde University. He, his wife and their three daughters set up home in Bearsden.

At Strathclyde, Professor Howe built up his new department and made the success of his students his first priority. He encouraged them to believe in themselves. One of his favourite expressions was "The opportunity of a lifetime lasts the lifetime of the opportunity".

Over the years he served on a variety of committees and boards including the Council of the Institute of British Geographers (of which he was president in 1985), the Medical Geography Committee of the Royal Geographical Society, the Medical Geography Committee of the International Geographical Union and the Royal Society's British National Committee for Geography.

However, of all his notable achievements, the one which gave him most pride was his election as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

In 1977, while still holding his Chair at Strathclyde, Professor Howe spent six months working in Canada as a visiting professor of health and welfare. Throughout his time in Scotland he continued with his research and wrote and published widely. As a mark of his success, he was awarded a DSc in 1974.

After his retirement, he and his wife returned to Wales, setting up home in the seaside town of Porthcawl where Professor Howe became involved in local groups such as Probus, of which he became president, and the Civic Trust. The couple's great passion was travelling and the family enjoyed many trips overseas in their caravan. In later life, Professor Howe and his wife enjoyed cruising holidays.

A gentle, ever cheerful man, he was never happier than when he had his family around him. His health began to deteriorate over the last few months. He is survived by his wife, Pat, daughters Jill, Lise and Clare, and eight grandchildren.