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The first woman and female scientists in Antarctica

by Robert C. Brears Blog

The twentieth century in Antarctica began with several exploration and research expeditions wintering on the ice. However, no woman played any part in any of the wintering expeditions of the ‘heroic era’.
Antarctic Peninsula

Regions: Antarctica

The first woman and female scientists in Antarctica

The Antarctic cruises you enjoy today owe a great deal to the intrepid souls of the early 20th century who began the investigation of our southern-most continent with several exploration and research expeditions wintering on the ice. This included:

  • the German Antarctic Expedition (1901-03), led by Erich von Drygalski
  • the Swedish South Polar Expedition (1901-04) of Otto Nordenskjold
  • the British National Antarctic Expedition (1901-04) with Robert Falcon Scott in charge of his first expedition
  • the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition (1902-04) of William Bruce
  • the French Antarctic expeditions of 1903-05 and 1908-10 both led by Jean Charcot
  • an Argentine expedition (1904-05) led by I.F. Galindez
  • Shackleton’s British Antarctic Expedition of 1907-09.

The next decade added the names of Filchner, Amundsen and Mawson to the list of heroic Antartic winterers. However, no woman played any part in any of the wintering expeditions of the ‘heroic era’.

The first woman in Antarctic

The Norwegian whaling firm of Christiansen, run by Lars Christiansen (the son of the founder) apart from whaling, sponsored a series of expeditions of research and discovery in Antarctica. These expeditions were primarily done to provide more information to assist whalers in their pursuit of the whale but also had the effect of opening up new sections of Antarctica’s coasts and seas.

It is on one of the company’s expeditions to Antarctica that the first woman set foot on the continent. Sailing on the Thorshavn during the 1934-35 season captain Klarius Mikkleson, a veteren of several Antarctic seasons, was accompanied by his wife, Caroline Mikkleson. One of the discoveries included the naming of Ingrid Christiansen Land, in which Ingrid was the wife of Lars.

While hoisting the Norwegian flag the party that came ashore on the continent on 20 February 1935 included Caroline, who was aboard the rowing boat that carried her husband and seven seaman from the ship to shore. As far as records go Caroline Mikkleson was the first woman to set foot on the Antarctic continent. During the 1940s Russian women served aboard vessels of their nation’s whaling fleets in Antarctica. However, none made it ashore.

Ingrid Christensen (left) & Mathilde Wegger,1931. © Sandefjord Whaling Museum

The IGY laying the foundation for female scientists in Antarctica

In 1952 the International Council of Scientific Unions began planning for the International Geophysical Year (IGY) to take place from 1 July 1957 to 31 December 1958. The result was the planning of hundreds of stations throughout the world recording data in the upper atmosphere and earth sciences, with a special emphasis on Antarctica. The date collected was to be pooled for all nations to have access to.

Twelve nations were involved in the IGY: Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Britain, Chile, France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, Russia, South Africa and the United States. The nations already operating stations in Antarctica increased them for IGY with Australian, Britain, France and New Zealand opening new stations on the continent in addition to maintaining or updating their sub-Antarctic ones.

The first female Scientist in Antarctica

Thousands of men from nearly all nations were in Antarctica during IGY as scientists, technicians and tradesmen. However, only one nation included a woman in its programme. As Russian women were frequently onboard whaling vessels in Antarctic waters for a decade already there was no hesitation in including a woman in the scientific team. The First Soviet Antarctic Expedition took place in 1955-6 and set up a station, named Mirny, on the coast of Queen Mary Land and included the renowned marine geologist Professor Maria Klenova, who had previously worked in the Arctic regions.

Professor Klenova worked aboard the Ob, one of the research vessels used to establish Mirny in preparation for IGY. Klenova was the first woman to carry out a programme of scientific work in her own discipline in Antarctica. After leaving Mirny the Ob carried out oceanographic work around the Antarctic coastline then headed north to Macquarie Island. Klenova then became the first woman to go ashore before sailing to Wellington, New Zealand before heading home. During the following summer 1956-7 two women worked with the Second Soviet Antarctic Expedition, the hydrobiologist V.S. Korotkevich and geomorphologist L.M. Nikolaeva. In total more than 50 women scientists from Russia worked in Antarctica from the first expedition in the summer of 1955-6 until the summer of 1979-80.

The first American scientist breaks the barrier

In the 1962-63 summer season women scientists in the United States made a breakthrough with two women scientists included in the United States’ Antarctic Program: Dr. Mary Alice McWhinnie and her research assistant Phyllis Marciniak. Dr McWhinnie was a biologist interested in krill and the two of them worked aboard the floating laboratory of the U.S.N.S. Eltanin. Over the summer they worked in the Weddell Sea and off from the South Orkney Islands.

At the same time Christiane Gillet became the first American woman to visit the continent. Gillet was a mechanical engineer who visited the French Antarctic station Dumont d’Urville in Adelie Land. Her responsibilities in Antarctica included provision and maintenance of technical equipment and machinery for the French research programme in Antarctica.

Other nations breaking the barrier

During the following 1963-4 summer season two women scientists worked for the Instituto Antarctico Chileno in Antarctica. Nelly Lafuente and Wanda Quilhot worked from the Chilean station, Bernado O’Higgins at the north-eastern edge of the Antarctic Peninsula. During the summer Lafuente investigated reproduction in birds and Quihot, a biologist, carried out research into the relationship of the local fauna with the environment.

It was not only women in government-run science programmes than dreamt of visiting Antarctica. Women not involved in scientific areas had little chance of visiting the continent except on board tourist cruises. In 1967-8 Lindblad Travel Inc. the company’s chartered vessel Magga Dan departed from New Zealand and sailed to the Ross Sea. This allowed the first New Zealand woman to visit the Antarctic continent. Marie Darby, a marine zoologist at the Canterbury Museum, was onboard the Magga Dan as a staff member.

Over the summer of 1968-9 Argentinian women scientists broke the barrier with four women working in the Antarctic Peninsula: Dr Irene Bernasconi, a marine biologist, Dr Mara Adela Caria, microbiologist, Dr Elena Martinez Fontes, marine biologist and Dr Carmen Pujals, a botanist. All four women were from the Museo Argentino de Ciencias Naturales. Based at Melchior Station they studied the flora and fauna along the coasts of the Palmer Archipelago.

The first woman scientist to head a winter programme

In 1974, history was made in Antarctic scientific exploration when Mary Alice McWhinnie was appointed as Chief Scientist for the winter. McWhinnie first submitted their proposal for scientific research in Antarctica to the U.S. National Science Foundation in 1959. A biologist then wanted to extend her studies from crustacea to Antarctic krill.

In 1962 she began her programme aboard the Eltanin in Antarctic waters. During the summer season of 1971-2 she finally made it ashore onto the Antarctic continent. By now McWhinnie was a renowned expert in her field with a growing international reputation. It was logical that the next step to studying the biology of krill was during an Antarctic winter.

In 1974 McWhinnie joined Mary Odile Cahoon, also a biologist, at McMurdo Station, the largest and most accessible station in Antarctica. At the time fears were allayed about the presence of women over the winter period by the fact the presence of two women in a population of around 100 males would be potentially disruptive than at a same station or only a dozen or so winterers and the period of isolation at McMurdo is relatively short: from the end of February to the beginning of September. 

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