Women in Antarctica

 

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Annie

At the tail end of December in 1959 Mary Gillham and 3 other female scientists became the first British and Australian females to join a research trip in the Antarctic. Today is our last blog about this trip as Project Volunteer Annie Irving reflects on Mary, Isobel, Susan and Hope’s legacy of opening the door (although just a crack) to female Antarctic researchers…

 

As I began to write this blog, I was horrified to read news articles detailing the incredibly sexist statements (that women vets are worth two fifths of men) by the Chancellor of Massey University, where Mary worked as an exchange lecturer in 1957. The Chancellor has since resigned but his statements served to highlight, if such was necessary, the obstacles women face when choosing the sciences as their career option.

As a woman beginning her career as a scientist in the 1950s, I’m sure Mary Gillham was even more aware of these obstacles. As we’ve noted in the introduction to this series of blogs, Mary and her three female colleagues were the first (two) British and (two) Australian women to be included in a research trip to the Antarctic region, a situation so previously untenable that their involvement was refused several times before the Australian Acting Minister for External Affairs finally made the decision to allow the women to join the expedition just three weeks before they were due to sail.

Though drunkenness and ribald behaviour was tolerated in the male expedition members, the performance and behaviour of the four women came under intense scrutiny, by the media, by their fellow ANARE crew members, by government, university and other institutional officials. If they had not acquitted themselves with complete decorum and undertaken their scientific research in an exemplary manner, it’s highly likely the future involvement of women in similar scientific expeditions would have been greatly hindered and delayed.

Sixty years on, sexism remains a major issue for women determined to make a career in science. Though more women now choose science as an option for university study, they remain under-represented in senior positions in the discipline; they continue to be paid much less than male counterparts with the same skills and qualifications; and only 15 women have won the Nobel Prize in a scientific discipline since the award was established in 1901.

In the field of Antarctic and polar research, women like Mary and her fellow female expedition members provided inspirational role models for women hoping to follow in their footsteps. In subsequent years, Isobel Bennett returned three times to Macquarie to conduct further research but it wasn’t until the 1970s that women spent more than a couple of weeks on the island: medical practitioner Zoe Gardner was the first to spend a year there in 1976.

Nowadays, women polar scientists regularly join expeditions in the Antarctic region and frequently over-winter on Macquarie Island and at the various research stations on the continent, though their presence can still surprise. As Jaimie Cleeland wrote at the end of her recent stint on the island, older visiting tourists are still ‘astonished to see so many women working on the island’.

The role of women involved in polar science remains under-recognised, so much so that a group of female scientists last year organised a Wikibomb to create and update ‘more than 100 biographies of high achieving women in Antarctic science’. As organiser Dr Jan Strugnell explained ‘some 60% of early career Antarctic researchers are women, with strong reputations in the scientific community, but only about 10% of awards, prizes and papers at scientific conferences were presented to, or given by, women’ so a ‘greater online presence of female Antarctic science role models is important and long overdue’.

The list of Antarctic women is long and impressive but the fact that a Wikibomb was even necessary in 2016 speaks volumes about the progress of women in science, or the lack of it, sixty years after Mary Gillham’s pioneering journey to Macquarie Island.

For an ‘on-site’ summary of life in the Antarctic with muses on the experiences of females en route to today’s ‘enlightened’ times, you’ll struggle to find a better read (and some glorious and less glorious pictures) than Eat Sleep Freeze Repeat’s blog: Girl Power in Antarctica.

So, that’s it for the Macquarie blogs! Thanks for joining us over the past three weeks, the project continues and we shall be writing more very soon!

Reference material and further reading:

Thanks to John Wilkins (MGAP volunteer) for coordinating this series of Macquarie blogs.

The Mary Gillham Archive Project is funded by HLF and managed by SEWBReC
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Macquarie After Mary

At the tail end of December in 1959 Mary Gillham and 3 other female scientists became the first British and Australian females to join a research trip in the Antarctic. The likelihood of females joining future research trips would depend on the success of these ground-breaking women. We’re retelling Mary’s tale and talking more about Macquarie Island where this was all to take place…

In 1971, the Tasmanian National Parks and Wildlife Service came into being and, as a result of this, Macquarie Island became designated a conservation area.

In 1972, the island’s designation was upgraded to State Reserve under the Tasmanian “National Parks and Wildlife Act” of 1970 and, in 1978, it became the Macquarie Island Nature Reserve.

Want to see what Macquarie looks like right now? Check out the Macquarie Island Station webcam!

From 1997 until its withdrawal in 2011, Macquarie island held status as a “biosphere reserve” under the “Man and the Biosphere Programme”.

Macquarie Island was granted World Heritage status in 1998.

One of the largest earthquakes ever recorded (measuring 8.1 on the Richter Scale)  hit Macquarie on 23 December 2004. Despite the magnitude of this quake (which “rocked the island to its roots”), it caused very little damage. This “event” took place exactly forty-five years to the day after Mary Gillham first set foot on the island. (So no direct link to her then. Or was there?)

Check out an interactive timeline of Macquarie’s history

From the very start of man’s arrival on Macquarie, rats and mice inadvertently brought by their ships prospered and multiplied due to the lack of predators. As a consequence,  cats were introduced in an attempt to prevent those rodents from eating the humans’ food stores.

c1870, both rabbits and wekas were brought to the island by sealers who intended that the creatures would breed and thus provide them with a ready supply of fresh meat. And breed they did. In fact, one might say, they bred like rabbits doing so with such success that, by the time a century had passed, in 1970 there were estimated to be more than 130 000 of them on the island!

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Feral cats introduced to the island had a such a devastating effect on Macquarie’s population of seabirds with that they made an estimated 60 000 kills per annum!

Between 1985 and mid 2000, therefore, a programme was undertaken in an effort to save the seabirds from their feline predators and this was ultimately successful with the last of approximately 2 500 of them being culled by June of the programme’s fifteen year span. Consequently, the seabird population soared (pun intended) but widespread environmental damage still continued to be caused by wekas, mice, rats and rabbits.

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As might be expected, with the culling of the cats, rabbit numbers multiplied rapidly but were reduced to c10 000 when myxomatosis was introduced in the early 1980s though, by 2006, the population had again grown to more than 100 000 with their nibbling of the grass layer leading to soild erosion and cliff collapses that destroy seabird nests as they did did in September 2006 when a large landslip at Luisitania Bay also destroyed a significant part of the breeding ground of an important penguin breeding colony.

On 4 June 2007, the Australian federal government announced that it and the Tasmanian state government were to jointly fund the eradication of rodent and weka pests on Macquarie. This project, estimated to cost $A24 000 000, was to be based on initially mass baiting the island with this to be followed by the use of dog for hunting remaining pests.

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Despite a temporary suspension of the programme due to the unexpectedly high levels of bird deaths due to the baiting being carried out, it was reported in February 2012 that wekas had been and that rabbits, rats and mice had almost been erradicated from the island. The measures continued and, by July 2013, it was reported that no further rabbit signs had been found.

On 8 April 2014, Macquarie Island was declared officially to be “pest-free” this coming after some seven years of concerted conservation efforts with its achievement making it the largest successful island pest-eradication programme ever attempted anywhere in the world.

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The Australian Antarctic Territory postage stamp issue shown here was released to recognise the work of dogs in the eradication of the animal “pest” problem on Macquarie Island.

In September of this year (2016) the Australian Antarctic Division confirmed it was to close its Macquarie research station in 2017 but the Australian government  responded swiftly to this (and to widespread protest from the Australian people) by announcing that it would make available funding that would enable the upgrading of existing infrastructure and allow the continuation of operations on the island.

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Macquarie Island isthmus after a snowfall. By Hullwarren – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Read on tomorrow!

Reference material and further reading:

Thanks to John Wilkins (MGAP volunteer) for coordinating this series of Macquarie blogs.

The Mary Gillham Archive Project is funded by HLF and managed by SEWBReC
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New Year’s Day 1960

At the tail end of December in 1959 Mary Gillham and 3 other female scientists became the first British and Australian females to join a research trip in the Antarctic. The likelihood of females joining future research trips would depend on the success of these ground-breaking women. We’re retelling Mary’s tale and talking more about Macquarie Island where this was all to take place…

Mary’s diary for 1 January 1960: We were up betimes and on deck to see the docks around Williamstown gliding past. Then down below for a 7:00 am breakfast, continental style from the “cold table”.

We docked at 8:00 am, welcomed by a summery crowd on the quay. We leaned over the rail of the upper deck watching the men who had been isolated  –  even from mail  –  greeting their loved ones after 13 months. Television cameras whirred and press reporters darted hither and thither making the most of their opportunities. It was not long before they got around to us and we certainly stole the thunder from the men in all 3 of the local newspapers   –  altho’ we’d already had our turn on the way out.

Both “Sun” and “Age” produced good photos of us and the “Age” produced a very creditable article, mostly about what they called my “research tour” (See below for a copy of the “Age” article.) We performed again for TV but I didn’t see this, nor did I hear what was said in the news.

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The Age’s report on Mary’s ANARE trip. Published 02/01/1960

Hope went to collect her car & while waiting for her to return to give me a lift home to Minette’s I chatted with Mr. Brazenor & one of the out going party. From the latter I found that the Macquarie party’s only real objection to our visit was that they had had to watch their language & could no longer be free & uninhibited in conversation. This, as I pointed out, a very good rehearsal for returning to civilisation. This was apparently only a minor, and mostly imaginary worry, however, as we had had innumerable apologies for words spoken which were supposed to be impolite but which struck us as being very little different from what we heard in the normal course of events. No one had worried about having to give up their toilet accommodation & the first question when they heard we were going was “How old are they?”. From reactions on New Year’s Eve it had seemed that the question of age mattered very little.

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Poster for the film Mary and Pat went to see on New Year’s Day 1960. A 1958 film starring Alec Guiness with a plot described in Halliwells film guide as: “An obsessive painter is a liability to his friends” and with the review “Thin but fitfully amusing light study of a social outcast, with a background of London river and streets. Too slight for real success”. So, for Mary, a somewhat humdrum end to an adventurous and eventful fortnight.

Back at Park Street  –  to a strangely quiet house vacated for the holidays  –  I went through a big pile of mail & then adjourned to the botany department with my grass plants for Beth Gott. Much chattering with Garth Everson, the only botanist on deck, & then back to gather up some food, only just in time, as the last shop shut for the weekend.

 Just as I was finishing lunch Pat Worham appeared at the door, eager for news about her husband she would not see for another year. So we spent the afternoon nattering and dined from chops, peas & pumpkin and biscuits & cheese & coffee.

In the evening we took ourselves to town to see the film “The Horse’s Mouth”  –  a not particularly good comedy about an old artist  –  and a fairly good supporting “who dunnit”.

 

Read on tomorrow!

Reference material and further reading:

Thanks to John Wilkins (MGAP volunteer) for coordinating this series of Macquarie blogs.

The Mary Gillham Archive Project is funded by HLF and managed by SEWBReC
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