Edith Ronne, 89; became 1st US woman on Antarctica

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post / June 19, 2009
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WASHINGTON - Edith “Jackie’’ Ronne never intended to leave Bethesda, Md. She had gone to Beaumont, Texas, in 1947, to see off her explorer husband as he and a volunteer crew headed to Antarctica to fill in the blanks on the map of the last continent. She packed little more than a good suit, a good dress, nylon stockings, and high heels for the trip.

But Finn Ronne, her husband of two years, was persuasive. He talked her into accompanying him, stop by stop, to Panama and then Chile. The Norwegian-born former US Navy captain insisted that he could not manage his low-budget exploration without her; he didn’t have the language skills to write dispatches for the North American Newspaper Alliance, one of the trip’s sponsors.

When Ms. Ronne finally agreed to go all the way to Antarctica, she insisted that another woman come along. Jennie Darlington, the new wife of the expedition’s chief pilot, joined the trip. It was a wise decision. Although most of the men did not like having women along, their presence helped calm what became a tense and argumentative 15 months.

Ms. Ronne was the first American woman to land in Antarctica, and she and Darlington, a Canadian, were the first women to overwinter there, from 1947 to 1948. (Caroline Mikkelsen, the wife of a Norwegian explorer, was the first woman to step foot on the continent, in 1935.) Ms. Ronne became an international celebrity for a time and a sought-after speaker on popular cruises to the polar seas.

She died of cancer and Alzheimer’s disease Sunday at the Carriage Hill nursing home in Bethesda. She was 89.

Ms. Ronne, a Baltimore native with a degree in history from George Washington University, was the trip’s recorder-historian. She also assisted the seismologist, who measured the first earthquake recorded in Antarctica and kept track of the tides. She filed dispatches, often under her husband’s name, for the news alliance and The New York Times, which later described her as “young and winsome.’’

The continent’s natural beauty took her by surprise.

“The approach to the continent through light pack ice was magnificent,’’ she wrote in the book “Antarctica’s First Lady’’ (2004). “I was totally in awe of where I was going, and I anticipated a great adventure.’’

She kept a daily diary in which she recorded a range of experiences, including the difficulties of living in a 12-foot-square hut that was also the expedition’s base and the dangers that beset the men.

H.C. Peterson, a physicist, fell 110 feet down a crevice and hung, upside down, for 12 hours until he was rescued. (“It was like pulling a tooth from a socket,’’ one of his colleagues said.) Ship’s crew member Nelson McClary stepped backward off a 60-foot cliff and plunged through thin ice. He later broke his collarbone in a sledding accident. US Air Force Lieutenant James Adams slipped into his plane’s spinning propeller, which gashed his head through his thick fur cap. Adams flew the plane back to the main base for first aid.

The adventure was also plagued by interpersonal difficulties, brought on by isolation, boredom, and close quarters. Small disagreements became major disputes. Factions formed. Because their husbands were at odds, the two women stopped speaking, out of loyalty to their spouses.

Even before it started, the last major private expedition to Antarctica ran into trouble. Admiral Richard E. Byrd, a neighbor and friend for whom Captain Ronne had worked, urged him to join forces. But Captain Ronne refused. Byrd’s subsequent opposition to the Ronne expedition tamped down the donations upon which explorers depended.

Nevertheless, the trip was a scientific success. The group explored more than 250,000 square miles of the continent, including both coasts of the Antarctic Peninsula and the Weddell Sea’s southern margin. They traveled by land and by air, setting down at 86 points to make celestial observations.

“Perhaps most important,’’ National Geographic reported in 1993, “the explorers at East Base had finally proved Antarctica was all one continent, laying to rest the theory that a frozen sea divided it.’’

Captain Ronne named newly discovered territory Edith Ronne Land for his wife. Later, at her request, the name was changed to the Ronne Ice Shelf, to match the name of the Ross Ice Shelf and to honor her husband and his father, a member of the Roald Amundsen expedition that reached the South Pole in 1911.

When they finally sailed home, however, Ms. Ronne said, “I will never, never go back to the Antarctic.’’

The unexpected difficulties of the trip so depressed her that she did not reread her diary until 1995.

“I didn’t want to be reminded of the pain,’’ she told the Washington Post.

She did return to Antarctica, drawn by the beauty of the landscape. She was on the first tourist trip to the continent in 1957, the International Geophysical Year. In 1971, she and her husband were guests of the US Navy and flew to the South Pole. They were the first married couple, and she was the seventh woman, at the pole.

Her husband died in 1980. She leaves a daughter, Karen Ronne Tupek of Bethesda, and two grandchildren.

Ms. Ronne lectured widely about her long-ago adventures and became a popular speaker aboard cruise ships. A documentary film, “First Woman on the Ice,’’ was made about her.

She became president of the Society of Women Geographers and was a member of the Explorers Club and the American Polar Society, which honored her for her adventures.

In 1995, Ms. Ronne finally revisited the expedition’s base, six years after it was designated a historic monument under the Antarctic Treaty. The hut was still there but nothing else.

When she left for the last time, she said, she firmly closed the door.