Origins ANTARCTICA, Scientific Journeys from McMurdo to the Pole
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A Warmer Climate for Women in Antarctica

With the climate changing for women, NSF asked Dr. Mary Alice McWhinnie, a world authority on krill—tiny shrimp-like crustaceans that play a key role in Antarctica’s food chain—to become the first woman in its program to winter over. McWhinnie accepted the challenge—and more. She also became chief scientist at McMurdo Station. McWhinnie, who had worked offshore for ten years as the first American woman on an Antarctic research ship, spent a six-month polar night studying temperature adaptation with about a hundred men and one other woman colleague, Sister Mary Odile Cahoon, a Ph.D. biologist.

In 1970, Irene C. Peden, an associate professor of engineering studying the polar upper atmosphere, became the first U.S. woman to venture into the interior of the continent. Working at an even more remote site, physician Michele Raney was the first woman to winter at the South Pole and was the station’s lone female during the winter of 1979. Since then, Jerri Nielsen, sole South Pole physician wintering over in 1999, gained notoriety for performing a biopsy on herself when she took ill at the remote outpost. She was subsequently diagnosed with breast cancer and, with the help of non-physician helpers, self-administered chemotherapy until her rescue.

Today, approximately one-third of the scientists and support crew at McMurdo during the Antarctic summer are women (you’ll meet some of them in dispatches from our team). Though females are still a minority and still struggle against stereotypes in Antarctica, things have definitely changed for the better. Commenting on the climate for women in 1998, Colorado State University scientist Diana Wall noted in the "Denver Post": "It’s not so much that we notice anymore who are women and who are men, but we’re doing science, and it’s a big team effort."



  • Women on the Ice: A History of Women in the Far South by Elizabeth Chipman. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1986. A thorough, often first-hand, international account of women’s experience on The Ice.

  • The New Explorers: Women in Antarctica by Barbara Land. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1981. This very readable book includes lots of first-hand accounts from pioneering women.

  • Women in the Antarctic edited by Esther D. Rothblum, Jacqueline S. Weinstock, and Jessica F. Morris. New York, London: Haworth Press Inc., 1998. A sociological look at the subject, featuring interviews with women pioneers, explorers, scientists, navy personnel, and contractors.

Note: All three books are somewhat difficult to find; try searching for them at a used book store or at or

A few interesting Web pages about women on The Ice:

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