Feature

Edith Ronne

The explorer who was the first U.S. woman on Antarctica

Edith Ronne1919–2009

When Edith Ronne bid goodbye to her husband, U.S. Navy Capt. Finn Ronne, in 1947, she didn’t expect to see him for more than a year: He was to spend the winter in Antarctica. But at the last minute, Ronne, a native of Norway, begged his Baltimore-born wife to abandon her job as a State Department clerk and come along. His English was so sketchy, he said, that he needed her to write dispatches for the North American Newspaper Alliance, one of his expedition’s sponsors. Edith agreed, and in doing so became the first U.S. woman to set foot on the bottom of the world.

Her husband’s request “came at such short notice that all Ms. Ronne had by way of luggage was some cocktail dresses and nylons,” said The Wall Street Journal. She did, however, have female—and Canadian—companionship. “In part to even out the sex ratio, another woman, Jennie Darlington, the wife of the expedition’s chief pilot, agreed to come along.” After picking up supplies in Chile, the group landed on Antarctica where, for 15 months, they “conducted aerial mapping sorties and geological investigations that included detecting the first known Antarctic earthquakes.”

It was a bleak existence, said The Washington Post. Ronne’s daily diary reflected “the difficulties of living in a 12-foot-square hut that was also the expedition’s base.” She busied herself by filing dispatches under her husband’s name, recording scientific data, and visiting penguin colonies. Apart from the inherent dangers, “the adventure was also plagued by interpersonal difficulties brought on by isolation, boredom, and close quarters.” Small spats erupted into major arguments; “because their husbands were at odds, the two women stopped speaking, out of loyalty to their spouses.”

Returning to civilization in 1948, Ronne vowed, “I will never, never go back.” But she did: In 1971, she and her husband, who died in 1980, became the first married couple to reach the South Pole. In 1995 Ronne revisited the frozen continent and found her old hut. Once, when asked why she joined her husband, she replied, “I was in love with him. I would have done anything to support the expedition—even stay behind.”

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