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A snippet from my volunteer work on the ‘Dedicated Naturalist’ Project, helping to decipher and digitise, record and publicise the life’s work of naturalist extraordinaire, Dr Mary Gillham. In December 1959-January 1960 Mary made history as one of the first British women to conduct scientific research in the Antarctic region, as part of the ANARE expedition to restock the Australian Antarctic base on Macquarie Island.

Christmas 1959 was certainly a Christmas with a difference – wintry enough for the northern hemisphere, yet falling in midsummer. Our big meal was eaten buffet style; the mess hut would not rise to seating a population four times the size of the normal one. Antarctic skuas attended the second sitting (something which they scarcely waited for when the domestic fowl were being fed).

The skuas were the camp scavengers, fighting over the refuse bins and peering in hopefully through the window when the cook was at work. Occasionally one fell into the sink by mistake. It must be quite an experience suddenly to find a bird with a three foot wingspan flapping in your washing-up water!

After the Christmas toasts and speeches, Captain Hans Christian Petersen took the part of Santa Claus and came round with a sack of gifts. Our leader, Dick Thompson, had played a similar role at the Danish celebrations on board the previous evening. The captain warned us that we might well receive a pipe or tobacco pouch. The folks in Denmark could not possibly have foreseen that there would be ladies present on this auspicious occasion.

For the full story about the Mary Gillham Archive Project, check out our website, and follow our progress on Facebook and on Twitter.

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