skip to primary navigation skip to content

SPRI Review 1996: Director's Report

Director's Report

In November 1912, Frank Debenham and Raymond Priestley were on the slopes of Mount Erebus making a geological survey in the vicinity of Shackleton's hut at Cape Royds. As Debenham later wrote, 'We were but amplifying a survey done three years earlier by Professor [Edgeworth] David, [Douglas] Mawson and Priestley himself, and the question arose as to where their original notes and figures would be when we returned. Naturally, that led to a debate upon the need for a central repository for field records.' A few days later Debenham, while hunting for a gourmet delicacy that he hoped Shackleton's team might have left in their hut three years before, 'came upon some blue lined-foolscap in Shackleton's cubicle, so heavy in quality and smooth of surface that it positively invited one to write. Accordingly, I spent a morning writing down on this noble stationary an outline of the idea, which was afterwards but little altered, except that the original heading of "A Polar Centre" was at some later time crossed out and replaced by "A Polar Institute".'

Thus was the Institute conceived. Its gestation was prolonged by the First World War, but on returning to Cambridge, Debenham and Priestley resurrected the idea, and in the University Reporter of 20 November 1920 appears the recommendation of the Council of the Senate: '(1) That the Trustees of the Captain Scott Memorial Polar Research Trust be informed that the University would welcome the establishment of the proposed Polar Research Institute at Cambridge...[and] (2) That...temporary accommodation be provided in the Sedgwick Museum...' 'Thus,' wrote Debenham, 'when these recommendations were approved by Grace on 26 November, the Scott Polar Research Institute was, in effect, truly launched...'

On Saturday, 25 November 1995, the Friends of the Institute organised a celebration of the Institute's seventy-fifth anniversary. It began with a showing of Priestley's 'magic lantern' slides of the Terra Nova expedition with a commentary based closely on his lecture notes. This was followed by a party in the Institute and a dinner for the Friends. The highlight of the party was the cutting of a celebratory cake by Lady Philippa Scott and Sir Ernest Shackleton's granddaughter and Lord Edward Shackleton's daughter, the Hon Alexandra Bergel. It was an occasion that celebrated the past and looked into the future and the building of the Shackleton Memorial Library.

In the Lent Term, and in the same vein as the Priestley lecture, Geoffrey Selley gave two performances of a lecture about Shackelton's Endurance expedition of 1914-1917, using L.D.A. Hussey's original lantern slides and script. To round off this 'retrospective' there were two performances of 'These rough notes,' a dramatic reading drawing upon the diaries and other writings of Captain Scott, Kathleen Scott, Edward Wilson, Henry Bowers, and Apsley Cherry Garrard. Readers included Sir Vivian Fuchs and David Wilson, great-nephew of Edward Wilson.

While looking back with pride on our first 75 years, we have also been looking forward. Most important has been fund-raising for the Shackleton Memorial Library. Our fund-raising committee under the stimulating chairmanship of Sir Sam Edwards, FRS, has been enormously helpful in guiding our efforts. At the year's end, we were close to being able to match the funds that had been generously made available by the University, but then detailed estimates showed that we still had some way to go. Amongst the most startling donations came from King's School, Ely, where Mrs Patricia Seekings, Headmistress of Acremont House, organised events with her children that brought in a heart-warming £900.00.

Dr Pamela Davis, Fundraising and Business Development Coordinator, did a great deal to raise the Institute's profile. As well as arranging all the events mentioned above, she also organised the Institute's participation in National Science Week. It was almost overwhelmingly successful. Many hundreds of children and their parents flooded into the Institute to find out what -40°C felt like, to learn how to climb out of a crevasse, to discover what it was like to be clothed as a polar explorer, to come face to face with a husky, and, for the youngest, to be told Arctic children's stories. In the spirit of National Science Week, we were, we hoped, 'catching 'em young'!

Meanwhile, the research and library activities have proceeded. Dr Peter Wadhams' work in the Greenland Sea contributes greatly towards understanding climate change scenario; Dr Gareth Rees' work showed startling evidence from satellites of the extent of pollution in Arctic areas, and Dr Piers Vitebsky's work in the Russian far northeast cast new light on how northern peoples there are seeking to adapt to post-perestroika Russia.

In my report last year, I described the challenges that the Institute was facing. This year we have, as it were, come under 'starter's orders,' and I look forward to reporting next year that we have successfully met these challenges.

Dr John Heap, Director