EDITH “JACKIE” RONNE (1919-2009)
Jackie Ronne was the first American woman to set foot on Antarctica. She and Jennie Darlington were the first women to overwinter in Antarctica, as members of the Ronne Antarctic Research Expedition.
Edith Ronne was born into a conservative family, but always felt she would do something a little bit different. She got her nickname ‘Jackie’ at summer camp, where the girls added the diminutive ‘ie’ to their father’s name. Edith chose her father’s middle name ‘Jack’ and by university, she was ‘Jackie’ to all who knew her well. After university, she worked briefly for the National Geographic Society, before taking a secretarial job with the State Department.
In 1942 Jackie met Finn Ronne, a Norwegian-American, polar explorer who had been to Antarctica with Admiral Byrd in 1935 and 1939. By 1944 the two were married. After the war Finn began planning his own, privately funded Antarctic expedition to explore the Antarctic Peninsula and Weddell Sea coastlines, despite roadblocks created by Admiral Byrd and the British government, who considered the region as their own.
Ronne Antarctic Research Expedition
On January 25, 1947, the Ronne Antarctic Research Expedition (RARE) departed from Beaumont, Texas. Jackie had planned to stay in the United States and take care of the expedition administration and publicity, but Finn convinced her to sail as far as Panama. Jackie in turn convinced Jenny Darlington, wife of chief pilot Harry Darlington, to join her. At Panama, their voyage was extended to Valparaiso, Chile and once there, Finn insisted that Jackie continue to Antarctica. In the end, both women joined the expedition, Jackie as expedition historian and correspondent and Jennie as a companion. Jackie wrote,
“I started off for a year’s stay on the Antarctic continent with one small suitcase which contained mainly a good suit, a good dress, nylon stockings and high heel shoes – clothes about as suitable as Eskimo furs would be on a South Sea island, but I had the excuse that I didn’t know I was going. . .”
Jackie became the first American woman to set foot on the continent and the first woman to have an official role on an Antarctic expedition. She and Jennie Darlington became the first women to overwinter in Antarctica.
The expedition landed at Stonington Island, on the west side of the Antarctic Peninsula and occupied East Base (68°11’S, 67°00’W) which Finn had built in 1940 for Byrd’s United States Antarctic Service Expedition. Over the course of 15 months the RARE explored the western and southern Weddell Sea coasts by air and dogsled. In doing so, they acquired 14,000 trimetrogon photographs, put 250,000 sq miles (400,000 sq km) of unknown Antarctica onto the maps, and determined that the Weddell and Ross Seas were not connected. For her part, Jackie kept the expedition’s log and wrote many articles for newspapers back home, documenting the discovery and mapping of the Weddell Sea coastline. She also made routine daily seismographic and tidal observations when the geophysicist was in the field. Unfortunately, bitter in-fighting developed between Finn Ronne and Harry Darlington and by the end of the expedition, Jackie put away her diary and vowed never to return to Antarctica.
Return to Antarctica
Jackie remained interested in polar exploration throughout her life, supporting her husband’s later expeditions and writing and lecturing widely. Despite her vow, Jackie also returned to Antarctica many times. In 1959 she joined the first Antarctic tourist cruise, visiting Deception Island and an Argentine base. In 1971, Jackie became the 7th woman to reach the South Pole, when she and Finn were invited on a US Navy flight, for the 60th anniversary of Amundsen’s expedition. Finn’s father Martin Ronne had been on the expedition and had sewn the tent that Amundsen left at the South Pole in December 1911.
Jackie went on to become a frequent guest lecturer on Antarctic cruise ships and in 1995 returned to Stonington Island aboard Explorer, to visit the old RARE expedition base. In preparation for the trip, she opened her expedition diary for the first time in 47 years. In 2005, Jackie published Antarctica’s First Lady, a personal account of her experience on the Ronne Antarctic Research Expedition. She passed away in 2009 at the age of 80.
Awards and Legacy
Jackie was widely honored for her pioneering role in Antarctica. She was awarded a special Congressional Medal for American Antarctic Exploration and was made a Fellow of the Explorers Club. She was also a dedicated member of the Society of Women Geographers, serving as its president from 1978-81.
When Finn died in 1980, Jackie and her daughter established the Finn Ronne Memorial Award with the Explorers Club, awarded quadrennially, for accomplishments in polar field research or exploration.
Several Antarctic Landmarks commemorate the contributions of Jackie and Finn Ronne and the Ronne Antarctic Research Expedition:
- The southernmost areas explored by the RARE (originally named Edith Ronne Land) are now known as the Ronne Ice Shelf.
- The Broad SW entrance of George VI Sound where it opens on Bellingshausen Sea is named for Finn Ronne.
- East Base, the expedition’s headquarters on Stonington Island, became the first American historic site in Antarctica. It is designated as Historic Site and Monument No. 55 under the Antarctic Treaty.