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Margaret Bradshaw: polar explorer

Geologist Margaret Bradshaw’s career as an Antarctic researcher started with a simple request that she “go down and get some rocks” for the Canterbury Museum’s new Antarctic Hall.

It was 1975 and Bradshaw was curator of geology at the museum.

“I was asked to put on a geological exhibit for the new Antarctic Hall but when I looked in the collection, I couldn’t find any rocks.

So I suggested the easiest thing to do would be to go down and get some,” she remembers.

In the mid-70s, only a handful of women had been to Antarctica.

Until 1969, the United States Navy had refused to transport women to the continent and the US agency that coordinated Antarctic research didn’t allow women to work there.

When the ban was lifted in 1969, New Zealander Pamela Young, and five American women in a separate party, worked on the ice that year and became the first women to set foot at the South Pole.

When Bradshaw successfully applied in 1975, she was joined by British geologist Susan West.

“She’d done a PhD on Antarctic rocks but she’d never been down.

She only worked on the rocks that men brought back.”

West came to New Zealand at her own expense when she heard that New Zealand was including women in their programme.

Bradshaw and West arrived at Scott Base to prepare for their field expedition.

“It didn’t bother us at all. We thought we’d fit right in, but when we went to the bar it was full of bearded characters who glowered at us and said, ‘We came down here to get away from people like you.’”

Scott Base had not been set up for women.

A post office cupboard had to be converted into a women’s toilet and specific times were allocated for women to shower.

Bradshaw remembers having to push back against special treatment - even though some of it was well meaning.

“Even in the 70s and 80s there were the odd times when leaders would try to stop you doing full survival training. They would say being alone in a snow cave overnight was too dangerous. But we stuck to our guns and, in the end, they didn’t hold it against us.”

Bradshaw’s first trip to “get some rocks” turned into a lifetime of research. In the Dry Valleys she discovered rocks with strange patterns like spaghetti.

“I saw this on the first trip and thought, ‘This is interesting. What caused these?’”

These rocks and this question set Bradshaw on a career path that included nine Antarctic research trips and continues today.

The rocks are what are known as trace fossils - the spaghetti marks turned out to be made by a burrowing sea creature that lived on the bottom of the sea 400 million years ago.

In 1979, Bradshaw was the first woman to lead a deep field party.

That was the same year that Air New Zealand Flight 901 crashed at Mt Erebus, killing everyone onboard.

“We knew something was going on because we heard all the radio traffic. They were calling us but we couldn’t respond. In the end, we had to radio South Pole and get them to pass on the message that we were alright.”

In 1993, Bradshaw was the first New Zealand woman (and second woman ever) to be awarded the Polar Medal. Bradshaw Peak in Antarctica is named for her.

She was president of the Antarctic Society for 10 years.

Bradshaw and her husband, who is also an Antarctic geologist, moved to Christchurch from England in 1966 - just a month after their first baby was born.

“We’ve never regretted coming to Christchurch. We’ve learned how to sail and ski and we’ve raised our two kids here. It was definitely a good move.”

But she admits being a mother and a deep field researcher was a challenge.

“I wouldn’t say it’s easy.

And I had a lot of support from my husband. So I left the kids with him and I felt completely confident they’d be alright. I don’t think I’d been able to go otherwise.”

The couple would take turns looking after the children and travelling to Antarctica for their research.

They learned to adopt some ground rules.

“Once my husband sent me a letter and in it he was talking about some or other problems with the kids and it upset me.

There was nothing I could do.

When I came back, I said, we need to have a system where we leave all the talking about problems until we come back.”

Today, at almost 77, Bradshaw and her husband live above Lyttelton Harbour at Church Bay.

Bradshaw continues her research and is now comparing fossils from Antarctica with similar-era fossils found in New Zealand and Australia.

Her curiosity hasn’t abated.

“I’d love to go back to Antarctica to find more fossil fish localities.

There’s so much more research to be done on the rocks.

They probably won’t let me go down now.”


Margaret Bradshaw is one of 10 “Changemakers” speaking at the Christchurch Antarctic Ignite Talks, the opening event for the Antarctic Season Opening festivities, 7:00 pm - 9:00 pm, Thursday 27 September at La Vida Conference Centre.