Edith ‘Jackie’ Ronne dies at 89; first U.S. woman on Antarctica

Edith Ronne on a return trip to Anarctica in 1971. The wife of an explorer, Ronne was the expedition's recorder-historian when she first made the trip in 1947. She kept a daily diary in which she recorded a range of experiences.

Edith “Jackie” Ronne, 89, who became the first U.S. woman to set foot on Antarctica when she accompanied her explorer husband there in 1947, died June 14 of cancer and Alzheimer’s disease at a Bethesda, Md., nursing home. She was 89.

Ronne had never planned to leave her native Maryland, much less go to Antarctica. She had gone to Beaumont, Texas, in 1947 to see her explorer husband off as he and a volunteer crew headed to Antarctica to fill in the blanks on the map of the last unexplored continent. She packed little more than a good suit, a good dress, nylon stockings and high heels for the trip.

But Finn Ronne, her husband of two years, was persuasive. He talked her into accompanying him, stop by stop, to Panama and then Chile. The Norwegian-born former U.S. Navy captain insisted that he couldn’t manage his low-budget exploration without her; he didn’t have the language skills to write dispatches for the North American Newspaper Alliance, one of the trip’s sponsors.

When Jackie Ronne finally agreed to go all the way to Antarctica, she insisted that another woman come along. Jennie Darlington, the new wife of the expedition’s chief pilot, joined the trip. It was a wise decision. Although most of the men didn’t like having women along, their presence helped calm what became a tense and argumentative 15 months.

Ronne, the trip’s recorder-historian, and Darlington were the first women to overwinter in Antarctica, from 1947 to 1948. Caroline Mikkelsen, the wife of a Norwegian explorer, was the first woman to set foot on the continent, in 1935.

Ronne was born Oct. 13, 1919, in Baltimore and received a degree in history from George Washington University. On the trip to Antarctica, she also assisted the seismologist, who measured the first earthquake recorded in Antarctica and kept track of the tides. She filed dispatches, often under her husband’s name, for the news alliance and the New York Times, which later described her as “young and winsome.”

The continent’s natural beauty took her by surprise. “The approach to the continent through light pack ice was magnificent. I was totally in awe of where I was going and I anticipated a great adventure,” she wrote in the 2004 book “Antarctica’s First Lady.”

She kept a daily diary in which she recorded a range of experiences, including the difficulties of living in a 12-square-foot hut that was also the expedition’s base and the dangers that beset the men.

The adventure was also plagued by interpersonal difficulties, brought on by isolation, boredom and close quarters. Small disagreements became major disputes. Factions formed. Because their husbands were at odds, the two women stopped speaking, out of loyalty to their spouses.

Nevertheless, the trip was a scientific success. The group explored more than 250,000 square miles of the continent, including both coasts of the Antarctic Peninsula and the Weddell Sea’s southern margin. They traveled by land and air, setting down at 86 points to make celestial observations.

“Perhaps most important,” National Geographic reported in 1993, “the explorers at East Base had finally proved Antarctica was all one continent, laying to rest the theory that a frozen sea divided it.”

When they finally sailed home, however, Jackie Ronne said, “I will never, never go back to the Antarctic.” The unexpected difficulties of the trip so depressed her that she didn’t re-read her diary until 1995.

“I didn’t want to be reminded of the pain,” she told the Washington Post.

But she did return to Antarctica, drawn by the beauty of the landscape. She was on the first tourist trip to the continent in 1957, the International Geophysical Year. In 1971, she and her husband were guests of the Navy and flew to the South Pole. They were the first married couple, and she was the seventh woman, at the pole.

Her husband died in 1980. Her survivors include a daughter, Karen Ronne Tupek of Bethesda, and two grandchildren.

Sullivan writes for the Washington Post.