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Readers note: This is an excerpt from the Trailblazers: Australia’s 50 Greatest Explorers exhibition, developed in 2015. This content was written as a brief biography on why this person was included in the exhibition.
Syd Kirkby explored and mapped more of the Australian Antarctic Territory than anyone else – much of it by dogsled and theodolite – in temperatures to minus 70 degrees Celsius. As surveyor or leader at Mawson Station, Kirkby spent three winters (during 15–16 month stints) and four other summer seasons. He established the most easterly, westerly and southerly astrofixes in the Australian territory, and was first, with two comrades, to view the world’s largest glacier and explore the Prince Charles Mountains and other ranges.
Born in Perth (WA) in 1933, Kirkby grew up in Fremantle. At five, he developed poliomyelitis and was severely disabled for years. His father, a meteorologist, quit his job to ‘rebuild’ him, using a gruelling exercise regime including swimming, and later, boxing. Syd hated the idea of being considered a ‘cripple’ and met the challenges well.
He considered his teenage years idyllic, fishing, camping and going bush with his father and brother. During this time, family friend and surveyor Frank Goyder regaled young Syd with stories of exploration. In his last year at school, Kirkby swapped his arts curriculum to science, then chose surveying as a career.
Indentured to the Surveyor General of Western Australia, Kirkby completed his theory studies by correspondence. In 1954 he was chosen as surveyor–astronomer on the Great Sandy Desert Expedition. Its aim was to map the area around the Canning Stock Route.
Thanks to his meticulous work in the desert, Kirkby was appointed to the position of Surveyor at Mawson Station in 1956, only its third year of operation. He was just 21 years old.
It was an extraordinary introduction to Antarctica. Using Weasels, the first mechanical over-snow vehicle used by Australians on the continent, Kirkby travelled to the northern flanks of the spectacular Prince Charles Mountains, then used dogsleds to explore more difficult areas. Kirkby and his party viewed the vast Lambert Glacier (the world’s largest) for the first time.
Between that first trip and his last in 1979–80, Kirkby surveyed more of Antarctica than any other explorer, fixing positions by theodolite and often travelling by dogsled. His ability to cover great distances, despite his pronounced limp, was legendary.
Syd Kirkby’s skills and leadership heralded the modern age of Antarctic exploration. In honour of his achievements, he was awarded a Polar Medal in 1958 and an MBE in 1966, and has an Antarctic mountain, headland, glacier and shoal in his name.
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