This IEEE Fellow Blazed a Trail for Female Scientists in Antarctica

Irene Peden was the first woman to set foot in the continent's interior

14 April 2016

Scientist Irene C. Peden spent six weeks in October and November of 1970 researching the propagation of radio waves in Antarctica, a place the IEEE Fellow has described as “an exceedingly cold desert.” The frame of her wire-rim glasses—unable to withstand the freezing temperatures—broke in half the day she arrived. And she often suffered nosebleeds and blinding headaches due to the low humidity. She and other researchers worked about 12 hours each day battling unpredictable terrain, punishing snowstorms, and temperatures colder than minus 50 °C.

Peden overcame obstacles even to make the trip. Until 1969, women from the United States were not permitted to work in Antarctica because of its harsh environment. After the ban was lifted, she persuaded the U.S. Navy to support her expedition and became the first American woman to set foot in the continent’s interior. She shared details about the trip in an interview with the Society of Women Engineers.

BREAKING BARRIERS

As a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Washington, Seattle, Peden had been studying the ionosphere above Antarctica using data transmitted remotely by a miles-long dipole antenna stretched on the continent’s icy surface. She decided to travel to the continent to investigate the properties of the ice and rock beneath the antenna.

The Navy, which ran McMurdo Station, the largest U.S. base in Antarctica, would not transport women there until the ban was lifted by Congress in 1969. Peden was chosen to be a principal investigator of a research team in a program sponsored by the National Science Foundation. The NSF, however, still had to negotiate with the Navy to fly Peden to the continent.

“The admiral in charge of transportation at that time must have suggested that I was some kind of adventuress—you know, that I wasn’t really serious,” she recounted in the interview. “‘Maybe you just want to get a husband,’ he said. “But you know, there are easier ways.”

He also pointed out that Navy doctors were not allowed to treat a female patient without another woman present—which would have been a problem if Peden were sick or injured. The NSF found a female geologist who also wanted to go to Antarctica that season, but she failed her physical. The organization then asked Julia Vickers, a librarian and mountain climber from New Zealand, to accompany Peden on the expedition as her field assistant. By October 1970, the women were cleared to go.

The NSF station chief at McMurdo warned Peden, “If you fail and are not able to complete your project and publish your results, there won’t be another woman in Antarctica for a generation.”

She faced many hurdles in addition to the difficulties common to all polar experiments. She and her team never received a shipment of crucial equipment for their project. They had access to the site for only a month, so they improvised substitutes for the missing gear. Adhering to a grueling schedule to make up for lost time, they were able to achieve their objectives.

LEAVING A LEGACY

Peden wrote a report about her trip soon after she returned to the University of Washington. From the data she collected, she provided important information about radio propagation and the polar ionosphere, buried antennas, and the electromagnetic properties of the ice sheet covering the continent. The U.S. Advisory Committee on Antarctic Names honored the significance of her work by naming a land formation around Rhodes Icefall the Peden Cliffs.

In 1973 she received the Society of Women Engineers Achievement Award, the organization’s highest honor, “for contributions to radio science in the polar regions and engineering education.” The following year she was named an IEEE Fellow “for contributions to radio science in the polar regions, and for leadership of women in engineering.” Peden served as vice president of IEEE Educational Activities and was the 1989 president of the IEEE Antennas and Propagation Society. She received the 1983 IEEE Haraden Pratt Award for outstanding contributions to IEEE.

In 1993, when Peden was elected to the National Academy of Engineering, she received little recognition from her colleagues at the university, she says. But she was proud and humbled to be accepted: “When I found out, I had a similar feeling to the first night I spent in my little bunk 25 feet under the ice and 10,000 miles from home. I remember thinking to myself, How did I get here? I was very, very honored, of course.”

Now 91, Peden is professor emeritus of electrical engineering at the University of Washington. Learn more about her life and career by reading her oral history on the Engineering and Technology History Wiki.

This article was written with assistance from the IEEE History Center, which is funded by donations to the IEEE Foundation.

This article is part of our April 2016 special report on women in engineering.

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