Doctor - Gillian Deakin

At age 13 or so, what did you want to do when you grew up?

I was lucky that schoolwork was pretty easy for me, so I felt I had a lot of choices open to me. Depending on which teacher was inspiring (or not!), I would change my mind frequently: architect, lawyer, marine biologist, even photographer for the National Geographic (I still think that would be great!). I hated cutting up that sheep's eye in biology, so I didn’t consider medicine until much later. But one thing I always knew was that I wanted to travel, to see as much of the world as possible, to try to understand it a bit and to make my contribution.

What town or city are you from?

I grew up in Sydney as the seventh of nine children. My older siblings all travelled and came back with lots of wonderful tales so I suppose that's how I caught the travel bug. I finally settled on medicine, because they need doctors everywhere, I reasoned. It was hard knowing I had years of study before I could start travelling, but I made up for it later!

What were your educational/technical qualifications and work experience when you first worked in Antarctica?

I studied medicine at Sydney University then worked in St Vincent's Hospital. As a resident, you do a term with each different specialty, such as surgery or working in the Emergency Department, where you get a lot of experience with different health problems, especially trauma. At that time, I didn't plan to go to Antarctica, but only knew it was important to gain as much knowledge and skills as possible, to broaden my options. In fact, back in the early 1980s only one woman had wintered on the Australian Antarctic and I didn't even know that they accepted women at all. Later, I was travelling around the world when a friend suggested I apply, which I did, fully expecting rejection. You have to 'go for it' sometimes.

Why did you want to go to Antarctica?

I saw it as a chance at doing something on my own, to take on a real challenge, and maybe to find my limits. As a traveller, I knew that there were very limited opportunities to get to Antarctica back then. I asked the question 'Why not?', and couldn't find any real negatives. (That was a much better question than 'Why?', because I couldn't really know what the Antarctic held for me, but only knew more or less what I would be leaving behind. Then it was easy: I could do without all those things for one year and go on the biggest adventure in a lifetime.)

Being from a big family meant I didn't worry much about living closely with a small group so isolated from the world. I was used to the idea of the group being more important than any one member - and that helps a lot! We all had to look after each other and the friendships I made there will last a lifetime.

What is your Antarctic experience?

The first time, in 1985-86, I spent thirteen months in the Antarctic - well, two of them were spent on the Icebird travelling across and back the vast Southern Ocean. That's another story! Naturally, I was responsible for the health and even dental care of all expeditioners. That still left time for me to hold quite a few other jobs: forklift operator, seal population counter (done weekly from a helicopter), assistant boffin, cement truck driver and so on. I came back ten years later as ship's doctor and found much had changed, with modern technology making life a lot easier (and more complicated). But the ice plateau looked as beautiful as the first day I saw it and the icebergs never lose their fascination, likewise the seals and penguins that populate the islands near Davis.

What did you do in Antarctica and what skills did you need to do that work?

Of course, there is no doctor in the world who is fully qualified to work in the Antarctic, because you have to be everything: you have to make the diagnosis, take the x-rays, give the anaesthetic, operate, do dentistry - everything. But the Antarctic Division is really helpful in arranging a week of this or that training, so at least you have some idea. The main thing needed in the Antarctic is the ability to say, 'Well, I’ll give it my best shot'. I also completed the research for a Doctor of Medicine degree while I was there. For that, I entirely relied on the generosity of the men I was wintering with. One research question I was asking was: what is the minimum amount of exercise you need to do to keep your heart healthy? This meant getting the men to do various levels of exercise then measuring their blood pressure and cholesterol and so on.

What did you like most about living and working in Antarctica?

For me, the special thing about Antarctica is the wonderful contrast between the beautiful wilderness of the icy landscape outside and the warm and close-knit community inside. When you have had enough of one, the other waits through a door!

What was the scariest thing that happened to you?

Who said there's no more adventures to be had? As part of a small group you have to help out other people with their projects. This often means going away from the station sometimes for days at a time. It was just after midwinter when we had to go to the Emperor Penguin colony, which was hundreds of miles to the south of Davis. We took two Hagglunds and travelled far onto the ice plateau, to avoid the crevasses. Then we trekked out across the frozen sea, knowing that at any moment the tide could carry the ice we were on out to sea, or the strong currents could break it up and we would fall through into the frozen sea. We travelled fast all day and in the fading light saw that indeed the ice had begun to break. We had no choice but had to try to jump the gap - our hearts were in our mouths as we went at full speed towards the gap. I still remember looking down into the icy depths as we lumbered across the gap. Luckily we are here to tell the tale! One thing you learn in Antarctica: Nature Rules OK.

What was the greatest challenge for you?

A lot of people ask, when they learn I went to Antarctica, 'Weren't you cold?' It’s a funny thing but I remember mostly being really warm there. The Antarctic Division provides fantastic state-of-the-art clothing that creates a special micro-climate right at your body temperature inside your clothes, even though it's minus 35 degrees and blowing a gale. I have to admit sometimes my fingers still got cold, especially when riding on the skidoos, which are like a motorbike with a ski on the front to travel across the snow. (Lots of fun and you're being paid to do it!)

The other thing people wonder about is what it was like to be the only woman for a whole year. Well, to put it simply: the things we had in common down there far outweighed the differences. After all, when you're the only cook or electrician or doctor for thousands of miles, everyone values you. The only tough bit was being the only dance partner at parties - I had to dance for hours non-stop!

What did you miss most about Australia?

If I missed anything, I can't remember. Maybe salad.

What was the most striking thing you noticed when you returned from Antarctica?

The hardest thing about going to Antarctica was coming home again. It was the best year of my life. Coming back to pollution and noise and traffic and shopping malls and routine was the hardest part. A bit of me still is there amongst the snow palaces and ice castles.

Do you want to go again?

I really enjoyed the second trip, but now I feel the need to explore other continents and have different adventures - before it's too late.

What do you think should happen to Antarctica in the future?

I believe that the world should work to secure Antarctica as an internationally protected World Park: no military, no mining, open cooperation between scientists, no borders, visas, passports, and of course, universal protection of all native fauna and flora. Any commercial ventures should be tightly regulated to limit damage to the fragile ecology and all should pay a levy towards habitat preservation.

This page was last modified on January 23, 2014.