Obituary: Sir Vivian Fuchs

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The Independent Culture
SCIENTIST, EXPLORER, administrator - Vivian Fuchs was the last Briton to organise and lead an Antarctic expedition in the "heroic" style of Scott and Shackleton. Knighted after leading the Commonwealth Trans- Antarctic Expedition of 1955-58, he was then appointed Director of the Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey (now the British Antarctic Survey) and became the first long-term leader of Britain's permanent, government- funded scientific expedition - a pattern that has since become the norm for Antarctic exploration.

Born in Freshwater, Isle of Wight, in 1908, Vivian Ernest Fuchs was the only child of a German father and Anglo-Australian mother. During the First World War his father, Ernst, was interned, and the family wealth sequestered. Vivian was raised in genteel poverty by a partly disabled but very determined mother. Peace brought reunion to the family and, after several years' delay, the grudging restoration of its fortunes - a story told with wry bitterness in his autobiography, A Time to Speak (1990).

"Bunny" Fuchs attended Brighton College as a boarder, and in 1926 was admitted to St John's College, Cambridge, reading Natural History with emphasis on geology. He was tutored by James Wordie, who had served with Shackleton's Endurance expedition, and spent the summer of 1929 in east Greenland with one of Wordie's private expeditions - his first experience of polar fieldwork.

During his fourth year at Cambridge he met the anthropologist Louis Leakey, who inspired him to consider research in Africa, and the zoologist E. Barton Worthington, who enrolled him as geologist on his 1930-31 Cambridge Expedition to the East African Lakes. East Africa fascinated Fuchs: he joined an expedition with Leakey to Olduvai in 1931-32, explored Njorowa Gorge in 1933, and ran his own geological expeditions to Lake Rudolf (now Turkana) in 1934 and Lake Rukwa in 1937-38.

In 1933 Fuchs married his cousin Joyce Connell, who shared his interest in travel and adventure. Unable to accompany him to Lake Rudolf (only men were allowed to enter Turkana Province), she spent the time exploring in the Mfumbiro and Ruwenzori ranges, and climbing Mt Meru and Mt Elgon. In 1936 the couple settled in Barton Road, Cambridge, which remained their home base for the rest of their lives. Awarded his doctorate in 1936, Fuchs continued to work on East African material, broadening his interests from geology to anthropology and planning further expeditions.

In 1938, with war impending, he joined the Territorial Army, and in 1939 was commissioned in the Cambridgeshire Regiment. He saw wartime service in West Africa in 1942-43, followed by a staff course at Camberley. From 1944 he served with the Second Army in Europe, being mentioned in dispatches, and ending the war as a major in Civil Affairs in Plon Schleswig-Holstein. Released from the Army in 1946, he returned to a growing family (Hilary, born in 1936, and Peter, born in 1940), and to seek his first permanent civilian job.

Though still drawn to Africa, Fuchs applied for employment as a geologist with the Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey (FIDS), an expedition of seven semi-permanent bases in the British (South American) sector of Antarctica. To his surprise he found himself appointed field commander. FIDS was in confusion: originally a naval operation, recently taken over by a reluctant Colonial Office, it was run by a committee based in London, often at cross- purposes with a colonial governor in the Falkland Islands. Its prime objective was to support Britain's claim to a sector of Antarctica, with secondary objectives to survey the area topographically and scientifically.

Fuchs was responsible for developing a scientific field programme. He sailed south in December 1947, and for two years led the survey from Stonington Island, the southernmost base in Marguerite Bay. There he acquired skills of dog-driving and ice-craft, plus a feeling for how this new kind of Antarctic expedition should be run, and a taste for Antarctic exploration that entirely displaced his former interests in Africa.

On returning to Britain in 1950 he was retained to establish and direct the FIDS Scientific Bureau - counterpart to a logistics bureau established in the Falkland Islands. Now based in Queen Anne's Chambers, central London, he was still responsible both to the Governor of the Falkland Islands and the UK committee, and still operating in a confusion of political and scientific objectives.

Not surprisingly, exploration uncluttered by bureaucracy held an enormous appeal for him. On Stonington Island he had begun to develop plans for an expedition, previously attempted by Wilhelm Filchner in 1911 and Ernest Shackleton in 1914, to cross Antarctica from the Weddell Sea to the Ross Sea. In April 1956 he look leave from the bureau to plan and set up the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition - an ambitious expedition in the "heroic" mould, motivated by science and adventure, to be planned and run by individuals with government support and public backing.

A blatant attempt by the then Governor to poach the idea was followed by concerted hostility from almost all the UK polar establishment - in his autobiography Fuchs details their machinations precisely and with only mild reproach. Gaining support from the Treasury, the Royal Geographical Society, the governments of New Zealand, Australia and South Africa, and others who found the concept right for the times, he recruited an experienced team, including Sir Edmund Hillary (who led the New Zealand contingent) and many who had served with him in FIDS. After months of preparation, using dog teams, tractors, Sno-Cats and aircraft, Fuchs led the expedition on a trek lasting over three months from Shackleton Base, on the Weddell Sea Coast, to the South Pole (where he met Hillary), and on to Scott Base in McMurdo Sound. He was knighted on his return to London.

After completing with Hillary the official account (The Crossing of Antarctica, 1958) and winding up the affairs of the expedition, Fuchs returned in 1959 to the Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey. During his absence Sir Raymond Priestley had created a new role of Director, which Fuchs now inherited. Within it he was able to continue rationalisation of the survey, simplifying its management and vastly increasing its scientific efficiency and output.

A reluctant bureaucrat, he welcomed opportunities to leave his desk and revisit Antarctica, touring the stations every second or third year. In 1961, on Britain's accession in the Antarctic Treaty, the organisation was renamed British Antarctic Survey. In 1967 it was relinquished by the Colonial Office, to be incorporated in the newly formed Natural Environment Research Council. Both shifts emphasised the scientific purpose that the survey had acquired, predominantly in consequence, of Fuchs's leadership.

Vivian Fuchs retired from the directorship in 1973. The following year he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, and through membership and presidencies of many learned societies he remained active in polar, geographic and scientific affairs. He particularly valued his presidency of the Royal Geographical Society (1982-84) - an organisation that had supported both his African and Antarctic expeditions.

Part of his retirement was occupied by writing, first a history of British Antarctic Survey (Of Ice and Men, 1982), and later his autobiography. His wife Joyce died in 1990. The following year he married Eleanor Honnywill, who had long been his personal assistant.

Vivian Ernest Fuchs, explorer: born Freshwater, Isle of Wight 11 February 1908; Leader, Lake Rudolf Rift Valley Expedition 1933-34; Leader, Lake Rukwa Expedition 1937-38; Leader, Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey (Antarctica) 1947-50; Director, FIDSc Bureau 1950-55; Leader, Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition 1955-58; Kt 1958; Director, British Antarctic Survey 1958-73; President, International Glaciological Society 1963-66; President, British Association for the Advancement of Science 1972; FRS 1974; President, Royal Geographical Society 1982-84; married 1933 Joyce Connell (died 1990; one son, one daughter, and one daughter deceased), 1991 Mrs Eleanor Honnywill; died Cambridge 11 November 1999.