LGBT+ History Month


LGBT+ History Month is an opportunity for us to explore some of the perhaps lesser-known stories of LGBT+ people and their contributions in Antarctic history.

We thought we would look at the life and work of Elke Mackenzie, a pioneering figure in Antarctica, one of the members of Operation Tabarin, an eminent scientist, and an intrepid trans-woman who lived a through a time when LGBT+ rights were scarce.

Elke Mackenzie was born Ivan Mackenzie Lamb in 1911 in London and studied Botany at the University of Edinburgh. When appointed to the botany department at, what is now, the Natural History Museum in London she became enthralled by lichens which were to become a lifelong passion and career.

During the second world war however, she was appointed by Lt Cdr James Marr to join the secret Operation Tabarin to install wintering bases in Antarctica to establish a permanent British presence. She spent two years at Base A, Port Lockroy and then Base D, Hope Bay establishing the bases, studying the flora, especially the lichens, and taking part in survey sledging trips. Some of the moss specimens she collected remain in the collections in British Antarctic Survey.

Image: Sledging party from left to right, Andrew Taylor, John Blyth, James Marr, Ivan Lamb and Gwion Davies, Oct, 1944. (Photographer: E. Mackenzie (I.M. Lamb). BAS Archives)

After Operation Tabarin, Mackenzie held several distinguished roles in universities and museums and conducting fieldwork across the world and publishing widely. She eventually became Director of the Farlow Herbarium at Harvard University, returning to Antarctica twice more, in 1961 and 1964. Her reputation is still recognised today as a pre-eminent lichenologist and scientist.

Image: Lamb in igloo, Aug 1944. (Photographer: E. Mackenzie (I.M. Lamb). BAS Archives)

In 1971 she was diagnosed with gender dysphoria and embarked on her journey from Ivan Mackenzie Lamb to Elke Mackenzie, undergoing gender reassignment surgery, and became Elke for the rest of her life. She was diagnosed with a form of Motor Neurone Disease in 1983 which she lived with until her death in 1990. Cape Lamb on Vega Island, close to Hope bay, was named for her in 1949.

Image: Ivan Lamb near Port Lockroy, Dec 1944. (Photographer: E. Mackenzie (I.M. Lamb). BAS Archives)

You can read her account of Operation Tabarin, based on her diaries, in our special edition of The Secret South, available from our shop.

A Tale of Operation Tabarin 1943-46: The Secret South is a crucial eyewitness account of an expedition whose significance is only now beginning to be fully understood. Never previously published it provides a unique perspective on events that are vital to our understanding of both the history of Antarctic exploration and the complex geopolitics of the region.

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