Robin Curtis, 1933-2006

ROBIN CURTIS, who has died at 73, was a geologist whose work took him to climatic extremes. Immediately after graduating from Cardiff University, he was appointed to the Falklands Island Dependencies Survey, later renamed the British Antarctic Survey. With five other men he was to spend three years surveying, documenting and studying the geology of unexplored parts of the Antarctic peninsula known as Graham Land.

In September 1956 Curtis sailed on the MV John Biscoe for Port Stanley, the capital of the Falkland Islands. The journey continued past Cape Horn, where the ship was hit by rough seas so powerful that guard rails were bent and a line of rivets in the hold popped. The hold flooded, soaking valuable stores, turning cement to rock and destroying a generator.

On January 30, 1957, the ship reached the coast of Graham Land, and the captain searched for suitable sites for Base J, “home” for the next three years. After 160 kilometres of cruising past 30- to 60-metre-high ice cliffs, the team found only one mainland site that was safe from calving glaciers, Prospect Point. Although the winter sea ice would become the main “sledging highway” for Curtis’s access to survey sites, a mainland base was necessary to allow year- round access for an attempt to reach the 1500 metre-high plateau.

Work on the building of a hut began as soon as the six men were left on the peninsula. But after only a month, Curtis slipped and fell from the roof of the hut onto rocks, breaking his ankle and two ribs. The ship returned for a day so its doctor could attend to him but he convinced the doctor that his injuries were not significant. The ship departed, leaving the team without medical assistance for the next 12 months.

Despite Curtis’s bravado, the break was severe and it was three months before he could walk even tentatively on it. During that time he hopped about on his left leg, glazing the numerous double windows, and tending to the dogs and the cooking.

As soon as the sea had frozen, he started his work. To collect samples and make surveys, he made long journeys skiing alongside a team of dogs which hauled the supplies on sleds. On one such journey he travelled 20 days to collect samples from distant islands, camping on the sea ice along the way. Miles from base, his sled started to sink through the ice, dragging the dogs down with it. Fortunately, with Curtis pushing, the dogs dragged the sledge out, saving him from being stranded without food or shelter.

On another journey, Curtis was caught in a whiteout. Having survived this, the team was then plunged into a blizzard which kept them in their tents for a further 10 days. With insufficient provisions to continue, they were forced to return to base.

In March 1958 the MV John Biscoe returned to Graham Land Peninsula. The ship’s doctor found that Curtis’s injured leg had wasted and ordered him home for urgent medical treatment. Curtis left regretfully but with enough samples to complete his research. He was later awarded the Polar Medal and an island near Base J at Graham Land was named after him.

Up to 1957, the Falklands Islands Dependency Survey had been proud of its survival record – it had lost only two men. However, in 1957 five men lost their lives. The British Government has since reassessed the dangers inherent in Antarctic research and stopped, among other things, the practice of sledding on winter sea ice, so essential during Curtis’s time. Field research teams now visit for a short summer season only, and researchers no longer have to build their own huts.

Robin Curtis was born in the small mining village of Cwmtillery in Wales. He won a scholarship to Cardiff University, graduating with a bachelor of science with honours in 1956, and was awarded the Geological Society Medal. From there, he went to Antarctica.

In 1959 he married Anne in Birmingham and so began his much-loved family life. The arrival of his three children from 1960 to 1965 proved no deterrent to his career and with the support of Anne he continued his geological work around the world.

In 1960, after completing his doctorate at Birmingham University, he joined the Geological Survey of the New Hebrides, now Vanuatu. To collect samples there, Curtis had to cut a path through pristine jungle and enter the caldera of an active volcano.

After two years he left Vanuatu for Australia and was appointed senior tutor in geology at the University of Sydney.

In 1965 Curtis began a long and successful career in the minerals industry and progressed to exploration manager for international mining companies such as Placer Exploration and International Nickel.

In 1978, when a relocation of head office was proposed, he decided not to move his family when his children were beginning high school, and set up R. Curtis & Associates Pty Ltd, independent consultants to the minerals industry. During its 30 years of operation, Curtis & Associates worked in many countries including Thailand, Canada, Papua New Guinea, Fiji, the Solomon Islands and the US.

Curtis was a strong supporter of the Minerals Industry Associations and a fellow of the Geological Society of Australia, the Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy and the Geological Society. He served on the board of the Minerals Industry Consultants Association for six years, and was editor of the its newsletter.

After Curtis and Anne divorced, he met Dorothy, whom he married in 1989.

Curtis faced cancer with the same determination he faced the other challenges in his life. After early cancer indications arose in 1989, he enjoyed life for another 12 years before his failing health signalled the cancer’s return.

He is survived by Dorothy, his children from his first marriage, Sian, David and Matthew, eight grandchildren and his first wife, Anne.


David Curtis