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Biographical entry Robin, Gordon de Quetteville (1921 - 2004)

17 January 1921
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
21 September 2004
Cambridge, England
Physicist, Antarctic researcher and Glaciologist


Gordon de Quetteville Robin was a renowned glaciologist and the longest serving director of the Scott Polar Research Institute at the University of Cambridge to date (1958-1982). He was the first person to produce reliable and accurate measurements of Antarctic ice sheet thickness using seismic sounding and in 1963, together with Stan Evans, developed a radio-echo sounding system, which allowed continuous profiling of ice sheets and glaciers. This technology is still the best available for measuring ice thickness and other glaciological investigations. Robin made numerous other highly significant contributions to glaciology including a better interpretation of climate records within ice sheets and the dynamics of ice shelves and ice formation and structure.


Immediately after completing his Master's Degree in physics in 1942, Gordon de Quetteville Robin joined the Royal Australian Naval Voluntary reserve and was appointed to antisubmarine duties. He soon lost interest in the work and moved to England. During World War II, Robin took up anti-submarine duties again and was sent to the Jahore Straits and Singapore. Back in England after the war, he enrolled in nuclear physics studies at Birmingham University and worked on the cyclotron project. However, Robin had always had a desire to go to Antarctica, so contacted the Scott Polar Research Institute (SPRI) at Cambridge University. He accepted an almost immediate posting to join the Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey as their base commander at Signy Island in the South Orkneys (1947-1948).

When the twelve month position ended, Robin returned to the cyclotron project at Birmingham University, where he also gained a lectureship in 1948. The following year he joined the Norwegian-British-Swedish Antarctic Expedition and was put in charge of the seismic survey to measure ice thickness. The expedition finished in 1952 and he returned to Birmingham University. There he undertook postdoctoral studies in glaciology, which provided new discoveries relating to ice shelf thickness and subglacial topography. In 1957 Robin decided to change his research focus again, and went to the Australian National University to study ocean waves. Within a few months of arriving, he was offered the first full-time directorship of the SPRI. He returned to England in 1958 to take up the position and this was the start of an outstanding twenty-four years of ground-breaking research.

As director, Gordon de Quetteville Robin oversaw the growth of the SPRI into one of the world's leading polar research institutes. He fought hard for and achieved greater cooperation and collaboration between all nations involved in polar research and between the research wings of the Navy's of the world and the broader research community. He also established a twelve-year collaboration with the US National Science Foundation which resulted in the mapping of around 50% of the continent.

Robin's own contributions to polar research were just as remarkable. These include at least five field expeditions to the Antarctic and arctic regions; co-production of the radio-echo sounding system which resulted in the first reliable measurement of ice thickness, the discovery of Lake Vostock under the Antarctic Ice Sheet; the identification and definition of ice streams flowing into the Ross Ice Shelf, large scale ice dynamics, and many other significant finds; the principal of using satellites to observe Earth from space; and the discovery of some of the mechanisms behind ice core temperature records. Even after official retirement, Robin continued to work at SPRI for many years as a senior research associate.

Robin held many other key positions, including Permanent UK Delegate to the world's coordinating body of Antarctic research, the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research from 1958 to 1984; director of the British Antarctic Survey in 1993-1994; and a founding Fellow of Darwin College, Cambridge (1964). He received the top prize in glaciology - the Seligman Crystal, as well as numerous other honours and awards from all over the world for his outstanding contribution to glaciology and geophysics.


Education - Bachelor of Science (BSc) completed at the University of Melbourne
Education - Master of Science (MSc) completed at the University of Melbourne
1947 - 1948
Career position - Base Commander of the Falkland Island Dependencies Survey at Signy Island
1948 - 1949
Career position - Researcher on the cyclotron project then Lecturer in the Physics department at Birmingham University
1949 - 1952
Career position - Officer third in command and Physicist on the Norwegian-British-Swedish Antarctic Expedition on seismic sounding
c. 1952
Award - Kongens Fortjensmedalje, Maudheim - Norwegian Medal for Civil Services received
Award - Polar Medal (1950-1952) received from the British Antarctic Survey
Award - Back Grant received from the Royal Geographical Society
Award - Bruce Medal received from the Royal Society of Edinburgh
Education - Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) completed at Birmingham University
Career position - Researcher at the Australian National University, Canberra
1958 - c. 1970
Career position - Honorary Secretary of the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research
1958 - 1982
Career position - Director of the Scott Polar Research Institute at the University of Cambridge, UK
c. 1958 - 1984
Career position - Permanent UK Delegate to the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research
Career position - Fieldwork trip to Northwest Greenland
Career position - Mapping the Antarctic Ice Sheet by Satellite Altimetry key paper presented in Canada
Career position - First ever continuous airborne soundings achieved (Airborne radio echo sounding (RES) experiments), Ellesmere Island in Canada
1967 - 1968
Career position - Airborne RES studies in Antarctica
1969 - 1970
Career position - RES studies in Antarctica
1970 - 1974
Career position - President of the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research
1974 - 1975
Career position - RES studies in Antarctica
Education - Doctor of Science (ScD) received from the University of Cambridge
Education - Honorary Doctorate (Dphil) received from the University of Stockholm
Award - Patron's Gold Medal received from the Royal Geographical Society
1982 -
Career position - Senior Research Associate at the Scott Polar Research Institute
Award - Seligman Crystal received from the International Glaciological Society
1988 - 2004
Career position - Emeritus Fellow Darwin College, Cambridge

Archival resources

The National Archives, UK

  • Robin, Gordon De Quetteville (b 1921) Polar Scientist, GB/NNAF/P24464; The National Archives, UK. Details

Published resources

Journal Articles

  • Drewry, D. J., 'Children of the 'Golden Age' - Gordon de Quetteville Robin', Polar Record, 39 (208) (2003), 61-78. Details
  • Drewry, D. J., 'A Remembrance - Gordon de Quetteville Robin', Polar Record, 41 (217) (2005), 177-181. Details
  • Drewry, David J., 'Gordon de Quetteville Robin', Polar record, 39 (2003), 61-78. Details