Poulter and Byrd with National Geographic medal Credit: Library of Congress

“Iowa Girl to Take Dictation from Polar Explorer, 3,200 Miles Away,” the Waterloo Courier newspaper headline must have caught the attention of readers, who were hungry for distractions from the typical dreary news stories of the day. Deep in the midst of the Great Depression the adventures of a working girl and a daring explorer helped Iowans forget their economic woes for a time.

Iowa History, a weekly column, appears at IowaWatch on Saturdays.

Cheryl Mullenbach is the author of non-fiction books for young people. Her work has been recognized by International Literacy Association, American Library Association, National Council for Social Studies, and FDR Presidential Library and Museum.

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In 1934 internationally renowned explorer Admiral Richard E. Byrd set out for his second Antarctic expedition, and two Iowans played important roles in the work. Helen Gray was a recent graduate of Iowa Wesleyan College in Mt. Pleasant, and Dr. Thomas Poulter was head of the physics department at the college.

Poulter had obtained a two-year leave of absence from the college to join Byrd’s expedition at the South Pole. He was second in command of the entire expedition and head of the scientific staff which included biologists, geophysicists, meteorologists and geologists. The team would conduct a variety of experiments and observations, including measuring the thickness of ice shelves, tracking meteors and investigating seals in the area.

Gray, who along with other scientists at Wesleyan had developed instruments that would be used to take measurements at the Pole, traveled to New Zealand, where she planned to serve as long-distance secretary to Poulter. She handled all his correspondence as well as recorded all the scientific data that was sent by short wave radio from the South Pole camp, Little America. In addition, Gray was charged with caring for Poulter’s three children, whose mother had died.

The expedition turned out to be a memorable one for the scientific data that was gathered and also because radio broadcasts by the men at the camp made it possible for people to hear firsthand about the experiences of the scientists. However, it was not without perils. Byrd nearly died from carbon monoxide poisoning but was rescued by Poulter and two others.

In February 1935 the expedition, having completed its work, arrived in Dunedin, New Zealand, by ship. Almost immediately Dr. Poulter and Helen Gray were married with Admiral Byrd giving the bride away. In June the Quad-City Times reported that Mt. Pleasant was “All Agog” over a visit by Admiral Byrd and the newly married Poulters. All three would be special guests at the Iowa Wesleyan College graduation.

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Source

  • Daly, C.W.  “Iowa Wesleyan and Mt. Pleasant All Agog Over Visit of Admiral Byrd and Return Home of Its Fellow Citizen, Dr. Thomas Poulter,” Quad-City Times, June 2, 1935
  • “Iowa Girl to Take Dictation from Polar Explorer, 3,200 Miles Away,” Courier, Sept. 18, 1933.
  • “Iowa Wesleyan Scientist, On Byrd’s Polar Cruise, Marries Helen Gray, Laboratory Aide.” Quad-City Times, Feb. 18, 1935.
  • “Mount Pleasant Girl Takes Unusual Job,” Muscatine Journal and News-Tribune, Sept 14, 1933.
  • “Off for Great Adventure,” Des Moines Tribune, Aug. 14, 1933.
  • “Poulter, Byrd Aide, Weds,” Des Moines Tribune, Feb. 18, 1935.

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