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Sir  Vivian Ernest Fuchs (1908–1999), by unknown photographer, 1958Sir Vivian Ernest Fuchs (1908–1999), by unknown photographer, 1958
Fuchs, Sir Vivian Ernest (1908–1999), explorer and scientist, was born on 11 February 1908 at Recluse Lodge, Freshwater, Isle of Wight, the only child of Ernst Fuchs (1882–1957) and Violet Anne Watson (1874–1942). His father was German and his English mother was born in Australia; together they worked a smallholding in Kent during Fuchs's childhood until in May 1915 the family moved to the Isle of Man, close to Knockaloe camp, where his father was interned for the rest of the war. The family's assets were confiscated.

Fuchs was educated at Asheton preparatory school, near Tenterden, Kent, where he acquired his lifelong nickname Bunny, and then at Brighton College. He went on to read natural sciences at St John's College, Cambridge. His tutor was James Wordie, the geologist and senior scientist on Sir Ernest Shackleton's Endurance expedition (1914–17). Wordie took Fuchs on an expedition to Greenland in 1929, an experience that proved a major influence on his life. Fuchs was a geologist by profession but admitted that it was a means to an end, giving purpose to his love of outdoor life and hard physical exertion.

After graduation in 1930 Fuchs joined the Cambridge University expedition to the east African lakes (1930–31) where he, as the geologist, was to study the geology of the lakes, with particular reference to climate fluctuations. Back in Britain he was invited to join the anthropologist Louis Leakey's expedition to Olduvai Gorge (1931–2). He stayed for three months after the expedition to study the geology of Njorowa Gorge before returning home in April 1933.

On 6 September 1933 Fuchs married Joyce (d. 1990), his second cousin, daughter of John Connell. Fuchs had already planned his own Lake Rudolf Rift Valley expedition so they went together with the five other members. Joyce climbed Mount Meru and Mount Elgon while the expedition worked at Lake Rudolf (which was in an area closed to women). At the end of the expedition in September 1934, Fuchs and his wife drove home overland in the expedition's 1929 box-bodied Chevrolet. They covered 7687 miles in forty-six days, driving 50 miles each in turn, via Kenya, Uganda, Sudan, the Belgian Congo, Southern Cameroons and Nigeria, across the Sahara to Tangier, then through Spain and France.

The Fuchses then settled in Cambridge where he worked up his African fieldwork in the Sedgwick Museum. In 1936 their daughter Hilary was born on 17 February and he graduated PhD from Cambridge. His research was published in 1938 by the Royal Society as ‘The geological history of the Lake Rudolph basin, Kenya colony’. Meanwhile he was planning an expedition to Lake Rukwa in Tanganyika to extend the geological knowledge of the Rift Valley. The expedition went into the field on new year's day 1938, complete with a car, a lorry, and some camels. During February Joyce gave birth to their second daughter, Rosalind. The expedition was a disappointment geologically but considerable collections of plants, insects, molluscs, and reptiles were brought home in September 1938.

Fuchs's return was marred by the threat of impending war with Germany and the discovery that Rosalind suffered from cerebral palsy. She died shortly before her eighth birthday. He volunteered for the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve but was turned down as too old at thirty and so joined the Territorial Army and was gazetted second lieutenant in the Cambridgeshire regiment. He continued to write up the expedition results until war broke out, when he was appointed adjutant to the 2nd battalion. He found that his practical skills learned in Africa had wide application in the army. On 2 June 1940 Joyce Fuchs gave birth to their son Peter Ernest Kay, a robust boy who laid their fears to rest.

Fuchs volunteered for service in east Africa, keen to use his knowledge and experience, but was posted to the Gold Coast in west Africa in 1942. This was a period of frustrating inactivity that ended in July 1943. A month's leave with his family was followed by a four-month staff course at Camberley. Afterwards he was posted to second army headquarters in London to work on civil affairs. In April 1944 the second army was transferred to Portsmouth ready for the D-day landings. Eventually he reached Germany and saw the first prisoners released from Belsen concentration camp. He stayed in Germany as a magistrate in the military government until demobilized with the rank of major in October 1946.

In 1947 Fuchs applied for a post as geologist with the Falkland Islands Dependencies survey that operated seven bases on the Antarctic peninsula. To his surprise he was appointed field commander in overall charge of field operations. The survey was run by a committee in London often at cross purposes with the governor of the Falkland Islands. Its main objective was to support Britain's claim to a sector of Antarctica, with scientific research a secondary goal. Fuchs sailed south in 1947 to a base at Stonington Island in Marguerite Bay. In February 1949, after a successful year, the ice in Marguerite Bay was still solid for 40 miles and on 1 April the governor of the Falkland Islands signalled that the ship which was due to relieve the party was unable to reach them and was returning north. Eleven men then spent an unplanned winter at Stonington Island and, for five of them, it was their third consecutive winter. They had rations for another year but coal supplies were short, and the men's fate if the ship could not reach them the next year was uncertain. In the 1949–50 summer Fuchs made a major sledge journey with the geologist Ray Adie across Marguerite Bay, along George VI Sound between Palmer Land and Alexander Island to Eklund Island. It was a round trip of some 500 miles during which much geological reconnaissance was undertaken. At the same time, while tent-bound during a storm, Fuchs began to sketch the idea of crossing Antarctica (unsuccessfully attempted by Wilhelm Filchner in 1911 and by Shackleton in 1914) with vehicles. He returned to Stonington Island where the ice had relented and the ship was able to relieve the base but the governor decided that the base should be closed.

On his return to Britain in 1950 Fuchs was asked to set up and direct the Falkland Island Dependencies survey scientific bureau in London with responsibility for planning the scientific work in the Antarctic and arranging for the publication of the scientific results. The latter included finding suitable university accommodation for returning ‘Fids’ to write up their work for publication in the series of scientific reports. The job quickly expanded and kept Fuchs fully occupied, but his idea of a trans-continental journey was not dormant. He discussed the proposal with James Wordie and in 1953 the detailed planning for the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic expedition began. In April 1955 an expedition office was established and Fuchs took three years' leave of absence. The central plan for the expedition was to cross Antarctica in 100 days from the Weddell Sea to the Ross Sea via the South Pole using Sno-Cat tractors. A full scientific programme would run alongside, including survey and geological exploration of new mountain ranges. The expedition would also have two light aircraft, two dog teams, and some additional tractors. Recruitment of some office staff, including Mrs Eleanor Honnywill, and expedition personnel began.

The advance party sailed in November 1955 and reached the Filchner ice shelf at the head of the Weddell Sea. Stores were unloaded and hut construction began but bad weather forced the ship from her mooring and many stores were lost on the sea ice. The base hut, Shackleton, was not completed and during the winter the eight men slept in tents and lived in a Sno-Cat crate. The hut was completed in the following spring, before the arrival of Fuchs and the main party in January 1957. Unloading began immediately and proceeded according to plan. Reconnaissance flights were made into the hinterland and an advance base, South Ice, 275 miles inland, was constructed and manned. After the winter, survey and geological parties with dog teams explored the newly discovered Theron Mountains, Shackleton Range, and Whichaway Nunataks. The main crossing party departed on 24 November 1957, hampered by numerous crevasses and then by large fields of sastrugi (ridges in the snow). Meanwhile the New Zealand support party under Sir Edmund Hillary was making good progress from the Ross Sea with modified Ferguson farm tractors towing loads from the Ross ice shelf onto the polar plateau, supported by aircraft. Hillary then, contrary to agreed plans, made a dash for the pole, arriving one month before Fuchs. The two men publicly denied that there was any disagreement between them, though this did not stop press speculation to the contrary. At the pole Hillary suggested that, as the main party was so far behind schedule, Fuchs should stop at the pole, winter his vehicles there, and fly out, returning in the spring to complete the journey. Fuchs would have none of it and continued across the continent following Hillary's outward route, and completed the crossing in 99 days on 2 March 1958, one day ahead of schedule. This was the first land crossing of the continent and its main scientific result was to establish the thickness of ice at the pole and the presence of a land mass beneath. On arrival at the New Zealand Scott Base, Fuchs received a congratulatory telegram from the queen, the expedition's patron, and was told of his knighthood.

Fuchs received awards and medals from institutions throughout the world for the expedition's achievement and he returned to be director of the Falkland Islands Dependencies survey. Over the next fifteen years and thanks in large measure to his leadership the survey grew in stature, and became the British Antarctic survey in 1961; its research achieved recognition internationally and at home where the survey's administration was transferred in 1967 from the Colonial Office to the Natural Environment Research Council. In the early 1970s he set in motion the unification of the survey in a single headquarters complex outside Cambridge. He retired in 1973 but continued to be involved with Antarctica, exploration, and the organization of science. He was president of the International Glaciological Society (1963–6), the British Association for the Advancement of Science (1972), and the Royal Geographical Society (1982–4), and was elected a fellow of the Royal Society (1974). He was also actively associated with the Trans-Antarctic Association that supports Antarctic research and exploration and the Fuchs Foundation that helps young people to join expeditions. He also chaired the committee for the Fuchs medal, established in his honour, that recognizes outstanding service by members of the British Antarctic survey.

Fuchs's wife, Joyce, died on 27 April 1990 and on 8 August 1991 he married Eleanor Honnywill, née Biscoe, widow of Captain Richard B. Honnywill RN, his friend and secretary since 1955. His active life was curtailed by a severe stroke in December 1997 but he fought on with characteristic determination. He died peacefully at his home at 106 Barton Road, Cambridge, on 11 November 1999.

Peter Clarkson


V. Fuchs and E. Hillary, The crossing of Antarctica (1958) · V. Fuchs, Of ice and men (1982) · V. Fuchs, A time to speak (1990) · B. Stonehouse, The Independent (13 Nov 1999) · A. Tucker, The Guardian (13 Nov 1999) · A. Steven, The Scotsman (16 Nov 1999) · WW (1998) · personal knowledge (2004) · private information (2004)


Scott Polar RI, journals and papers · U. Cam., Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences, diaries and notebooks relating to geological expeditions to east Africa


photographs, c.1947–1988, Hult. Arch. [see illus.] · photograph, repro. in The Independent · photograph, repro. in The Guardian · photograph, repro. in The Scotsman

Wealth at death  

£533,101—gross; £487,078—net: probate, 3 Feb 2000, CGPLA Eng & Wales