Jennie Darlington, a self-described farmer’s wife from Virginia who bred Angus cattle and raised chickens and 70 years ago helped to make history as an unofficial morale officer on a groundbreaking Antarctic exploration, died Aug. 30 at her home, Chilly Bleak Farm, near Marshall, Virginia. She was 93.
The cause was heart ailments, said a son, Harry “Skipper” Darlington IV.
From March 1947 to February 1948, Darlington, a bride of less than a year, lived with one other woman and 21 men in a primitive, one-room, pre-World War II bunk house at Stonington Island, which was connected to the continent of Antarctica by a glacier. Her husband, Harry Darlington III, was the senior aircraft pilot for the expedition, the mission of which was to map an uncharted stretch of several hundred miles of the Antarctic coastline, most of which was buried under snow and ice.
It was only at Valparaiso, Chile, the last port before Antarctica, that Darlington and the other woman on the trip – the wife of expedition leader Finn Ronne – decided to go the full distance. Edith “Jackie” Ronne would handle public relations work on the privately financed expedition.
Darlington decided to continue on to Antarctica “because it was the most beautiful, dangerous place in the world and because I was glad to be with my husband,” her family quoted her as having said.
Ten years after the trip ended, she wrote an account of the experience, “My Antarctic Honeymoon,” published by Doubleday in 1956.
“Jennie had no specific function, but she turned out to be one of the most valuable members of the expedition,” Robert H.T. Dodson, one of expedition’s two remaining survivors, said by telephone from his home in Vermont. “She was a great morale factor . . . pouring oil on troubled waters.”
In an unpublished sequel to her 1956 Antarctic memoir, Darlington wrote, “all of us thought the challenge was going to be about ice, cold, constant darkness and physical hardship. . . . In one way it was indeed that kind of year.”
Disagreements between Finn Ronne and Harry Darlington over aircraft safety procedures led to Darlington’s dismissal as chief pilot. There were complaints about leadership. There were accidents that could have been serious but weren’t: One man was nicked by a rotating airplane propeller; another fell into a 50-foot crevasse but was rescued relatively unharmed.
The expedition succeeded in charting for the first time a large section of the Antarctic coast and demonstrated that Antarctica was a single continent, not two.
“It was the last gasp of the age of exploration,” said Michael Parfit, an author who has written about Antarctica for the Smithsonian Institution and National Geographic.
Darlington left Antarctica on Feb. 20, 1948, when an icebreaker cleared a passage for the expedition’s trip home. She never returned.
But the Antarctic experience loomed large for the next 70 years. She had become used to sleeping in frigid surroundings in Antarctica, where she and her husband had a bedroom partitioned off in a corner of the expedition’s bunkhouse. She insisted on cold bedrooms all her life. She took a penguin as her personal coat of arms.
She was an amateur airplane pilot, a tennis player, a sailboat racer and, by her family’s count, raised more than 200,000 chickens at her Virginia farm, where she also had turkeys, cattle and sheep.
Jennie Orvalla Zobrist was born in Baltimore on Jan. 25, 1924. Her father was a Swiss immigrant and a builder of roads and tunnels.
She married Harry Darlington in 1946. He died in 1996. Survivors include her son and a daughter, Cynthia Darlington Beyer, both of Chilly Bleak Farm.
Darlington and Jackie Ronne were not the first women on the Antarctic continent. Caroline Mikkelsen, the wife of a Norwegian explorer, was the first in 1935.
But they were the first women to spend an Antarctic winter there.
“Afterwards, people used to ask me, ‘Was it cold?’ ” her family quoted her as having said.
“Were there polar bears?”
“What if you had gotten pregnant?”
Their daughter was born July 22, 1948.