An Adélie penguin colony, photographed by Dr George Murray Levick during the British Antarctic Terra Nova expedition of 1910-13 © Unknown rightsholder. Source: Natural History Museum, London.

Historic original manuscripts from Antarctic explorer George Murray Levick join the Natural History Museum’s collection

The Natural History Museum has become custodian of a unique and scientifically pre-eminent set of original manuscript notebooks written by Dr George Murray Levick (1876-1956), the British Antarctic explorer.

The unpublished notebooks contain all of Levick’s scientific notes and observations from his time in Cape Adare, Antarctica, during the British Antarctic expedition (Terra Nova) of 1910-13 led by Captain Robert Falcon Scott.

Levick served as a surgeon and zoologist on the Terra Nova expedition and spent the austral summer of 1911-12 at Cape Adare where he studied an Adélie penguin rookery. The largest Adélie penguin colony in the world, Levick was the first person to observe the entire breeding cycle of this species and his account is a fascinating insight into their biology.

Douglas G. D. Russell, a Senior Curator in the Bird Group at the Natural History Museum, says:

“Levick’s intricately detailed hand-written notes represent the first major study of the zoology of this important site on the north-easternmost peninsula of East Antarctica, so this unique account is of major historical and zoological research interest.

“Material such as this is often unavailable to researchers and now, for the first time, modern science has the opportunity to study Levick’s first-hand account and revisit his conclusions. The importance of original manuscripts cannot be underestimated as they add crucial contextual and scientific data to our existing collections.

“Labels, diaries and notebooks from major expeditions are hugely important in enabling us to successfully interpret and decipher the validity of specimens and materials - telling us when, where and how they were collected - and allow us to unlock even more research potential.”

The survival of Levick’s notebooks from this period is especially noteworthy as he was one of six members of the expedition who were forced to endure a period of severe isolation in a cramped ice cave for seven months when they were unable to re-embark the Terra Nova in February 1912 - a traumatic ordeal that nearly ended their lives.

After finally returning to Britain in 1913, Levick published some of his observations in a book and a scientific manuscript. However, many of his zoological notes remained unpublished - in particular, Levick’s observations of penguin sexual behaviour that at the time were deemed too indecent, leading him to encode some passages of the text in Greek.

Russell continues: “Levick’s notebooks place us right beside this extraordinary explorer in the harsh Antarctic of 1911. Such documents are an irreplaceable voice from history and Levick’s account gives a fascinating and crucial insight into the history of science and also the changing attitudes to the research and interpreting of sexual behaviour in the natural world. The area that Levick studied around Ridley Beach, Cape Adare is home to the world’s largest Adélie penguin (Pygoscelis adeliae) colony. These notebooks are especially interesting as recent research suggests the Ridley Beach colony will probably be abandoned in the near future due to rising sea levels in this region.

“As a scientist, Levick was decades ahead of his time and now, more than 100 years later, his words still have much to tell us. These notebooks leave us an enduring gift alongside the tens of thousands of zoological, geological and botanical specimens the Antarctic expedition contributed to science - the majority of which remain in the national collections for ongoing research and continue to provide insight into that extraordinary southern continent, its oceans, climate and history.”

Within its world class collections, the Natural History Museum’s Library and Archives hold an extensive collection of original manuscript items in both its Library collections and the Official Museum Archive. The Museum’s acquisition of Levick’s notebooks was part-funded by Friends of the National Libraries and the Murray Family.

Andrea Hart, Head of Special Collections at the Natural History Museum, says:

“The acquisition of Levick’s zoological notebooks for the national collection is incredibly significant and we are very grateful to the support from Friends of the National Libraries and the Murray Family in making this possible.

“The Museum holds many manuscripts, original reports and field notebooks relating to the Terra Nova and Discovery expeditions along with specimens that were collected. The Levick notebooks are a vital addition to our existing collection and the scientific observations held in original manuscripts such as these remain as relevant and important today as when they were first created. We’re delighted that Levick’s work can now be accessed by academics, researchers and the public, more than a century after his seminal trip to Antarctica.”

Levick’s notebooks will be made physically and digitally available for future research, public outreach and education, strengthening the Museum’s position as a centre of excellence for the study of natural history.

ENDS

Notes to Editors:

Media contact: Tel: +44 (0)20 7942 5654/ +44 (0)7799 690151/ Email: press@nhm.ac.uk

Details of the original manuscript notebooks are as follows:

Vol. I: ‘Zoological notes from Cape Adare’ covers the period from their arrival at Ridley Beach until 9 December 1911

Vol. II: ‘Zoological notes from Cape Adare’ covers 12 December to 31 December 1911

Press release and images are available for download here.

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