Brian Birley Roberts

Dr Brian Birley Roberts CMG (23 October 1912 – 9 October 1978) was a British polar expert, ornithologist and diplomat who played a key role in the development of the Antarctic Treaty System.[1]

Early life

Brian Roberts was born in Woking, Surrey, the youngest of four children of Charles Michael Roberts, a medical man, and Madeline Julia Birley. He was educated at Uppingham School and Emmanuel College, Cambridge.[2] Throughout childhood he developed an interest in birds, photography and the polar regions which was stimulated by adventurous family holidays.[3]

Polar exploration and ornithology

As an undergraduate Roberts led Cambridge expeditions to Vatnajokull, Iceland (1932)[4][5] and to Scoresbysund, east Greenland (1933).[6] On the latter the party was taken to and fro by the French polar explorer Jean-Baptiste Charcot on the vessel Pourquoi Pas?[2] In 1934 he graduated in geography, archaeology and anthropology Tripos. Later that year he joined the 3-year British Graham Land Expedition to the Antarctic led by John Rymill.[7] His unfortunate experience with appendicitis during the first year of the expedition was turned to advantage when circumstances necessitated his spending time both in the Falkland Islands and in South Georgia, where the sub-Antarctic wildlife presented him with rich study opportunities.[8] His pioneering work on Wilson's petrel[9] and research on the breeding behavior of penguins[10] earned him a Cambridge doctorate.

Roberts continued to take part in polar expeditions during his professional life as official British observer, including the Norwegian-British-Swedish Expedition to Queen Maud Land, Antarctica in 1950-1951[11] and Operation Deep Freeze 61 (1960-1961).[2]

Cambridge and the Scott Polar Research Institute

During the Second World War Roberts was appointed by the War Office to research cold climate clothing and equipment,[12] and subsequently by Naval Intelligence to edit Admiralty Geographical Handbooks for the Arctic region.[2][13] At the end of the war Roberts was appointed as a part-time Research Fellow (later Associate) at the Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge. In 1947 with Gerald Seligman he co-founded and edited the Journal of Glaciology.[14]

Roberts was instrumental in the development of the Scott Polar Institute into a world center for polar research and information, introducing and editing the Universal Decimal Classification for use in Polar Libraries[14] He was also involved from early on in the editing of the Institute’s house journal Polar Record. He worked part-time in Cambridge and part-time in London for 30 years before his retirement in 1975, continuing to write on a wide range of polar matters, including numerous articles in Polar Record.[2] He died unmarried in 1978.

UK Foreign Office and the Antarctic Treaty

In 1944 Roberts was recruited to the Foreign Office Research Department to work on the political problems of the British Antarctic Territory, then known as the Falkland Islands Dependencies, and to co-manage with James Wordie and Neil Mackintosh the secret British Antarctic expedition Operation Tabarin,[15] which was renamed the Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey in 1946 and eventually became the British Antarctic Survey in 1962. From 1946 to 1975 Roberts continued to work part-time at the UK Foreign Office as its first Head of the Polar Regions Section, providing specialist knowledge on Antarctic history, politics, mapping and terminology, and initiating the post-war Antarctic Place-Names Committee.[1] This work evolved into the search for a political solution to the increasing post-war competition and conflicting claims to sovereignty in the Antarctic, which were eventually resolved in the 1959 Washington Conference that Roberts attended and at which the Antarctic Treaty was signed by 12 nations.[16] Roberts had a significant role in the conception and evolution of the Treaty[17] and a major role once the Treaty became operational, representing the UK during the years 1961-1975 at the (then) biennial Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meetings.[18] Out of his concerns for nature conservation in the Antarctic he initiated the Agreed Measures for the Conservation of Antarctic Fauna and Flora and the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Seals (1972).[1]


Roberts received several awards, including the Polar Medal (1940), the Bruce Memorial Prize by the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Royal Physical Society of Edinburgh and Royal Scottish Geographical Society (1940), The Royal Geographical Society Back Award (1949), an Extraordinary Fellowship of Churchill College, Cambridge (1965), the CMG (1969), and the Founders’ Medal of the Royal Geographical Society (1976).[2]

Places in the Antarctic named after him include Roberts Ice Piedmont and Roberts Knoll.


  1. 1 2 3 King, H G R; Savours, Ann (1995). Polar pundit: reminiscences about Brian Birley Roberts. Cambridge: Scott Polar Research Institute. pp. 3–8.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Law, Phillip (1979). "Obituary". Polar Record. Cambridge University Press. 19(121): 399–404. doi:10.1017/S0032247400002291.
  3. Archives Hub GB15 – Brian Roberts collection
  4. Beckett, J Angus (1934). Iceland Adventure. London: H F & G Witherby.
  5. Roberts, B B (1933). "The Cambridge Expedition to Vatnajokull". Geographical Journal. 81(4): 289–313. doi:10.2307/1785435.
  6. Roberts, Brian (1935). "The Cambridge Expedition to Scoresby Sound, East Greenland". Geographical Journal. 85(3): 234–251. doi:10.2307/1786271.
  7. Rymill, John R (1986). Southern Lights. Malvern: The Knoll Press. p. 28. ISBN 0 9508218 29.
  8. Fleming, W L S (1938). "Notes on the scientific work of the British Graham Land Expedition". Geographical Journal. 91(6): 508–533. doi:10.2307/1787413.
  9. Roberts, Brian (1940). "The life cycle of Wilson's Petrel, Oceanites oceanicus". British Museum (Natural History). 1(2): 141–194.
  10. Roberts, Brian (1940). "The breeding behaviour of penguins, with special reference to Pygoscelis papua". British Museum (Natural History). 1(3): 195–254.
  11. Swithinbank, Charles (1999). Foothold on Antarctica. Sussex: The Book Guild. p. 179. ISBN 1 85776 406 4.
  12. Roberts, B B; Bertram, G C L (1941). Handbook on clothing and equipment required in cold climates. London: The War Office.
  13. Roberts, B B, ed. (1942). Geographical Handbook Series: Iceland. R.R.504. Cambridge: Naval Intelligence Division.
  14. 1 2 Glen, J W (1980). "Obituary". Journal of Glaciology. 25(92): 353–354.
  15. Haddelsey, Stephen (2014). Operation Tabarin. Stroud: The History Press. pp. 29–31. ISBN 9780 7524 9356 5.
  16. Dodds, Klaus (2002). Pink Ice: Britain and the South Atlantic Empire. London: I B Tauris. pp. 85–90. ISBN 1 86064 770 7.
  17. Heavens, Steve (2016). "Brian Roberts and the origins of the 1959 Antarctic Treaty". Polar Record. doi:10.1017/S0032247416000292.
  18. Lewis-Jones, Huw (2008). Face to face: polar portraits. Cambridge: Scott Polar Research Institute. p. 165. ISBN 978 0 901021 08 3.

Selected publications of Brian B. Roberts

Chronological list of Antarctic expeditions Polar Record, 9, pp 97–134 (1958) doi:10.1017/S0032247400052153.

Illustrated glossary of snow and ice Cambridge: SPRI 1966. ASIN B0006C1G7S

Edward Wilson’s Birds of the Antarctic London: Blandford Press 1967.

Conservation in the Antarctic Phil Trans Roy Soc London B279 (1977), pp 97–104.

International co-operation for Antarctic development: the test for the Antarctic Treaty Polar Record, 19, pp 107–120 (1978). doi:10.1017/S0032247400001856.

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