Notebooks containing scientific observations from Levick’s time in Cape Adare

Item author: George Murray Levick (1876-1956),
Item date: Created during the British Antarctic Expedition (Terra Nova Expedition) of 1910-13
Grant Value: £10,000
Item cost: £35,000
Item date acquired: 2019
Item institution: Natural History Museum
Town/City: London
London borough: RB Kensington & Chelsea

George Murray Levick served as surgeon and zoologist on the Terra Nova Expedition led by Robert Falcon Scott which saw Levick spending 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 bird species.

Levick wrote a detailed daily account of his scientific observations, which are captured in the two notebooks:

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–31 December 1911.

The notebooks measure 26cm x 21cm and comprise in total 125 pages of tightly written script, the majority of which is devoted to observations at the Adélie colony at Cape Adare from the arrival of the first penguin on 13 October to the last entry on 31 December 1911. Douglas G. D. Russell, Senior Curator, NHM Bird Group, believes that these historical, hand-written notes are the result of the first and only major study of the zoology of this site of special scientific interest on the north-easternmost peninsula of East Antarctica and were used by Levick in the production of the publication of the scientific results of the British Antarctic Expedition 1910-13. 

The notebooks also contain observations of penguin behaviour that at the time were deemed too indecent for publication, leading Levick to write some passages of text in the first notebook in Greek. In order to preserve decency, Levick’s paper based on his observations titled The sexual habits of the Adélie penguin (1) was not included in the official Scott expedition reports of 1915.

The Natural History Museum has strong historic collection links to the Antarctic through specimens and artworks from the Terra Nova expedition, Discovery expedition and many other expeditions relating to natural history over the past four centuries. Our scientists continue actively to participate in Antarctic research as part of international teams observing marine life and environmental change and through research on the Antarctic collections held at the Museum. The notebooks have significantly strengthened this connection and research resource, specifically with regards to the avian element but also the potential to inform research on current issues such as climate change.

The purchase of the notebooks for permanent retention in the NHM Library’s Collections with the generous support of the Friends of the National Libraries has also ensured that these documents of major international scientific and historical interest have been saved for the nation and will now be preserved in perpetuity. Following essential conservation work on the first notebook, access to the notebooks will be made available for research, public outreach and education for the first time along with their digitisation and transcription.  

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1: Russell, G D et al. (2012) Dr. George Murray Levick (1876-1956): Unpublished notes on the sexual habits of the Adélie penguin. Polar Record, vol.48, no.4, pp

Page from Levick’s first notebook with photographs and written descriptions of penguin behaviour.
Page from Levick’s first notebook with photographs and written descriptions of penguin behaviour.
Two loose photographs from Levick’s second notebook depicting of Cape Adare and Adelie penguins.
Two loose photographs from Levick’s second notebook depicting of Cape Adare and Adelie penguins. Courtesy of the Natural History Museum, London.