Belfast scientist and explorer awarded Polar medal

Dr Philip Gribbon
Dr Philip Gribbon

The Queen has awarded the Polar Medal to a retired Belfast scientist and explorer for his pioneering work in Greenland and the Canadian Arctic.

Dr Philip Gribbon, 84, who was educated at Campbell College and Queen’s University, is believed to be the first from these shores to win the prestigious award for exploration in the Arctic.

Now living in St Andrews, where he was a physics lecturer at the university, he led six student expeditions to Greenland, climbing over 60 of its highest mountains, most of them first ascents.

The citation by the Queen refers to his outstanding contribution to scientific knowledge of the northern polar area, both for the United Kingdom and the world. Glacier melting was studied and rock samples were collected that are the closest on earth to moon rock.

In his student days at Queen’s, Dr Gribbon was a leading rock climber and member of the Queen’s and Irish Mountaineering clubs, making several first ascents in the Mournes and writing the first climbing guide.

In his early 20s, he was involved in a celebrated international incident between the UK and France, when he was seized by the French authorities and drafted into the army.

Born in France, where his father had been a painter in Provence, he found on holiday that he was regarded as a deserter who had skipped his national service.

He was arrested and taken to an army barracks near Marseilles, prompting desperate phone calls back to his uncle in Belfast.

Frederick Gribbon, a well-known linen manufacturer, contacted the Foreign Secretary at Westminster, Selwyn Lloyd, and his nephew was eventually released after serving several weeks in a transport unit.

After leaving Queen’s, Dr Gribbon held two posts in Canada, at UBC, Vancouver and the Royal Military College, Kingston, before moving to St Andrews.

In his Arctic expeditions to Baffin Island and Greenland, Dr Gribbon survived many adventures, helping to rescue a colleague who had fallen 20 feet down a hidden crevasse and encountering at sea a massive whale which dived under his kayak. Once he had to make an epic two-day march to safety when storms destroyed the student party’s tents and food.

The medal, formerly the Arctic Medal, was instituted in 1857 and renamed in 1904, to include exploration in Antarctica. It has been awarded to members of expeditions by Scott of Antarctic, Capt Robert Scott, and Ernest Shackleton. Only 73 have been given for Arctic exploration.