The Polar Medal was instituted in September 1904 to reward the participants in Captain Robert F. Scott’s successful first expedition to the Antarctic region.
The medal was also intended for those who gave valuable service in any subsequent expedition in conditions of extreme hardship, whether explorers and scientists or naval officers and crew.
It has been used widely to reward the personnel of major explorations recognised by UK or Commonwealth governments, whether by land, sea or air. In recent decades most awards have been made to scientists who over prolonged periods of time and in harsh conditions have worked to advance knowledge of the polar regions.
Besides Captain Scott, distinguished recipients of the Polar Medal have included Sir Ernest Shackleton, who accompanied Scott during the 1902-4 expedition, and Sir Edmund Hillary and Sir Vivian Fuchs who led the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1957-8. Today, its holders include the explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes whose late wife Virginia became the first of only three women to be awarded the medal.
Two early recipients went on to have parliamentary careers. Captain Robert Ryder RN (1908-86) who sat for Merton & Morden 1950-55 and Sir Martin Lindsay (1905-81) who sat for Solihull, 1945-64. Both men had been awarded the Polar Medal for their involvement in important Arctic and Antarctic expeditions during the 1930s.
The medal took its unusual octagonal shape from a medal awarded in the 1850s for Arctic exploration. The obverse shows the monarch’s head, on this particular medal George VI.
Its reverse was designed by the sculptor and medallist Ernest Gillick, RA (1874-1951) and shows Scott’s ship the Discovery in winter quarters, with a sledging party in the foreground. Some fifty years later, Gillick’s wife Mary was to design the obverse for the new Elizabeth II version of the medal.