Barbara Hillary – Nurse and adventurer

Thanks to the amazing grant of £1000 given to us by the Royal Astronomical Society, we’ve been able to hire writers for our blog posts on scientists of colour. This incredible article was written by the wonderful Rosany Antonyvincent! Follow her on Twitter here!

 Name: Barbara Hillary

 Life: June 12, 1931 – Nov 23, 2019 (age 88)

 Born: Manhattan, New York

 Degrees: BSc and MSc in gerontology

 Occupation: Nurse, explorer

A carer by profession but adventurer by passion, Barbara Hillary has paved the way for setting and achieving ambitious dreams. Her tenacity and magnetism spread to those around her and she provided wisdom to all. Barbara came from humble beginnings, during the era of segregation, but showed through hard work and determination, you truly can succeed with the right attitude.

Who was Barbara Hillary?

Barbara Hillary is the epitome of an adventurer. She committed her life to persevering, achieving, and exceeding expectations. She is best known for being the first African-American woman to reach the North Pole, and also the first African-American woman to reach the South Pole. These achievements are made even more spectacular due to her having achieved them at the ages of 74 and 79. She achieved many other adventurous goals along the way whilst facing hurdles, and in doing so, she received many awards; one such notable award being the Woman of Courage award by the National Organisation for Women in 2008 [1][5].

Early life

Barbara (born June 12th 1931) grew up with her mother (Viola Jones Hillary) and sister in Harlem, New York. Her father passed away when Barbara was two and mother worked as a housekeeper to provide. She describes her childhood as “sub-depression poor but there was

no such thing as mental poverty in our home … no such thing as woe is me.” From very early on in her life, she showed determination and charisma as well as a natural flair for adventure. When her mother came home with toys, she instead showed more of an interest in education and adventure stories. Robinson Crusoe was a particular favourite. Equally, she was raised on the values of education first and manners always.

Although she showed signs of being an explorer very early on, she was very aware of the barriers that stood before her. When asked “When did you get involved with the outdoors?” she replies, “There was no skiing or ice-skating for me at the time. Even if my family could have afforded to go skiing, I seriously doubt if I would have been welcome. Remember, I grew up in the era of segregation, when we visited our family in the South, we had to change trains and go into the segregated car.” [2]


Her mother was a firm believer in education and encouraged her to stay in her studies. She went on to achieve a BSc and MSc in gerontology at New York’s New School university – study of the social, cultural, psychological, cognitive, and biological aspects of aging. Following her education, she went on to become a nurse, specialising in gerontology. She focussed on staff training in the concepts of patient aging and service delivery systems in nursing homes and similar facilities. She continued working as a nurse for 55 years before retiring.


It was soon after retiring, that she was able to reignite her childhood dreams of travelling. Initially she considered a cruise, however the idea of being on a ship with married couples quickly turned her off and so she found an interest in Arctic travel instead. She began her travels in Canada, where she took up dog sledding in Quebec. It was here she learned that no African-American had been to the North and South Pole and so she set her sights on this. At the age of 72, this was no meager task, but she firmly believed that she would achieve it. For this she had to learn how to cross-country ski, which required a personal trainer and for her to raise $25,000 in donations to fund the trip. Her routine then became constant cardio workouts, hauling bags of sand at the nearby beach, and undergoing many physical tests to assess her fitness [3]. Having achieved this, it was simply a case of having a helicopter drop her off at Base camp, and she began her trip. At the age of 75, having camped in -30℃, she became the first Black woman to reach the North Pole. And having achieved this, she set her sights on the South Pole (camping here in -40℃), which she achieved at age 79.


Barbara was a big believer in removing the naysayers and negativity from your life – whether that be people, groups or environments. She was told her dreams couldn’t be accomplished due to her health, her age, her inexperience. One particular trial she faced was the diagnosis of breast cancer at the age of 20, which thankfully was successfully treated. Later on however she faced lung cancer at the age of 67. Her condition required surgery to remove the cancerous cells, which led to a 25% reduction in her breathing.

These conditions, coupled with her age, were met with shock when reaching out for sponsors. There were times where she had to ask “Am I wasting my time?” or met with questions like “Do you really want to do this?”.

Further trials she had to endure included an immense amount of social pressure – she was well aware of the complexities that came with being the first Black person in the North Pole, and outdoors in general.

“It really wasn’t until after World War II that Blacks moved out of the kitchens and away from menial labor and towards making a decent salary. That was when we could even start to look at these forms of recreation. Yet, even at that point, there’s the matter of identity; we don’t have a strong heritage of polar exploration, for example, or even of camping.“

She goes on to state that the history of Black people went from slave ships to agricultural living, and therefore going back to a rural landscape wouldn’t be considered successful in terms of social mobility [2].

Later life and legacy

Once she had accomplished her goals, she put her focus on giving back. She spent a lot of time helping to improve conditions in the Rockway Peninsula and later on became the founder of the Arverne Action Association – a group dedicated to improving life in Arverne, New York and the Rockaway Peninsula Community. She continued to pass on her wisdom to public speaking at conferences and organisations, and even became the Editor-in-Chief of The Peninsula Magazine, which is a non-profit and multi-racial magazine in New York [4].

She faced health problems later in her life, at the age of 88, and sadly passed. It can truly be said that she achieved what she set out to – she found her passion, worked hard, and executed them.

Some parting words of wisdom from Barbara Hilary:

“Live – you never know from one day or the other. You don’t need money to get up off your ass and do something.”


[1] 💻Barbara Hillary, Woman of Courage Honoree, National Organization for Women (NOW) : 28NOW%29

[2] 💻Barbara Hillary, Our Favourite Boundary Breaker:

[3] 📹 Barbara Hillary, Commencement Speaker 2017, The New School:

[4] 💻 Barbara Hillary, 88, Trailblazer on Top (and Bottom) of the World,Dies:

[5] 💻Barbara Hillary, First African American Woman to Reach The North Pole, Dies At 88, Sunday TODAY:

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