October 18 is the birth day of Herbert Dyce Murphy (1879-1971). I can’t for the life of me recall how this remarkable individual came on to my radar. While Murphy did go on the lecture circuit, I can’t find that he played vaudeville or the halls. My likely pathway to this subject was my earlier piece on Malcolm Scott, the Drag Queen Brother of Scott of the Antarctic. That, in of itself, is a remarkable story. But Herbert Dyce Murphy is arguably more incredible, for he embodied facets of both of those brothers. Rarely, perhaps never, has a single individual so palpably represented the outer extremes of the male and female gender principles, as traditionally represented. He was all man, except when he was all woman.
Born in Melbourne Australia, Murphy was the grandson of two nationally important Australian politicians, Sir Francis Murphy and John Rout Hopkins. He was only a boy when an uncle brought him on three Arctic voyages. He sailed ’round the world on whaling vessels and yachts countless times, was a leader on an Antarctic expedition (1911-1914); was once trapped in Arctic ice north of Russia for nine months; and was ice-master in Antarctica for Norway’s whaling fleet for three months annually from 1920 through 1965. The family business as sheep ranching, from which he fled as a young man, but returned to in later years.
He studied history (Crimean War a favorite topic) and engineering at Oxford. It was there that he was spotted playing a female role in a Greek tragedy by someone in the employ of British intelligence. He was recruited to spy on France and Belgium, using his engineering expertise in order to send home informed reports about their rail transport. For five years he lived abroad as “Edith Murphy”. He always claimed to be the figure in white with the parasol in E. Phillip Fox’s 1910 painting The Arbour:
A terrific article about him here at the Australian Dictionary of Biography.
Another here at the site of the Mornington Cemetery, where he is buried.
And an article on the Mawson Expedition to Antarctica.