Golden Achievers: Since the Mid-19th Century, the Royal Geographical Society Has Been Presenting a Number of Annual Medals and Awards to Individuals Who Have Demonstrated Excellence in the Field of Geography and Have Furthered Our Understanding of the World. with Nominations Open for This Year's Awards, Natalie Hoare Looks Back at Their Illustrious History

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Scanning the list of past gold medal winners displayed in the entrance hall of the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) in Kensington is like reading a historical who's who of travel, exploration and geography. Nineteenth-century luminaries such as David Livingstone, Robert Falcon Scott, Henry Morton Stanley, Dr Fridtjof Nansen and Gertrude Bell--names that have come to embody the spirit of exploration--rub shoulders with contemporary behemoths such as Sir David Attenborough, Neil Armstrong and Sir Ranulph Fiennes. In between sit some lesser known, but no less important, names, a reflection of the multifarious nature of geography, as well as almost 180 years of history.

The annual tradition of allocating two major awards originated in 1831 as an annual gift of 50 guineas from King William IV, the patron of the Society, 'to constitute a premium for the encouragement and promotion of geographical science and discovery'. Eight years later, the Society decided to convert this monetary award into something more enduring, creating two gold medals: the Founder's and Patron's medals. Today, the Society's current patron, Her Majesty The Queen, approves the allocation of these medals to members and Fellows of the Society whose achievements are considered to have made a significant contribution to geographical knowledge.

But the gold medals aren't solely reserved for intrepid explorers. Since their inception, the awards have recognised excellence across geographical research and fieldwork, teaching, and public engagement, with senior researchers, academics and school teachers all receiving acclaim for outstanding achievements in their careers. So although the opportunity for exploring uncharted territory has arguably all but disappeared, there are still plenty of deserving winners to be found.

Last year, the Patron's Medal was awarded to Professor Paul Curran, vice-chancellor and professor of physical geography of Bournemouth University, for the 'encouragement and promotion of geography at the very highest levels,' while Professor Roger Barry, of the University of Colorado, USA, received the Founder's Medal for international leadership of research into climate change.

An internationally renowned leader in remote sensing--the acquisition of information using technology such as satellites to determine an area's changing geography--and a former NASA-based research scientist, Curran was recognised specifically for his contribution to the 'international development of geographical science through remote sensing and Earth observation'--an important field in contemporary geographical science and discovery. Curran pioneered a method of remotely determining the extent and quality of vegetation cover on the Earth's surface from space, co-developing the European Space Agency's operational global chlorophyll maps, which have proved vital for the study of terrestrial climate change effects.

'It's a great honour to become the first recipient of a royal medal for contributions to Earth observation,' says Curran. 'I feel very humbled to walk in the footsteps of previous recipients. Their names, in the foyer of Lowther Lodge, the headquarters of the Society, capture for me how our subject has stayed true to space and place but has changed with the needs of the age.'

But the Founder's and Patron's medals are just two of the awards allocated by the Society each year. Last year, a further seven awards were presented, including the Ness Award, which was given to Paul Rose, a former vice-president and chair of the Expeditions and Fieldwork Division at the Society, in recognition of his efforts in 'supporting and promoting the popular understanding of geography' through his combined roles as a BBC TV presenter, expedition leader and public speaker. …