Professor Sienicki’s paper on Scott’s ‘suicide’

17 May

On April 1, I wrote a comment on my blog about Professor Krzysztof Sienicki’s paper on ‘The Weather and its Role in Captain R.F. Scott and his Companions’ Deaths’ which seeks to prove that on their return, Scott and Bowers decided on suicide and fraudulently doctored their temperature recordings to suggest that the team experienced unusually cold weather. I received a comment from Karen May, a polar researcher with a detailed knowledge of Scott’s last journey and from Kristoffer Nelson-Kilger, a member of the Sienicki team.

I published Kristoffer’s full reply also my comment on this on May 1. Kristoffer mentioned a book ‘Captain Scott’s Fatal Antarctic Expedition: Slanted Truths – Centennial Account’, which will, no doubt, contain more of the same.

Kristoffer wrote also to Karen May making essentially the same points. She has sent me her reply, dated 14 May.  She defends Scott against this denigration. It is long and detailed but I feel her comments are so detailed and of such general interest that I am hosting her reply on my blog

Karen May’s reply to Kristoffer Nelson-Kilger:

Dear Kristoffer,

Thank you for your comments and your response. Since you have responded online, I would like to go more deeply into my objections. A number of assertions by both you and Professor Krzysztof Sienicki run counter to the primary evidence available. Prior to your publication, I believe that it would be in your best interests to take the following points into consideration.

Firstly, it isn’t my first paper (“Could Captain Scott have been saved?”) that you should examine in regard to these notions of Scott and Bowers having killed themselves, it’s the second paper, “A kind of suicide? Errors and misconceptions in Roland Huntford’s account of the last days of Scott’s polar party.” I urge you to read that second paper (co-authored with George Lewis), and examine the case it makes for Scott and his men coming home to national honours and the chance of seeing their loved ones again.

You write, with regard to Scott’s suicide: “Both Sienicki and I believe that lack of hope of getting back was not the motive, but for Scott at least, the motive was fear of powerful enemies in Britain who had previously gotten away with slandering him and Lt. Royds over the latter’s meteorological records from the Discovery expedition.”

Your argument appears to be that Scott killed himself because some people once slandered his meteorological results. Again, I would ask you please to read the second paper “A kind of suicide?”, and also have a look at the people to whom Scott wrote his farewell letters – distinguished naval men such as Admiral Sir Lewis Beaumont, Vice-Admiral Sir Francis Bridgeman and Vice-Admiral Sir George Egerton. These were the superiors who mattered in Scott’s life, those for whom he had worked and who had given him active support in his career. It isn’t feasible that Scott could have killed himself over the “slander” which could have been perpetuated against his results by a few unknown scientists when he, a naval officer, had rock-solid naval prospects and connections back at home.

These “slandering” scientists would have had absolutely no influence at all over the progress of Scott’s naval career. Indeed, I would ask you please to place all of this in the proper historical context: with the British celebrations which would have ensued upon Scott’s triumphant return home in 1913 as the “honourable” conqueror of the South Pole, who would even pay any attention to scientists picking fault with Scott’s meteorological research? I would strongly urge you to come to a deeper understanding of Scott’s situation (and Bowers’, and Wilson’s, and Oates’) before you make such allegations.

Please also remember that Scott, Wilson and Bowers were real human beings with a proven track record of caring for their families. Please attribute to these men the same love for their families as you possess for your own. If you do, you will doubtless see that your hypothesis of “deliberate slow suicide, planned long in advance and abandoning their loved ones to the possibility of penury” is frankly untenable.

You write: “As for reasons 1-3, Scott and Bowers’ actions run counter to their previous lives, but that does not make me discard what I know happened: the falsification.”

I would venture to suggest that you are starting with biased premises from the very beginning – namely, that this could not possibly have been error, and could only have been calculated “falsification” with a view to suicide. You dismiss the most obvious conclusions: that the instruments were faulty (more on this later), or that these were exhausted men and that, when people are exhausted, mistakes are likely to happen. This can be seen during 20 February 1912 in Scott’s journals, when he mistakenly states that both 19 and 20 February were “Mondays” and then proceeds to write his journal one day “out” until his death! (You can see this for yourself in Max Jones’ edition of the diary, OUP paperback, p.399-400, or see Glenn M. Stein’s longer evaluation on the Antarctic Circle, here: Your theory of deliberate suicide would seem to depend upon the premise that Scott was incapable of making errors, but surely the “two Mondays” of 19 and 20 February would indicate that he was certainly capable of making unintentional errors at this stage.

Some other things for you and Professor Sienicki to consider:

1)      My co-author, George Lewis, is keen for you to bear in mind that Captain Oates was still healthy and going strong during the month of February, and that furthermore from 25 February Scott, Wilson, Oates and Bowers were managing mileage in double-figures once more after the previous setbacks. Oates’ feet had not yet been frostbitten. Things looked good for the polar party, and, as Scott remarks himself on that date, “We are naturally always discussing possibility of meeting dogs.” So to support your argument, you will need to explain what Oates’ position was in late February. Did Oates, still fit and with everything to live for, decide to give up in late February alongside his tent companions? If so, why did he not just leave the tent on 2 March when he found his feet were frostbitten? Why did he put himself through the torture of a further two weeks’ manhauling on frostbitten feet if he had already decided to die? The recorded chronology would suggest that he wanted to live, and that he still held out hope that the dogs would be coming.

2)      You need to explain more clearly whether Wilson was part of this “suicide pact” or not. This is the man who had written in his youth “[I]t is no sin to long to die, the sin is in the failure to submit our wills to God to keep us here as long as He wishes” (Seaver, Edward Wilson of the Antarctic, 1933: 72). What Wilson is stating here is that a wish to die is sometimes understandable, but it is a sin against God if one chooses to act on such an impulse and deliberately end one’s life. If you read Wilson’s last letters, you will see that his Christian faith is secure to the end: “It is God’s will and all is for the best” is a phrase that occurs in last letters both to his wife and his parents, and to his parents he writes “God knows I have no fear on meeting Him – for He will be merciful to all of us” (“The Last Letters”, ed. Lane, Boneham and Smith, 2012: 48-49, 50-51, 53). Can you explain how and why this deeply religious man would have decided to commit deliberate suicide – a decision which, in his own words, would have been “a failure to submit his will to God” and which would arguably have consigned his soul to Hell? (The same objection could be made in the case of Bowers, another sincere Christian.)

3)      Professor Sienicki states that “a specially constructed sling thermometer with a wooden handle was broken by Lt. Bowers on March 10, 1912” (Sienicki 2010: 2).  I have consulted the Expedition’s Meteorological Tables (edited by Simpson, 1923) and I found that on p.642, Bowers acknowledges in his meteorological log, in writing, on 10 March 1912, that his thermometer was broken. Bowers specifically writes the phrase “Thermometer broken”.  He does not state that he himself broke the thermometer, but simply that the thermometer was “broken”. From that date, 10 March, until the end of observations on 12 March, Bowers continues to comment on the weather but offers no further temperature readings.

Now, please place these facts in the context of your “Bowers suicide theory”. Bowers, you state, deliberately and with malice aforethought falsified his temperature readings to give the polar party an alibi for their self-willed deaths. But, if this were the case, why would Bowers write down the words “Thermometer broken” into his record? If he was relying on the deliberate falsification of readings as an alibi, why would he then cast all those previous readings into doubt by announcing, as a matter of written record in the log, that as of 10 March the thermometer was “broken”? Surely the announcement that the thermometer was “broken” signals to the reader the clear possibility that it was now defective, and that its previous recordings might not have been reliable – and, since this is clearly the case, does this not destroy your theory of Bowers’ supposedly carefully-calculated and malicious-minded “alibi”? If Bowers were falsifying temperature readings in the last weeks, then obviously he would have continued to falsify them. A fabricator would not have made any written record that his thermometer was “broken”. A fabricator would not have cast doubt on his thermometer at all.

Professor Sienicki states “Captain Scott’s party used high quality thermometers, calibrated at Kew Observatory, London. Sling and dry-bulb thermometers were used with precision” (Sienicki 2010: 2).  However, Professor Sienicki provides no evidence to back up the assertion that they were “used with precision”. These were meteorological instruments manufactured in the Edwardian era, and both of them would have been subjected to innumerable jolts and stresses during this journey. Either these thermometers were carried on the bodies of the man-haulers themselves or (more probably) they were strapped onto their sledges: these thermometers travelled across hundreds of miles of crevassed ice, sastrugi and other uneven surfaces to the Pole and back again. One of these thermometers was eventually declared “broken” by Bowers, and it seems highly unlikely that the other can be regarded as 100% infallible.

I stated in my earlier comment on this blog that if these temperature results were such a variation from the norm as to be incredible, then it was easier to believe in the instruments being defective, or the readings being accidentally confused, than in this deliberate suicide plot. The undeniable evidence of Bowers’ declaring his own thermometer “broken”, and making this a matter of written record, would tend to support my initial reaction.

Now, to other points you raise. You state:

Furthermore, by Feb. 27 at the earliest to Mar. 1 at the latest, Scott could-from his point of view-safely determine that the dogs were not coming: see the written orders he had given them that you cited in your above article, then cross reference that with Scott’s diary entries of Feb. 27 and Mar. 1-2, and remember that the latitude of the Mid Barrier Depot (that Scott is 31 miles S of on Feb. 27 and at on Mar. 1) is 81° 35′ S.”

How exactly could Scott have deduced that the dog teams’ failure to show between 27 February-1 March was cast-iron evidence that they would not be coming at all? This is pure hindsight on your part: Scott could not possibly have known during this period that all hope was lost. In Scott’s very last journal entry he writes “I do not think we can hope for any better things now”: that was dated 29 March, a month later. It appears that only in late March did Scott finally reconcile himself to the fact that the “better things” – the hope of salvation by the dog teams – would not materialize.

Curiously, you suggest that Scott and Bowers gave up hope as early as 7 February. You state: “The reason why I too cannot accept that Bowers and Scott got into your “private conversation” on Feb. 27, 1912 is because-as I have already pointed out-Scott manufactured his first food shortage on Feb. 7, 1912, so if your conversation did serve as the catalyst, it would have to have been before that day.”

You wrote to Dr Williams: “Evidence that they were stage managing their exit can be found as early as February 7, when Scott manufactured a food shortage, finding the rations short by 1 day and declaring that they hadn’t increased rations. In doing so, Scott deliberately ignored his own diary entry of January 29, where he declared that they would increase rations on “the day after tomorrow,” which would be January 31, and ignored his own diary entry of February 1, where he listed the ration increase as 1/7. 7 times 1/7 equals 1, so if they started the increased ration on January 31, this would place Scott’s party short of rations by 1 day at the beginning of lunch on February 7.”

You state that Scott “ignored his own diary entry”: however, if this were a deliberate suicide gambit, a consciously-crafted narrative made with clear-sighted malice aforethought, then why did Scott leave the previous diary entries of 29 and 31 January to stand and contradict him? Why did he not simply cross out or rub away those extracts, making them illegible, and stick to the new “stage-managed” story? The obvious interpretation is that this is not “stage-managing”. Scott increased rations on 31 January, then forgot he had done so a week afterwards and panicked in his diary entry of 7 February. What you portray as a “manufactured food shortage” looks to me like a simple confusion. What you and Professor Sienicki have discovered is evidence of error, a self-contradiction made by an exhausted man in extreme circumstances. You choose to read this as evidence of Scott’s intent to commit suicide; I consider this a melodramatic interpretation of something that can equally and more simply be explained as a mistake.

You state: “Then you are going to have to explain why and how Scott’s thermometer (which recorded daily midday near surface temperatures) malfunctioned at the same time to give abnormally low temperatures, and explain why it was later tested and nothing found wrong. “

You are going to have to prove that your last statement is actually true. Let us go back to Professor Sienicki’s article, in which he states that “The only thermometer left after March 10, 1912 was Captain [Scott’s] personal spirit thermometer which was found by a search party in 1913. Charles Wright tested its calibration back in London. Test results proved this thermometer’s accuracy within a tenth of a degree” (Sienicki 2010: 6).

However, the reference Professor Sienicki gives to back up this conclusion is Susan Solomon’s book “The Coldest March” (2003), specifically page 289, and what Sienicki writes does not reflect at all what Solomon writes on her page 289. There Solomon writes,

“Though the specific thermometer carried by the polar party was broken, as documented by Bowers in the meteorological log book, Wright took other spirit thermometers back to England and retested their calibrations. He found changes of a few tenths of a degree or less in those instruments, and he wrote to Simpson in India describing those tests” (Solomon 2003: 289).

(By the way, the curious reader need not simply take my word for this: Solomon’s exact wording can be quickly and easily checked with the “Search inside this book” facility available for “The Coldest March” on, and Professor Sienicki’s 2010 paper “The Weather and its Role in Captain Robert F. Scott and his Companions’ Deaths” can be located online with a quick Google search.)

Any reader can see quite plainly that there is a significant reversal from the account of Wright testing not Scott’s thermometer but a number of “other spirit thermometers” from the expedition (Solomon’s account) to Professor Sienicki’s scenario of Wright’s testing a single remaining expedition thermometer, which just happened to be Scott’s own  thermometer (Sienicki’s account). “Changes of a few tenths of a degree” has also been erroneously altered to “within a tenth of a degree”: this is minor, however, in comparison to the fundamental misattribution of the thermometers. It would appear that Professor Sienicki has made an unfortunate and serious misreading of Solomon’s evidence. Where is the evidence that Wright ever subjected Scott’s own thermometer to testing in 1913, or indeed at any other time? Please quote your source exactly, with page numbers, so that I can check this for myself.

The fact that Professor Sienicki cited Solomon’s page 289 as evidence for his statement about “Captain Scott’s thermometer”, when Solomon on that page gives evidence which directly contradicts this statement, shows how easy it is for a scholar to make an unintentional, yet serious, mistake in the reading of evidence. I can only hope that, in the light of this accident, you and Professor Sienicki will be appropriately charitable in your evaluation of the results of these exhausted men in extreme conditions.

The burden of proof rests on you to establish that you and Professor Sienicki are on solid ground in your allegations of deliberate suicide, and the following is a minimal list of the criteria you are going to have to fulfil to ensure that your argument holds water:

1)      You need to find clear evidence that Wright or anyone else tested Scott’s own thermometer after the tragedy and found it in perfect working order

2)      If you do find clear evidence that Wright or anyone else ever tested Scott’s own thermometer and found it in perfect working order, you need to ascertain that Scott’s thermometer was kept absolutely untouched and inviolate from its discovery in November 1912 until tests in 1913 or later, and that no-one could possibly have fixed it before these tests

3)      You need to prove that this type of thermometer could not possibly have been capable of a period of erroneous readings, followed by automatic self-correction at a later date

4)      The reader will expect readings from other thermometers of that type and a thorough assessment of how accurate/prone to error they were by modern standards. (For example, would any modern meteorologist go on record as stating that they would rely on Edwardian-era thermometers today in preference to the latest equipment?)

Since so much of your theory rests upon the infallibility of this one thermometer (and the impossibility of Scott’s having made any kind of error in taking readings from it), I believe that you will need to present a detailed analysis of the specific instrument itself (brand, date of manufacture, etc.), incontrovertible proof that it was indeed tested after the polar journey and found infallible, the way in which it was used and how readings would have been taken. Interestingly, Solomon, on page 289 of “The Coldest March”, states that both Apsley Cherry-Garrard and Teddy Evans wrote to Simpson in 1914 to confirm that they had taken the precaution of keeping their thermometers in the shade when taking their readings: this alone would indicate that this kind of thermometer was a delicate instrument, and that oversights by the recorder during the taking of those readings could lead to errors.

You write: “Right now, suicide pact remains the only plausible candidate for a motive; of course, Sienicki and I will take any new possibilities into consideration.”

I do hope that you will examine the evidence again with an open mind. If you are going to suggest “a suicide pact” as the only possible interpretation of events, you will need far stronger evidence than “These men recorded unlikely temperature variations, using delicate Edwardian-era instruments which had undergone a great deal of repeated stress (and one of which was later explicitly declared “broken” by Bowers) and taking these readings when in a state of utter physical exhaustion”. I would urge you please to make full allowance for the possibility of accident, error and circumstances outside of the polar party’s control before you begin talking of “motive” and “suicide pacts”.

Thank you for taking the time to read this. I am sure that you and Professor Sienicki will address all these issues in your forthcoming publication “Captain Scott’s Fatal Antarctic Expedition: Slanted Truths – Centennial Account”.

Best wishes,

Karen May


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