Explorer Douglas Mawson OBE. FRS. FAA. 1882-1958

14 Aug

Douglas Mawson in 1913

Of all the dramatic, traumatic, terrifying and courageous sorties in Antarctica in the early 1900s, Douglas Mawson’s excursion of 1912 must surely rank amongst the greatest. Of his three–man party that set out to chart the coast line of King George V Land east of his expedition’s base at Cape Denison, his two companions died and Mawson himself faced, and eventually overcame, almost certain death. Yet his vision of the importance of Antarctica never faltered – he became one of the most important expedition leaders of the early 1900s –the 1912-1914 Australian Antarctic Expedition, in which he cheated death by a hair’s breadth, claimed sections of Antarctica for the British Crown and his successful British Australia and New Zealand Expedition of 1929-1931, resulted in Australia claiming some 2,500,000 square miles (6,475,000 square km

Of British extraction Douglas Mawson was born in 1882 in Shipley, Yorkshire, his father, Robert Ellis was a cloth merchant. In 1884 when Douglas was two, his parents decided to try for a better life in Australia and emigrated with Douglas and his older brother, William. The family settled in Rooty Hill, near Sydney,.

Mawson was recognized as an outstanding student from childhood. He left school at sixteen to study engineering at the University of Sydney. He graduated with a B.E. in 1902 (aged19) and was awarded first class honours in geology and mineralogy. This was followed by employment as a junior demonstrator in chemistry in the university. He then changed direction, and, supported by Tannatt Edgeworth David, the renowned professor of geology in Sydney, he made a geological survey of Mittagong (a town in New South Wales) and wrote a major report of his findings. Encouraged further by Professor David he then travelled to the New Hebrides (Vanuatu), to make a geological survey.

This New Hebrides experience was a stern introduction to exploration: rugged country, dense jungle and unwelcoming inhabitants. But his report ‘The geology of the New Hebrides’, was one of the first major geological reports of the area.

Mawson returned to further studies in geology in 1904 and was awarded the BSc. in 1905. In the same year he became a lecturer in petrology and mineralogy at the University of Adelaide. His particular interest was the glacial geology of South Australia – his work led to publication of his ‘Geological Investigations in the Broken Hill Area’ .This work was a major part of his Doctorate in Science from the University in 1909. He was keenly interested in radioactivity and was the first to identify and describe Davidite, a uranium mineral in the Precambrian rocks (from about 4.5 billion years ago). He named the mineral after his mentor, Professor David.

This interest in glaciology made him keen to see a real continental ice-cap which would increase his understanding of glaciation and its geological consequences. His studies in South Australian had brought him ‘face-to-face’ with glacial sediments from the Precambrian age and he wanted to learn more. This opportunity arose when, in 1907, Ernest Shackleton arrived in Adelaide on his way to Antarctica. Mawson approached him and applied to join the Nimrod expedition. Shackleton fascinated and enthused his audiences – Professor David had not only decided to join Shackleton, but was influential in obtaining a grant from the Australian government for the expedition. After consultation with David, Shackleton appointed Mawson ‘Physicist for the duration of the expedition’ (to Mawson’s consternation) and so began his long association with Antarctica. His interests were at this time scientific, his fascination with the continent and its opportunities were to come later

Two experiences stand out in Mawson’s Nimrod expedition. The first was the ascent of Mount Erebus, that active volcano billowing away on Ross Island near to Shackleton’s base. The second was an attempt to localize the Magnetic South Pole.

In relation to Mount Erebus which, at 12,448feet (3,794-metres), is the second-highest volcanic peak in Antarctica. In 1908 it had never been climbed. When Nimrod sailed North, the expedition team were left at their base on Ross Island. The sea ice close to them broke up. This cut off their route to the Barrier and meant that Shackleton’s plans for sledging and depot-laying had to be abandoned. Shackleton well understood the necessity of keeping interest and enthusiasm going in this hostile environment. He decided to send a team to climb and investigate Mount Erebus.

In March 1908, the party of six endured thirst, frostbite, sharp snow ridges, the hauling of a 600 pound sledge up Erebus’ almost vertical slopes. Five men reached the summit (one had been incapacitated by frostbite), having abandoned their sledge and carried what equipment they could. They finally reached the crater of the volcano; it was about half a mile in width and 900 feet deep. As they stood on the summit they could hear hissing sounds, then a dull boom followed by globular masses of steam shooting up into the air – an awesome sight.

As Mawson stood on the summit and looked around over the vast expanse of Antarctica he became entranced by its beauty and grandeur of the continent – and its possibilities. He wanted to learn its secrets.


The party was ‘nearly dead’ when they returned, but the expedition was successful –many rock specimens and much meteorological data was collected.

Later in the same year Mawson led the first party to reach the area of the South Magnetic Pole. This team consisted of Professor David (initially in charge), Mawson and Alistair Mackay (the expedition’s Assistant Surgeon). The plan was to travel west over McMurdo Sound, then head north along the Victoria Land coast and subsequently to find a passage through the mountains to the Polar Plateau. The expedition, a two sledge manhauling sortie, which set out on 5th October 1908, was an awful journey, a triumph of determination through a completely unknown region. The three men were away for four months and covered an astounding 1,260 miles.

Shackleton’s instructions were :
‘You will leave winter quarters on or about October 1, 1908 (they left on 5th October) The main objects of your journey are to be as follows: To take magnetic observations at every suitable point with a view of determining the dip and the position of the Magnetic Pole. If time permits, and your equipment and supplies are sufficient, you will try and reach the Magnetic Pole’.
In addition they were to chart the coast of Victoria Land, to look for minerals and to make a geological survey of the Dry Valleys.

But by the end of October the men had only advanced sixty miles – conditions were so bad that they hadn’t the strength to pull both sledges and had had to relay until mid October (one sledge pulled for a distance, then a return for the second). They endured blizzards, hostile surfaces, half rations, snow blindness. Some days they only advanced four miles. They shared a single sleeping bag – David in the middle and taking, Mawson felt, too much space – it was a relief when they were able to turn it inside out to air it – the inside was coated with encrusted ice from their breathing. Mawson and Mackay both wrote that the physical problems were exacerbated by Professor David’s (aged fifty-one), relative weakness on the trek.

On the 17th October the men took possession of Victoria Land for the British Empire
By late October progress was so slow and difficult that they decided to concentrate solely on the attempt at the South Magnetic Pole- they realised that their only hope of reaching their goal was by travelling along the coast line as far as the Drygalski Glacier and then turn inland to climb to the high plateau of Victoria Land. At that point they would face a further 290 mile trek to get to the Magnetic Pole. They saved their full sledging rations for the journey away from the coast by supplementing their rations until that point, with seal meat.

Before they reached the treacherous Drygalski Ice Barrier they still had to trek north over miles of coast and to navigate the Nordenskjold Ice Tongue where the conditions were so severe that they had to lower their supplies hand over hand over a sheer ice face. The ice tongue took ten days of cruel hauling to cross.

The Drygalski Barrier had frozen jagged surfaces and its heavily crevassed ice separated by deep ice valleys slowed progress seriously -sometimes so much that only half a mile was achieved in three hours.

Professor David had a narrow escape on this Barrier – he fell into one of the numerous crevasses.

The rescue was described by Mawson as follows:
David to Mawson (this was David’s third appeal to Mawson, who was in the tent)
….‘Mawson’
Mawson ‘What can I do’?
David ‘Well Mawson, I am in a rather dangerous position. I am really hanging on by my fingers to the edge of a crevasse and I don’t think I can hold on much longer. I shall have to trouble you to come and assist me’.

When Mawson rushed out of his tent, he found David, his head just showing, hanging on by his arms on the snow ledge. He pulled him out.

In mid December after 200 miles along the coast, they turned inland having abandoned one sledge. They wrote farewell letters to their nearest and dearest, and left these in empty milk cans on a cairn. They slowly progressed up a glacier full of crevasses, barrancas (canyons or ravines) and unstable snow bridges. This was a heroic journey. Man-hauling their sledges, they pioneered a route to the plateau. They suffered snow blindness, falls into crevasses, perpetual sheer exhaustion. Eventually they reached an area with a hard snow surface, here they were able to advance more quickly (about 10 miles daily). Throughout they made regular magnetic observations.

By the 17 January 1909, they reached their goal, fixing the South Magnetic Pole’s mean position as 72° 15′ S, 155° 16′ E, at an elevation of 7,260 feet. David wrote; ‘We then bared our heads and hoisted the Union Jack at 3.30 p.m. with the words uttered by myself in conformity with Lieutenant Shackleton’s instructions, I hereby take possession of this area now containing the Magnetic Pole for the British Empire. At the same time I fired the trigger of the camera by pulling the string. Then we gave three cheers for his Majesty the King’.

The men understood then that, unlike the Geographic South Pole, the Magnetic South Pole is not fixed in place. And there is now some doubt as to whether the three men’s location was absolutely correct. It is now known that the position of the Magnetic Pole wanders around in a single year and over a longer period it can move many hundreds of miles. To-day it is in the Southern Ocean.
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Their return was speeded by the need to be back at the coast to meet their relief ship. Dr. Mackay, exasperated by the Professor, who was apparently increasingly confused, threatened to certify David insane, unless he gave written authority of leadership to Mawson who had been the de-facto leader during the ascent. Mawson then took formal control and the three began the return to the coast. The journey was 250 miles and they had fifteen days to make it so as to get back in time to rendezvous with
‘Nimrod’. When a south wind blew they used the tent’s floorcloth as a sail and in two days covered 40 miles. Despite increasing physical weakness, bad weather and David’s mental health, they kept up their daily distances, until the 30th January when they mistakenly chose to descend a glacier (the Larsen Glacier) which had drops of 45 degrees and ice holes. On 31 January were 16 miles from their agreed pick-up point and they reached the rendezvous on the 2nd February 1909. It is easy to imagine their feelings as they saw the ship passing them in heavy drifting snow. But on February 3, thankfully, ‘Nimrod’s’ Captain made a second pass coming close to the shore. Mawson was so excited when he heard the ship’s gun being fired that rushed out of their tent and promptly fell into a crevasse. Nothing daunted Mackay shouted to those on board, ‘Mawson has fallen down a crevasse, and we got to the Magnetic Pole’.

Mawson was rescued by Professor David who seems, by this time, to have been able to function promptly and efficiently. David was lowered down the crevasse and the two got safely to the surface.

The group were able, at last, to get on board.

‘Were never folk so glad as were we three’.

They had completed the longest Antarctic man-hauling sledge journey of 122 days

When ‘Nimrod’ sailed into the port of Adelaide in 1909 Mawson was greeted as a hero….. “The voices of innumerable strangers – the handgrips of many friends – It chokes one…” He returned to work. Wonderfully he met his wife-to-be, Paquita Delprat, the youngest daughter of the general manager of a mining company. They were to be married in 1914

But this was to be after his next and worst Antarctic experience.

To be continued

Geology: studies of the earth’s physical structure and substance and investigation of their histories and influences

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8 Responses to “Explorer Douglas Mawson OBE. FRS. FAA. 1882-1958”

  1. Noelle Stallard August 14, 2020 at 10:42 am #

    I had not heard of this expedition or Mawson and there are so many interesting points made. Well done Isobel, I can’t wait to read episode 2

    • isobelpwilliams August 14, 2020 at 3:05 pm #

      It IS odd. He was hugely lauded in Australia – and on one of their stamps for years- but in spite of his achievements, he never seems to have had a big following in the UK. I expect the war diminished interest in Antarctica in the public conscience here. But when I was researching him in the SPRI for one of my presentations, there was a researcher working for a sportsman who produced a book on Mawson. This I understand was very popular in Australia with wives who bought the book for their husbands.

  2. Dr. R.Abrahams August 18, 2020 at 12:41 pm #

    Isobel writes in a way that brings the past to life. Fascinating stuff- how amazing so much was achieved all those years ago. I look forward to more.

    • isobelpwilliams August 18, 2020 at 5:32 pm #

      I am so glad you like the text style. It is so important to make the subject interesting – some fascinating subjects can get buried!! Isobel

  3. Myra Abrahams August 18, 2020 at 1:39 pm #

    It is always interesting, although incredibly humbling, to read about the courage, tenacity and resilience of the explorers at that time. So often we only hear of those whom we learnt about at school, but yet again Isobel Williams has introduced us to lesser known adventurers. The easy , informative style will certainly mean that I look forward to the next episode. Thank you Isobel.

    • isobelpwilliams August 18, 2020 at 5:25 pm #

      The next episode demonstrates endurance almost beyond belief I think. Thank you for your comment Myra

  4. John Millard August 22, 2020 at 9:26 am #

    Great explorer, great scientist, great man. A very exciting story, not sufficiently well known in UK. I am looking forward to the next episode

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