SURGEON CAPTAIN EDWARD LEICESTER ATKINSON. 1881-1929

30 Jul

    

                                              

Atkinson was the naval surgeon who had a pivotal role to play in the Scott’s Terra Nova expedition. Michael Tarver has written Atkinson’s biography: The Man who Found Captain Scott, Antarctic Explorer and War Hero, Surgeon Captain Edward Leicester Atkinson. but he is referred to less frequently than other heroes of the expedition. He deserves to be remembered.

Atkinson came from a family of military and professional men. He was one of seven children – the only boy. His mother Jenny Anne Hazel, was a member of a long -established Creole family and the family lived in in the Caribbean – St. Vincent initially, subsequently the Port of Spain.

In October 1895, Edward was sent to a boarding school in England. Forest School in Essex is an Anglican, independent boarding school for boys. Here Edward (pupil number 1653), excelled in sport, but was also academically precocious.  He decided on a medical career, leaving Forest School in 1900. 

Medical training was at  St Thomas Hospital, London.  Edward did well. By1906 he was  a Member of the Royal College of Surgeons of England  and a Licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians of London. He also won the hospital boxing championship. Two years after qualification, in 1908, he joined the Royal Naval Medical Service becoming a Surgeon to His Majesties Fleet.

Work from 1908-1909 was at the Royal Naval Hospital  Haslar. in Gosport Hampshire. Here experience was gained in helminthology and parasitology.  But Edward wanted more- he  wanted adventure, excitement, action. He had hoped that he might be be appointed to an Antarctic Patrol Ship, but he did better! Aged twenty eight, he was appointed as parasiitologist and bacteriologist to the Terra Nova Expedition, Scott’s second expedition to Antarctica.

When the Terra Nova reached Antarctica, a base was established at Cape Evans on Ross Island. Atkinson spent the winter working at base camp before taking part in Scott’s 1911, South Polar Journey.

Surgeon RN Edward L. Atkinson 1911 Parasitologist

On this expedition he was to be involved in two controversies: The first related to Scott’s orders concerning the use of dogs, The second related to the possibility of scurvy  affecting the polar party. 

The assault on the Pole began on 24th October 1911. The motor parties started first. They were followed by the pony parties (Atkinson was a lead driver). The ponies were followed by the dog teams driven by Cecil Meares (who had purchased the dogs), assisted by Demitri Gerof, an experienced dog driver.

By the time the expedition had crossed the Barrier and began the ascent proper of the Beardmore Glacier, the motor party had abandoned their vehicles after fifty miles and were man-hauling, The ponies had been slaughtered. Importantly Scott was so impressed by the dogs’ performance that he kept them with the advance party for longer than planned – they were to go as far as the Lower Glacier Depot and only turned back on 11 Dec 1911. This decision was to have long- term consequences.

Twelve men in three man-hauling teams, ascending the mighty Beardmore Glacier leading to the Plateau and the Pole. Atkinson hauled with Charles  Wright (a Canadian physicist), William Lashly (a Chief Stoker in the Royal Navy), and ‘Teddy’ Evans (Edward Ratcliffe Evans, Scott’s second in Command). On the ascent Scott was constantly deliberating on the best team for the final plateau stretch to the pole.  He  eventually sent seven men back before choosing the final, five -man assault team for the Pole. Atkinson was sent back to base on 22nd December from the Upper Glacier Depot, along with Charles Wright, Apsley Cherry- Garrard (the Assistant Zoologist) and Patrick Keohane (one of the Petty Officers.  Wright paid tribute to Atkinson’ calm leadership as the team lost their way on the return. They got back to base in late January.

At base Atkinson assumed command of the station.  He learnt that Meares had resigned from the expedition and was waiting for the relief ship (due in early February, 1912) to go home. Simpson, the meteorologist, was also returning to England. Atkinson himself,  as instructed, planned to go south again with the dogs on the support mission. But a dramatic intervention threw all plans into disarray.  The depots were never replenished.

The relief ship the Terra Nova, arrived in early February. Criticism of Atkinson’s leadership at this time has been levied.  Scott’s instructions has been for three journeys to be made to the south with further supplies – the third journey to leave with the dogs by early February and Atkinson could have  done this but instead of  going south, he lost time directing the unloading of supplies, mules, dogs etc. from the Terra Nova. In Atkinson’s defense Cherry Garrard wrote in his book, The Worst Journey in the World, that Atkinson’ group had not reached Cape Evans until January 28 and that Atkinson would not have been fit enough to take the dogs our in early February.

The British team – Robert Scott, Edward Wilson, ‘Titus’ Oates,  ‘Birdie’ Bowers and Petty Officer Edgar Evans reached the pole on 18th January 1912, thirty four days after the Norwegians. All the British team died on the return from the Pole

The controversy over whether Scott’s  man -hauling team could have made a successful return if they had married up  with the supplies for the men and dogs, that Scott had intended to be left for them on their return, continues to this day

As I understand it the orders ré the dogs were varied in relation to the circumstanced that Scott found himself.

  1. The original instructions given to Meares  at Cape Evans dated 20 October 1911 i.e. before the teams set out were that…. the first week of February (1912). I should like you to start your third journey to the South…… to hasten the return of the  Southern unit [the polar party] .…..
  2. A number of instructions were sent back from the expedition, including the provision of emergency stores at Hut Point and a second journey to One Ton Camp with rations, biscuits and oil to be completed by the 19th January 2012 followed by a third journey in early March to assist the returning explorers and hopefully catch the relief ship
  3. Further (final) written instructions, relating to the dogs were apparently meant to go back with Atkinson and were forgotten /mislaid. Cherry Garrard wrote later that Scott had intended to tell Atkinson to bring the dogs as far south as he could.

In the event all these plans were thwarted. Other problems crowded in. Teddy Evans, Scott’s Second in Command was sent back to base, on the 3rd January 1912 with two Petty Officers, William Lashly and Thomas Crean. On the return Teddy fell seriously ill with scurvy.-so ill that he thought he would die and ordered his companions to leave him, they refused (he wrote later that this was the first time that his orders had ever been disobeyed). Tom Crean made a treacherous 18 hour, 35 mile  journey back to base to seek medical assistance.  Dr. Atkinson priorities immediately focused on Teddy, who would die without medical help. He abandoned his plans to go south in favour of going to attend to the seriously ill Teddy. HE  stayed with his patient until the Terra Nova had arrived and Evans was safely on her.

This left the question as to who was to take out the relief supplies. At the base  Simpson (meteorologist), was returning to England on the relief ship. Wright was needed to continue  the scientific work. Atkinson therefore instructed Apsley Cherry-Garrard (poor sighted and inexperienced in charting), to leave with Demitri Gerof for One Ton Camp .

The outing was not considered to be a relief mission – it was assumed that the polar party would be in good shape on their return. Cherry was to ‘use his judgment’ as to what to do if he did not meet up with  the returnees at One Ton Depot.

He and Gerov left with the dogs on 26 February carrying rations for the polar party and 24 days’ of dog food. They arrived at One Ton on 4 March with enough dog food to reach the next depot but no further and he knew that saving the dogs doe possible further polar work was a priority –

In the event the weather was so bad that he felt unable to proceed — he reasoned he could easily miss Scott anyway in the prevailing conditions.

The two men waited for Scott for several days, mostly, it is recorded, in blizzard conditions (although no blizzard was recorded by Scott some 100 miles further south until 10 March) and they returned to Hut Point on 16 March, in poor physical condition and without news of the polar party.

The Polar Winter was approaching Atkinson could do no more

As is well known of the five returnees, Edgar Evans died on the 18 February 1916, Titus Oates about a month later — well before the anticipated meeting with the dog teams.  Apart from malnutrition, difficulty in finding the food caches and a poor oil supply the British were caught by the coldest conditions ever experienced on the Barrier. This appears to have been the final blow

TO BE CONTINUED

                                           

2 Responses to “SURGEON CAPTAIN EDWARD LEICESTER ATKINSON. 1881-1929”

  1. annestrathie July 30, 2022 at 2:29 pm #

    These situations are never simple, are they, and there were so many instructions (including some alleged verbal ones), some which were rendered redundant by Meares being longer on the ice than planned and his decision to leave (which Scott expected for some time). The other complication was that Simpson (who had been considering staying) received a letter which arrived with the ship, which instructed him to return to India, where he had been working before. But using the dogs to unload the ship was a key part of Scott’s main instructions to Meares and he and Atkinson stuck by that, otherwise the unloading would have taken much longer. The handover of authority from Simpson (who had been left in charge at Cape Evans) to Atkinson (on his return) is also complicated – but I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to be in their shoes, making possibly life-affecting decisions with no way of communicating with Scott or other parties who were on their way back and possibly bringing even more new instructions!

    • isobelpwilliams August 4, 2022 at 8:37 am #

      You are correct. I will try and pick up some of these points in the second part of this blog. Isobel

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