Tag Archives: Robert Scott


26 May

This is an evocative group of images chosen from the thousands held in the SPRI collection relating to the 1910-14 British Antarctic Expedition to the South Pole

Scott wanted to record accurately the work, the living and camping conditions, the environment and the struggles that his men experienced. He engaged the services of a well-recognised ‘Camera Artist’ Herbert George Ponting. Ponting was well known for the quality of photographs he had made during his travels in China and Japan and he made the most beautiful records of Antarctic life on the Terra Nova expedition.

Ponting did not go on the long sledge journeys and did not accompany Scott and his team on their attempt at the Pole. He had to teach team members the difficult art of photography: Scott, Levick, Debenham, Gran, Taylor, Bowers and Wright picked up the intricacies with varying degrees of proficiency. They all made valuable records of their journeys.

Scott and Bowers recorded the final journey. The two had eventually captured the art well enough to make an important historical record of one of the most famous expeditions in Antarctica, but the learning process was not without problems. Ponting insisted that the men must show six correctly exposed negatives from six plates before progressing to colour filters (which were used to manipulate the contrast between blue and other colours in the black and white films). In training ‘Scott’s zeal outran his capacity’ on some occasions. Once, when no film appeared after developing for a few minutes, careful enquiry revealed that though he had put in the plate holder and set the shutter and checked other requirements he had finally forgotten to take the cap off the lens. Ponting reflected on how often he had made similar errors!

The final image of the five exhausted men at the South Pole was taken by Bowers, who released the shutter via a long thread.

Scott used a camera from A.E. Stacey and Co for his images, Bowers used a smaller camera. An orthochromic black/white photographic film was used. Scott’s photos were sent back to Base with the last returning team. Bowers images were found in the tent that contained the bodies of the three dead heroes when it was discovered by a search party led by Surgeon Atkinson, eight months after their deaths.

The exhibition brings the tragic story to light again and is well worth visiting.


26 Apr

Scurvy is due to a deficiency of ascorbic acid. It is cured by adequate quantities of vitamin C or citrus fruits.

At two recent talks about Shackleton I was asked about scurvy—did Shackleton get scurvy? Was the cause of the disease known in the early 1900s? The answers are; yes to the first question, no to the second

Shackleton did of course, famously suffer from scurvy in the 1902/3 ‘Southern Journey’ when, with Scott and Edward Wilson, he developed signs of the disease as they neared their furthest South point of 82° 11’S latitude. Shackleton was by far the worst on the return journey; in fact Wilson, at one point, thought he might die. When the party returned to base, Scott was sent him home on the relief ship ‘Morning’ on health grounds. This was a devastating blow for a proud and ambitious man and made him doubly keen to avoid the disease on his further expeditions.

Shackleton’s Imperial Trans Antarctic Expedition included the ship ‘Aurora’ that sailed to the Ross Sea. ‘Aurora’s’ brief was to provide supplies for Shackleton’s party at the end of their Trans Antarctic crossing (in fact his party dis not actually get onto the continent) and one of this Ross party died of scurvy. Shackleton’s main party do not appear to have suffered from the disease, probably probably because Shackleton was so well aware of the necessity of preventative action and provided seal meat and importantly, seal liver on a regular basis. He also took preserved fruit and vegetables.

But why was there still uncertainty about the disease in the early 1900s? This was because of a lack of conviction and consensus about the benefits of citrus fruits. Although for many years some ships’ doctors and sailors had used oranges and lemons to cure or prevent scurvy, many European physicians persisted in reviewing and quoting confusing literature in which all manner of possible causes were postulated.

The problem could have been solved by James Lind’s controlled therapeutic trial of 1747 in which twelve patients with scurvy (six pairs), were given treatments that had been suggested previously. The remedies were two weeks of: a quart of cider per day, half a pint of sea water per day, 25 drops of elixir of vitriol three times a day, two spoonfuls of vinegar three times a day, a purgative three times a day, OR two oranges and one lemon daily. The men receiving citrus fruit recovered rapidly. A problem subsequently was that in order to conserve citrus fruits on long expeditions, Lind almost boiled purified citrus fruit into a ‘rob’. This obviously damaged the heat labile ascorbic acid and was ineffective. Also, in his ‘Treatise on the Scurvy’ of 1753, he did not unequivocally recommend citrus fruits for general use. When he moved to the Royal Naval Hospital Haslar, in Gosport, Hampshire, he treated sailors with oranges and lemons and said that the juices should be used in the Royal Navy, as they had been so successful in merchant ships. After recommendations by other physicians, the Admiralty ordered lemon juice for the fleet in 1795 and by the middle of the 1800s there was ample evidence that scurvy was both preventable and treatable.

But there is a law of unintended consequences! In the late 1800s lime juice from the West Indies was substituted for lemon juice. Lime juice has considerably less antiscorbutic properties than lemon juice, also it was transported in containers that further reduced its potency. Scurvy returned. By the time Scott left on the ‘Discovery’ expedition he was advised by his Senior Surgeon and Sir Almoth Wright of St Mary’s Hospital, London that the cause of scurvy was acid-intoxication in the tins of food (Wilson had to taste and smell all food to be eaten each day and discard any he thought ‘tainted’).

When Shackleton went on his first three expeditions therefore details concerning the cause of scurvy were not known although Shackleton was clearly aware of the benefits of seal meat/offal after his first expedition. It was not until after his expeditions that scurvy was shown to be a dietary deficiency disease. And not until 1928 that Ascorbic acid was isolated.


30 Aug

The men on Scott’s expeditions to Antarctica in the early 1900s were resourceful, courageous, and determined. On the premise that characters do not change I thought it would be interesting, at this time when the First World War is so much remembered, to follow the fortunes of the officers in the First World War starting with the officers on ‘Discovery’. The subject of the subsequent careers of the early Antarctic explorers is   fascinating (many went on to very distinguished careers) and is one I will return to later.

On ‘Discovery’ Scott’s complement included six lieutenants, two doctors (one of whom took on the duties of botanist, the other artist and zoologist) a biologist, a geologist and a physicist. The average age was 28, five were 25 or younger

Scott and Dr Wilson died in 1912 on the return from the Pole. Dr Koettlitz the senior doctor went to South Africa after the expedition and died of dysentery in that country in 1916.

Of the remaining eight who served in WW1, remarkably, all survived.

The ‘father’ of the ‘Discovery’ expedition Sir Clements Markham often recorded his impressions on the men he would appoint and I include a few on the ‘Discovery’ men for interest. Sir Clements was frank in his assessment of men (for example, in relation to Dr Koettleiz, mentioned above, Sir Clements wrote that he was’ zealous and painstaking’, but that ‘his mind perhaps works rather slowly and he has no sense of humour, but on the other hand he is thorough and persevering’.

 Albert Armitage, RNR, Second in Command, Sir Clements was’ happy with this appointment’. Armitage was at sea throughout the war. He commanded a transport ship ‘Salsette’ which was torpedoed with the loss of 14 crewmembers. After the war he returned to work for the P&O Line.

Charles Royds, RN, First Lieutenant, Sir Clements thought he was ‘a first-rate seaman who should become one of the Antarctic heroes’, was, in 1915, given command of the battleship HMS ‘Emperor of India’ an appointment that was thought to be made at an unusually young age for a junior Captain. He was appointed Companion of St Michael and St George (CMG), in 1919, for his war service.

Michael Barne, RN, Second Lieutenant, was recorded by Sir Clements as ‘a charming young fellow and so zealous that he would have thrown up his commission rather than not go and a relation of mine which is also in his favour’ In 1914 he was awarded the Royal Humane Society’s Silver Medal for diving overboard in an attempt to rescue a sailor in an Atlantic gale and subsequently served with distinction in the Dardanelles (a strait in N.W. Turkey connecting the Aegean Sea with the Sea of Marmara, an important exit to the sea for Russia) and on the Dover Patrol, This patrol was a Royal Navy unit based at Dover /Dunkirk with the primary aim of keeping German shipping and submarines on their way to the Atlantic out of the English Channel.

Barne was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal (DSO) when in command of Monitor M27, a shore bombardment vessel.

Ernest Shackleton, RNR, Third Lieutenant ‘an excellent and zealous officer, the son of a doctor in Northwood but from Ireland. His great grandfather was the Quaker Shackleton who was the instructor of Edmund Burke’, Shackleton, Sir Clements wrote. was ‘steady, high-principled, strong hard working, good- tempered and well informed’. After the ‘Endurance’ expedition many of Shackleton’s crew played a part in WW1 but Shackleton had, what I imagine for him, was a disappointing war in terms of combat contributions. The government had had to arrange a rescue mission when Shackleton was trying to rescue all his crew after they were stranded, and although this expedition was not required eventually, I imagine Shackleton’s reception was muted when he reached England. He was too old to be conscripted (though he volunteered for an army post in France) and was appointed to a diplomatic position in Buenos Aires, where he hoped to persuade Chile and Argentina to join the war on the Allies side. This was followed by a position as an undercover agent in Spitsburgen (an island near Norway) and then a post in Murmansk to aid with supplies to beleaguered Russia.

George Mulock, RN, Third Lieutenant. Shackleton was replaced by Mulock when he returned to England in 1903. Mulock received letters of commendation in the early part of the war when leading convoys in the Far East. He then served with distinction in the Gallipoli campaign. The battleship ‘HMS Ocean’ sank after hitting a mine; Mulock rescued many sailors from the water. He was mentioned in dispatches and his actions recorded in ‘The London Gazette’

Reginald Skelton, Chief Engineer, RN. In May 1916, Skelton took part in the Battle of Jutland in the North Sea off Denmark, This was the largest naval battle of the war and the only full-scale clash between battleships and Skelton was A valuable officer whose deportment during the action reflected credit on his organisation’. He was awarded the DSO for his services in this battle. Subsequently, he served in submarines from 1917-1918.

Louis Bernacchi Physicist and Magnetic Observer Bernaacchi remarkably served in the Royal Naval Voluntary Reserve, The Admiralty and the United States Navy. Impressively he was awarded both the Order of the British Empire and the United States Naval Cross

Hartley Ferrar, Geologist He was a master at Christchurch College, New Zealand at the outbreak of war and joined the New Zealand Expeditionary Force based mainly in Palestine His work involved aerial surveys and intelligence

Thomas Vere Hodgson, Biologist This is the only explorer about whom I was unable to find details of wartime experience. Aged 50 at the outbreak of the war, he was too old for service in addition he suffered from ill health. Having worked in the Plymouth Biological Laboratory and subsequently becoming curator of the Plymouth Museum, he probably spent the war years in this role.

These records underline the fact that we do not change. These men kept up their impressive records through and indeed after WW1


TAGS: WW1, Scott, Sir Clements Markham, Albert Armitage, Charles Royds, Michael Barne, Ernest Shackleton, George Mulock, Reginald Skelton, Louis Bernacchi, Hartley Ferrar, Thomas Vere Hodgson, Reginald Koettlitz, The Dover Patrol, The Dardanelles The Battle of Jutland,


3 May

I have been asked to make a presentation to the British Residents Association of Switzerland next week. The subject chosen, is a review and comparison of the contributions of Edgar Evans and Edward Wilson on Scott’s expeditions.


It is an interesting subject. The most fascinating aspect is the way the two men were remembered after their deaths on the return from the Pole in 1912.


They were an ill-assorted duo, coming from very different classes of society: –Wilson’s grandfather was High Sheriff of Pembrokeshire, his father a doctor, a respected practitioner in Cheltenham. Edgar Evans’ grandfather was a quarry man and his father served in the Merchant Navy. However, the two came into close proximity in the final assault on the Pole and shared a respect and admiration for Scott.


In both expeditions the two earned Scott’s esteem and affection individually. In the British National Antarctic Expedition of 1901-1904, they were each on three-man expeditions with Scott into the interior of Antarctica. Wilson was with Scott and Shackleton on the Southern Journey from 3 November 1902. Scott already trusted him (Wilson was his choice to accompany him on the attempt to get close to the Pole), but he grew to rely on the doctor’s calm good sense and intelligence. They became friends and confidants on this expedition. Edgar was with Scott and Stoker Lashly on the Western expedition in October 1903. The three advanced over the plateau, together for three weeks in the closest proximity. Scott admired them both, their practical ingenuity and their imperturbability.


Both Wilson and Scott returned to England as heroes in 1904. Everyone wanted to meet the men who had actually been to and seen, the magical mysteries of Antarctica


How different in 1913. When the news of the British parties’ party demise was telegraphed to England, Wilson remained a hero. Poor Edgar however became the fall guy in some circles for the disaster.


Although soon after his death on February17 1912, his companions said that they thought that Edgar had weakened even before he reached the Pole, but his downward path was accelerated by frostbitten fingers and falls (which could have caused brain damage), a physical breakdown was not favoured by the media. Mental causes was the preferred explanation


In the early 1900s self -control epitome of masculinity. Edgar (confused and ill) had not been in control of his actions. He had not faced death like a gentleman.


Some examples of writing relating to Edgar’s death:

‘Ah, well for him he died, nor ever knew        

How his o’er wearied, stumbling forward drew

Death’s snare about his friends to hold them fast’ i.e. he had caused the deaths of the group

‘Like English Gentlemen’ was a book for children which explains how when Edgar weakened, his companions ‘like English Gentlemen’ never thought of leaving him but stayed with him to the end. Oates, by contrast, took control of his own death by crawling out of the tent, as a gentleman should.

Cigarette cards were printed showing all the Antarctic heroes except Edgar Evans. This outrageous omission must have been terrible for his children.

An ‘Eminent Medical Specialist’, wrote that the breakdown was due to lack of an education, which meant that Edgar could not stand the monotony of the return. ‘

St Katherine’s Press in 1913, made a booklet of the dead heroes, but omitted Edgar entirely

In 1930 it was written that ‘Science no place for those who have only done manual labour. Presumably Edgar would not be able to comprehend what they actually HAD achieved.


Edgar was the victim of remarkable class prejudice; it took years for a proper understanding of his deterioration was reached.


I think times have changed and will be interested in the views of the British Residents Association.

The Weather and its Role in Captain F. Scott and his Companions’ Deaths, by Professor Krzysztof Sienicki

1 Apr



I have just had my attention drawn to this paper published in 2010 which suggests that Scott and ‘Birdie’ Bowers ‘doctored’ the minimum temperatures recorded on the Barrier between February 27 – March 19, 1912, so as to dramatise the weather conditions. Professor Sienicki suggests that the party made a deliberate decision to die, a decision made before food and food supplies were finished or the men’s strength exhausted.

The argument is based on his recording of minimum temperatures from 1985 -2009, by a neural network across the Barrier. These he compared with historical recordings made by expeditions in the early 1900s, including the Discovery and Nimrod expeditions. He found a relationship between the minimum temperatures at different locations at the Ross Ice Shelf, i.e. a gradient at one station was followed by a similar change at another station. For example, though recordings at  McMurdo  (near the sea), are about 20° higher than those deep on the Barrier, the essential pattern of  change, from early February till 19 March over the years1993-2009, mirrored each other significantly, so the particularly low temperatures recorded by Scott’s party, (and, furthermore, not recorded by other historical expeditions over this period), are significant, unique and, he concludes, questionable.

The technique is carefully validated and Professor Sienicki dismisses the suggestion that Scott’s thermometer malfunctioned. He concludes that Scott and Bowers distorted the temperature documentation to exaggerate the real weather conditions.

He then goes on to say that Leonard Huxley edited and arranged the first edition of Scott’s journals (which gave negative temperatures), and actually shows Scott’s recorded temperatures from November 3, 1911 till 25 February 1912. These reveal that Scott’s recordings in Fahrenheit were positive. Sienecki quotes Max Jones in saying that ‘an establishment conspiracy covered up Scott’s failings, creating a hero by the careful editing of his sledging journals….’ hardly the work of the long-dead Scott. Whether these changes (from positive to negative degrees Fahrenheit) were deliberate has been debated, but this is hardly down to Scott. Sienicky also quotes Susan Soloman, who says that the average temperature recorded by Scott were 10-20° below respective modern data, and that one year (1988) recorded a minimum temperatures close to the 1912 reported data. He confirms with his own data that 1988 was exceptionally cold, but states that Soloman has miscalculated the degree of severity. However, Sienecki’s confirmation of near surface temperatures close to that reported by Scott, does not convince him that the Scott party really experienced unusually low temperatures. To this it is reasonable to comment that it is impossible to say that they definitely did not.

Professor Sienicki has made an impressive study of long- term Barrier temperatures, but his conclusion that Scott and Bowers deliberately falsified their records is unproven.

The recent publication of Scott’s letter to Sir Francis Bridgeman saying that they could have got through ‘if they had neglected the sick’ (possibly true), gives further weight to the conclusion that dying, for whatever reason, was not part of Scott’s plan.