One of Australia’s greatest Antarctic explorers, Douglas Mawson was responsible for one of the most extreme survival stories of all time. A scientist before all else, he sought information and knowledge rather than fame, fortune or ‘firsts’.
Born in England on 5 May 1882, Mawson migrated to Australia at the age of two. An outstanding student, he began studying geology and engineering at the University of Sydney when just 16 years old. While undertaking his doctorate, Mawson was asked to join Sir Ernest Shackleton’s 1907–09 British expedition to Antarctica. During this sometimes arduous expedition, Mawson led the first party to reach the South Magnetic Pole and, despite frostbite, hunger and exhaustion, summited the 3,794 metre Mount Erebus, the second-highest volcanic peak in Antarctica.
He returned to the great white continent in 1911 as leader of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition. Over almost three years, this expedition charted the Antarctic coastline, explored sub-Antarctic treasures such as Macquarie Island, and travelled more than 500 kilometres inland, collecting geological and scientific data.
During one of these inland journeys in 1912, Mawson’s two companions died, leaving him alone, seriously malnourished and with severely damaged feet, more than 320 kilometres from base. Despite falling into a crevasse and having to haul himself out, Mawson eventually staggered back to base 30 days later, only to discover that his ship had left for home just hours before. It meant another winter in Antarctica.
When Mawson finally returned to civilisation, he was knighted and received both the Polar Medal and the Founder’s Medal of the Royal Geographical Society.
Mawson lectured for many years at the University of Adelaide, and led two more summer expeditions to Antarctica in 1929 and 1931. Funded by Australia, New Zealand and Great Britain, these expeditions focused on marine studies to depths of 4,700 metres, but also collected geological, magnetic, zoological and botanical information.
Mawson’s name is enshrined in the Australian Antarctic Station named after him, and in the heritage-listed hut that he stayed in between 1911 and 1914 at Cape Denison, one of the windiest places on Earth. A replica of this hut has been built in Hobart.
Mawson’s Hut and its outbuildings remain largely intact and are of national and international heritage significance. They are among just a handful of complexes surviving from the ‘heroic era’ of Antarctic exploration.
The timber buildings have suffered from the effects of wind, ice and time. However, the Australian Antarctic Division and the Mawson’s Huts Foundation have stabilised the remains over recent years.
Ed: Our October guest speaker, Alasdair McGregor, spoke about the photographer, Frank Hurley, who accompanied both Shackleton and Mawson on their antarctic expeditions. His book, “Frank Hurley” contains many of these photos and we have purchased a copy for our library.