The 'Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration' was an era when the world's bravest explorers set out to discover Antarctica. For 25 years around the turn of the century, 16 major expeditions were launched. In the harshest of conditions and with communication and transportation technologies still in their infancy, the risks were extreme. Despite the 17 deaths before them, the quest was continued by the most adventurous of men – some seeking personal glory; others drawn to the unknown. For Sir Douglas Mawson, a professor at the University of Adelaide, it was an opportunity to advance scientific research. He did not seek nor foresee the fame that would fall upon him for the discovery of the South Magnetic Pole.
Mawson developed a passion for exploration early in life. A highly intelligent man, he enrolled at the University of Sydney at just 16 years of age to study mining engineering. Upon completion of his degree, Mawson set out on his first scientific exploration - a six-month geological survey of Vanuatu. Inspired by his experiences in the rugged country and dense jungle, Mawson decided to return to university and further his studies in geology. This prepared him for his first teaching role – a lecturer in mineralogy and petrology at the University of Adelaide, where he would dedicate the next 47 years of his life.
Described as an enthusiastic teacher, Mawson presented great lectures and insisted that students accompany him in geological fieldwork. In fact, it was his extensive fieldwork on Precambrian glaciations in the Flinders Ranges that sparked his interest in Antarctica. The unexplored icy region, where glaciers still existed, intrigued him.
In 1907, Mawson’s dream of Antarctic exploration began to unfold. His former teacher, Sir Tannatt Edgeworth David, alerted him to an upcoming expedition. Mawson decided to offer his services and was asked to join the team as physicist. It was on this expedition that Mawson, David, and Alistair Mackay raised the flag at the South Magnetic Pole.
In addition to their discovery, the trio became known for their incredible fight for survival upon the return journey. With little food and suffering frostbite, they dragged their heavy sledges for over 2000 kilometres in horrendous conditions. Mawson assumed leadership when David suffered badly, and was later acknowledged for his courage and determination. In a public tribute David said "Mawson was the real leader who was the soul of our expedition to the Magnetic Pole. We really have in him an Australian Nansen, of infinite resource, splendid physique, astonishing indifference to frost." (The Sydney Morning Herald, 31 March 1909)
Upon his return to Australia, Mawson resumed his post at the University of Adelaide. But before long, the magnetic pull of the South Pole saw him planning and leading the first Australasian Expedition. Mawson aimed to map and explore the coastal area closest to Australia, which included his famous Far Eastern Journey. He certainly did not predict the tragic circumstances that would make him a national hero.
On his famous Far Eastern Journey, Mawson lost team members, Xavier Mertz and Lieutenant Belgrave Ninnism, and the dog team. With no supplies, his return became the greatest story of sole survival in polar exploration. Weak and near death, Mawson cut his sledge in half with a pocket saw, and trekked over 160 kilometres in 30 days. He also demonstrated the utmost commitment to his research, when even in the most life-threatening moments; he would not abandon the scientific material he had collected.
Today, Sir Douglas Mawson is widely credited for his significant contributions to the understanding of Antarctica – an environment he came to love and protect. He is also highly regarded for his important additions to the knowledge of Australian geology and his commitment to wildlife protection.
At the University of Adelaide he is remembered as a courageous, kind and passionate man who was devoted to the geology department and was committed to teaching and research. His life - his ‘personal expedition’ - will continue to inspire students and staff for generations to come.
Through our teaching, our graduates, and groundbreaking research, the University of Adelaide positively impacts life around the world.
Meet Australia's first Indigenous Rhodes Scholar
In 2010 history was made when Rebecca Richards, an anthropology student of the University of Adelaide, became the first Indigenous Rhodes Scholar.