First to reach the South Magnetic Pole

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. Many deaths were experienced but despite this, the quest was continued by the most adventurous of men. Some sought personal glory and others were drawn to the unknown. For Douglas Mawson, University of Adelaide professor, it was an opportunity to advance scientific research. Mawson’s curiosity led him not only to the farthest undiscovered geographical boundaries, but also to the edge of human will and survival.

Mawson’s achievements were extraordinary. He was a member of the first team to ever reach the South Magnetic Pole and he also conceived and undertook the first Australian-led Antarctic expedition. These were outstanding and scientifically important accomplishments, but it is his remarkable demonstration of human spirit, endurance and heroism for which he is most remembered.

Mawson early years

Mawson developed a passion for exploration early in life. He was a highly intelligent man and at 16 years of age, he enrolled at the University of Sydney 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 this experience 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 as a lecturer in mineralogy and petrology at the University of Adelaide, where he dedicated 47 years of his life.

Mawson was described as an enthusiastic teacher. He 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.

Antarctic exploration—British Antarctic Expedition 1907-09

In 1907 Mawson’s dream of Antarctic exploration came to fruition. His former teacher and leader in geological sciences in Australia at the time, Professor Sir Tannatt Edgeworth David, alerted him to an upcoming British led expedition. Mawson offered his services for the shore party and was asked to join the team as physicist. The expedition was led by Ernest Shackleton but it was Mawson, David and Alistair Mackay, as the Northern Sledging Party, who undertook the ambitious goal to reach the South Magnetic Pole, and they did.

Following their success reaching the pole, the return journey became an incredible fight for survival. With little food and suffering frostbite, they dragged their heavy sledges for over 2000 kilometres in treacherous 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).

Australasian Antarctic Expedition 1911-1914

Upon his return to Australia, Mawson resumed his post at the University of Adelaide and soon began to plan a new journey. Mawson wanted to chart and explore the Antarctic coastline closest to Australia so he set about arranging the first Australasian Antarctic Expedition. Mawson’s aim for the expedition was to collate scientific data and also build an Antarctic mainland base to provide a place from which to further explore the environment and collect scientific material and information. Many scientific advances were made as a result of the expedition. But the trip was also marked with sacrifice and tragedy as expedition members, including Mawson, risked their lives in the pursuit of the new knowledge they sought.

The Mawson led Australasian Antarctic Expedition set off from Hobart on the Aurora, in December 1911. After facing rough seas and treacherous weather conditions, nine days later, the crew arrived at the first destination, Macquarie Island. A small party was left at the Macquarie Island base and the rest of the expedition continued to three main bases from where the teams would investigate Antarctica further. The main base for the expedition was set up at a location discovered by Mawson on the journey which he named Cape Denison. The cape later became known as one of the wildest and windiest places on earth with wind gusts at times reaching over 160 kilometres per hour.  

In December 1912, as weather improved, several sledging parties were planned to further explore the region. Mawson led the now famous, Far Eastern Trek, and was joined by his companions Xavier Mertz, Lieutenant Belgrave Ninnis, and a dog team. The trek was fraught with disaster and proved an incredible struggle for survival. The story of Mawson’s return became the greatest tale of sole survival in polar exploration.  

Spirit and bravery of glacial proportions on the Far Eastern Trek

After losing his two travelling companions to death, with no supplies, weak and near death himself, Mawson cut his sledge in half with a pocket saw and trekked in appalling conditions, alone, over 160 kilometres in 30 days. Aside from his incredible determination and will to survive, Mawson also demonstrated the utmost commitment to his research. Even in the most life-threatening moments Mawson refused to abandon the scientific material he had collected and used the remaining half of his sled to carry the samples back to base. Miraculously, Mawson made it back to the main base in February 1913. However the ship Aurora had left just a few hours earlier and so Mawson together with the five men who stayed behind to look for him, endured another Antarctic winter until finally departing in early 1914.

Remembering Sir Douglas Mawson

Following his return from the Australasian Antarctic Expedition, Mawson continued in academia and undertook further expeditions including a joint British, Australian and New Zealand Antarctic expedition from 1929-1931. He was knighted in 1914 for his Antarctic work and continued to receive recognition and many awards during his lifetime honouring his contributions to geography and science.

Today, Sir Douglas Mawson is widely credited for the broader understanding of Antarctica. He is highly regarded for his important additions to the knowledge of Australian geology, his identification of Australia’s first uranium mine and his commitment to wildlife protection.

At the University of Adelaide Mawson is remembered as a courageous, heroic, kind and passionate man who was devoted to the geology department and committed to teaching and research. Upon his retirement from lecturing, the University honoured Sir Douglas Mawson as an Emeritus Professor.

The University of Adelaide houses a great collection of artefacts from Mawson's expeditions in the Tate Museum, which is one of Australia's most impressive geology museums. The museum was established in 1925 and can be found in the Mawson Laboratories on the North Terrace campus.

2014 marks the 100th anniversary of the 1911–14 Australasian Antarctic Expedition led by Sir Douglas Mawson. The University of Adelaide is planning a special event to honour this remarkable journey, the scientific significance of the trek and its incredible leader. More information will be available in the coming moths. For information check the University event calendar.

South Pole expedition

South Pole found here

Sir Douglas Mawson

Sir Douglas Mawson, 1914.

Sir Douglas Mawson

Sir Douglas Mawson (1882 – 1958)

Sir Douglas Mawson

Sir Douglas Mawson