100 year legacy of polar explorer
As Australia commemorates the centenary of Sir Douglas Mawson's Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE), Lumen takes a look at the legacy of the legendary University of Adelaide geologist.
One hundred years ago, on 8 January, Dr Douglas Mawson arrived at Cape Denison at the beginning of his epic exploration of the largely unknown part of Antarctica immediately south of Australia.
This remarkable expedition saw Mawson become one of our national heroes following his extraordinary sole survival from the Far Eastern sledging party which saw the tragic deaths of Belgrave Ninnis and Xavier Mertz.
With few provisions but still hauling his scientific records, Mawson dragged his sledge, which he had cut in half with a pocket saw, the last 160 kilometres back to base over 30 days - only to find he'd missed by hours the ship Aurora that had come to take them back to Australia.
He and a small remaining team stayed over another extreme winter, returning eventually to Australia in 1914 to much acclaim for outstanding exploration and scientific achievements and a knighthood.
SA Museum Senior Collection Manager, Mark Pharaoh, tells a story of Mawson plunging into icy waters on arrival at Cape Denison to retrieve a crate fallen overboard from Aurora, heaving it back on board their launch before anyone else acted.
"Mawson was very hands-on, leading by example - a truly inspirational leader," he says.
Few men know the Mawson story better than Mark Pharaoh. He started working on Mawson in the early 1990s at the University's Mawson Collection based at Waite Campus. When the Collection went to the SA Museum in 2000, Mr Pharaoh went with it as curator. The University retained some Mawson treasures, now held in its Tate Museum in the Mawson Laboratories.
Mr Pharaoh says Mawson's iconic image, in his helmet-like balaclava that has graced stamps and our $100 note, is very appropriate.
"Mawson was first and foremost an extraordinary crusader," he says. "When he got interested in something he took it as far as he could: whether it was fighting for our place in the Antarctic, moving Australia from imperial measure to the decimal system, or raising funds for the Mawson Laboratories at the University - he was a good ally to have."
Mawson was a lecturer, then a Professor of Geology and Mineralogy, at the University of Adelaide between 1905 and 1952.
From his AAE "Aurora" and other Antarctic expeditions he left an enormous legacy - two massive scientific series mapping huge swathes of previously uncharted territory covering its geology, biology and marine science and meteorology. His work on geomagnetism helped pinpoint the location of the South Magnetic Pole and laid the groundwork for modern geophysicists to follow its drift. His last expedition from 1929-31 cemented claims for a massive 42% slice of Antarctica, transferred from Britain to Australia, eventually becoming the Australian Antarctic Territory.
Although best known for his polar exploration, Mawson also contributed significantly to the knowledge of Australian geology, particularly in the Flinders Ranges, and identifying Australia's first uranium mining site which became Radium Hill.
He also successfully developed the Geology department at the University, starting fully integrated undergraduate courses and attracting many good students to the field.
Mawson's legacy for the University of Adelaide is perhaps best summed up by Executive Dean of the Faculty of Sciences Professor Bob Hill, who says Douglas Mawson holds a special place in the history of science at the University.
"He was a great researcher and teacher and his monumental exploits in the toughest of field conditions have left a lasting memorial that continues to inspire young people to follow in his footsteps," says Professor Hill.
"This is best demonstrated by the fact that we currently have the most successful geology teaching program in Australia. I am sure Mawson would agree that the best legacy he could have left would be to inspire a new generation of geologists to make an impact equivalent to what he achieved."
Today Mawson's achievements still inspire people from all walks of life, including Law (1967) and Management (1995) graduate and current alumni volunteer, Clive Brooks. He was one of 100 passengers - many of them staff and other alumni - and 75 ship's crew on board the M.V. Orion this January. It was an educational expedition and lecture cruise organised by the SA Museum's Waterhouse Club to celebrate the Mawson Centenary.
They followed Mawson's voyage from Hobart to Macquarie Island, and from there pushing on towards Mawson's Hut, although eventually turned away from Commonwealth Bay by new pack ice.
"This was the experience of a lifetime," said Clive Brooks. "Having come through eight-metre seas, shrieking winds, ice and cold, I now have tremendous respect for what Mawson, his team and the ship's crew had to face." ■
Story by Robyn Mills