Sir Douglas Mawson (1882–1958)

Sir Douglas Mawson portrait photo
Sir Douglas Mawson, 1950. Photo by Rose Stereograph Co. Source: State Library of SA

Mawson’s focus was not for wealth or fame, but to advance objective scientific research and discover the truth. He lamented that tales from Antarctica were told by whalers and sealers motivated by financial gain. He was also disappointed by the personal glory sought by those wanting to be the first to the Pole. Mawson set out to understand the unknown, and saw that his collaboration with John King Davis, whom he met on Shackleton’s expedition, would achieve that:

“The task of the geographer is to fill in the details provided by the navigator.”

In leading Australia’s first major scientific exploring endeavour beyond the Australian continent, he unintentionally became one of Australia’s most famous and respected heroes.

Education and work

Two year old Mawson arrived in Australia from Yorkshire, growing up in Glebe. His outstanding academic abilities were obvious in early life, and he gained entrance to geology and engineering at Sydney University aged 16. His teaching career began as a demonstrator in chemistry. While undertaking his doctorate, he had his first Antarctic experience: Shackleton’s 1907–1909 expedition. As a lecturer in mineralogy and petrology at the University of Adelaide, he studied the glacial geology of South Australia and Precambrian rocks. Despite time in Antarctica and the war in Europe, Mawson returned to his lecturing post, becoming Professor of geology and mineralogy in 1921. He supported the Australian Antarctic Research Expeditions and was a long serving member of the Australian Antarctic Executive Planning Committee.

Achievements in Antarctica

Shackleton’s 1907–1909 expedition

While Scott and Shackleton were focused on reaching the South Geographic Pole, Mawson was passionate about advancing science. As members of Shackleton’s 1907–1909 British Antarctic Nimrod expedition, Mawson completed the longest Antarctic man-hauling sledge journey, of 122 days, with his mentor, Professor Edgeworth David. They coped with hunger, hidden crevasses, frostbite and exhaustion and were given the well earned hero’s welcome on their return.

Mawson’s Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE), 1911–1914

Mawson’s 1911–1914 expedition successfully charted Antarctic coastline, investigated the ocean between Australia and Antarctica and examined Macquarie Island.

The Toroa followed the Aurora to Macqurie Island, with supplies, 17 expeditioners, 50 sheep, and a load of coal. The Aurora held materials for living huts, wireless masts, and the motorised air-tractor sledge (originally a monoplane before it crashed). There were 31 men on the Aurora. Five men were to remain on the meteorological and radio base on Macquarie Island; the remainder were divided between Mawson’s coastal Antarctic bases from which to investigate Antarctica’s secrets: Main Base at Cape Denison, Commonwealth Bay, and Western Base at Queen Mary Land.

Mawson was station leader at Main Base. The Western Base was under the leadership of Yorkshireman Frank Wild, who served on Scott’s National Antarctic Discovery Expedition of 1901–1904, and Shackleton’s 1907–1909 Nimrod expedition. Expeditioners included: Melbourne born Herbert Dyce Murphy, due to his experience of three seasons on Arctic whalers; photographer Frank Hurley; wireless operator Walter Hannam; biologist Charles Harrisson; and chief medical officer Archibald McLean.

Tragedy and success

Mawson, Mertz and Ninnis’s Far Eastern Journey departed Main Base in November 1912, on what would become a tragic and yet inspiring feat of courage and determination to return with the data and specimens the party set out to collect. Ninnis died from plummeting down a crevasse, with many of the supplies. Mertz perished from physical exertion, starvation and possibly toxicity from eating dogs’ livers. The loss of these popular expeditioners must have taken an enormous emotional toll on Mawson, as he struggled alone for 30 days, arriving at Main Base in February 1913.

Six men had volunteered to remain at Main Base to search for Mawson’s party, instead of leaving as planned, with Davis on the Aurora. Among the stayers was McLean, who left lifesaving supplies and navigational aids in what they hoped would be Mawson’s path. Hannam returned with Davis, and his replacement as radio operator, Sidney Jeffryes would have surprised Mawson. Unbeknown to Davis, Mawson had declined Jeffryes’ application, but Jeffryes had convinced Davis of his suitability.

Jeffryes expertly established radio contact between Main Base and Macquarie Island, and was able to communicate expedition tragedies and successes. Receiving returned communications was important for the expeditioners’ morale. Jeffryes’ mental illness is not well documented. Mawson was possibly protecting Jeffryes and his family from the social stigma of the time, but it appears that Jeffryes was often paranoid and sometimes aggressive. Mawson was often the focus of his delusions: having been accused of putting Jeffryes under a ‘magnetic spell’. Although Mawson managed to keep Jeffryes safe during that difficult year at Main Base, Jeffryes needed admission to a psychiatric facility after their return to Australia.

Scientific discoveries of the 1911–1914 expedition

Scientific advances made during the expedition included: work in cartography, geology, meteorology, aurora, geomagnetism, biology and marine science. Their land exploration included over 6437km in Adélie Land, King George V Land and Queen Mary Land. They recorded features of the land and coast between 90° E and 155° E and at Macquarie Island. Biological species on land and sea, never before encountered by man, were described. Meteorological data was collected from all three bases. Geomagnetic field records for 18 months were obtained at Commonwealth Bay.

Innovations in the use of technology

Mawson’s was the first expedition to use radio communications: enabling them to make meteorological reports, from Commonwealth Bay to Macquarie Island, and Macquarie Island to the Melbourne Weather Bureau.

Mawson’s damaged monoplane was converted for use as a mechanical sled, to transport supplies, demonstrating his ingenuity.

Mawson’s 1929–1930 and 1930–1931 Discovery expeditions

Mawson’s British, Australian and New Zealand Antarctic Research Expeditions (BANZARE) on the Discovery did not use land bases. Crucial work was successfully completed on much of the Antarctic coastline, in Iles Crozet, Iles Kerguelen, and Heard Island. Scientific advances were made in oceanographic work, and biology. Mawson’s team were the first to map much of the coast, and this provided firm foundation for establishing the Australian Antarctic Territory.

World War I

Mawson married Francisca Adriana Paquita Delprat in 1914, and both contributed to the war effort. Lady Mawson made hospital dressings and was Mawson’s secretary. They had two daughters. Mawson worked with the British Ministry of Munitions and the Russian Military Commission. His skills with high explosives, poisonous gas, chemicals and petroleum oil products saw him promoted to Major by the war’s end. Mawson continued his contribution to service personnel by being a committee-member of the Australian War Museum.

Awards and honours

Mawson has received much recognition. He received two Italian decorations, the Royal Geographical Society’s Antarctic (1908) and Founders’ (1915) medals, Polar medals, gold medals of the geographical societies of America, Chicago, Paris and Berlin, the von Mueller medal of ANZAAS and the Verco and Clarke medals of the Royal Societies of South Australia and New South Wales.

He was knighted in 1914. He was a fellow of the Royal Society from 1923, a foundation fellow of the Australian Academy of Science, and president of the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science from 1935–1937. The Australian Academy of Science hosts the Mawson lecture.

Numerous places have been named after him, such as Mawson Coast and the Australian Antarctic Division’s Mawson station established in 1954.

The University of Adelaide published Sir Douglas Mawson Anniversary Volume and named their geology building in his honour. In his retirement from lecturing, he was made Emeritus Professor. The Mawson Institute for Antarctic Research was created within the University of Adelaide in 1959. The Fourth International Symposium on Antarctic Earth Science, held at the University of Adelaide, honoured him in the proceedings.

Mawson’s face is well known, having adorned postage stamps and the Australian $100 note.

Scientific achievements

Mawson’s report, The geology of the New Hebrides, was one of the first writings on Melanesian geology. His co-authored papers include: The geology of Mittagong, New South Wales, with Thomas Taylor; and Radioactive minerals in Australia, with Thomas Laby.

Mawson was a forerunner in the field of geochemistry, and published reports on glaciology and geology from his discoveries on Shackleton’s expedition.

Mawson identified two groups of Precambrian rocks, documented in his report Geological investigations in the Broken Hill area. He also discovered the mineral he called Davidite after his mentor Professor TW Edgeworth David.

Imparting his knowledge of Antarctica

With the assistance of McLean’s eloquence, and Hurley’s photographs, Mawson’s Home of the Blizzard was published in 1915.

The 1911–1914 expedition created 22 volumes of AAE Scientific Reports edited by Mawson and completed in 1947.

The results of Mawson’s 1929–1930 and 1930–1931 expeditions were published in 13 volumes of the BANZARE Scientific Reports.

Personal attributes

Mawson’s survival on the scientific trek with Ninnis and Mertz is testimony to his attributes of determination, courage, and physical and psychological resilience. His ability to recover from this traumatic ordeal while caring for Jeffryes is testimony of his compassion and commitment to all team members. He was described by many as kind, friendly, dignified and respectful.

He extended geological understanding over a breadth of topics and locations. His enthusiastic and well delivered lectures were an inspiration to many students.

His abhorrence of indiscriminate seal and penguin slaughter, witnessed on the 1930 BANZARE expedition, informed his advice to the Tasmanian Government to declare Macquarie Island a wildlife sanctuary. Mawson passionately lobbied for the Federal Government to create ongoing Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions (ANARE).

Mawson’s work to protect and understand the Antarctic Environment he loved is continued today by the committed staff of the Australian Antarctic Division.

Written by K Quinn