Sir Douglas Mawson (1882–1958)

Douglas Mawson, circa 1918
Douglas Mawson, circa 1918 (Photo: Swaine Studios)
Douglas Mawson and Francesca (Paquita) Delprat on their wedding day, 31 March 1914.Sir Douglas and Lady Mawson at Brighton home in South Australia Sir Douglas Mawson in the Commander's Cabin on the Discovery, 1929.Sir Douglas Mawson, 1954Map showing the area covered by the AAE, 1914.Sir Douglas Mawson in 1914 after receiving his knighthood A black and white photo of Mawson being carried on a chair by a big crowd of his students.

Antarctic achievements

While undertaking a doctorate at Sydney University, Douglas Mawson joined Ernest Shackleton’s 1907–1909 Nimrod expedition as a geologist, his first Antarctic experience. Along with his mentor Professor T.W. Edgeworth David, Mawson completed the longest Antarctic man-hauling sledge journey of 122 days. Coping with hunger, hidden crevasses, frostbite and exhaustion, they received a hero’s welcome on their return.

1911–14 Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE)

Explorers during this time were focused on being the first to reach the South Geographic Pole. However, Mawson's passion for advancing scientific knowledge inspired him to develop an Australian-led Antarctic research expedition.

Embarking on the Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE) with Mawson, John King Davis captained the Aurora with a crew, 31 expeditioners and materials for living huts, and wireless masts to establish the first radio communications in Antarctica. Five men set up a base at Macquarie Island, while the remainder sailed on the Antarctic continent to establish two bases: the Main Base at Commonwealth Bay led by Mawson, and the Western Base at Queen Mary Land led by Frank Wild.

In November 1912, the Far Eastern sledging party led by Mawson departed the Main Base at Commonwealth Bay, unaware of the tragedy about to unfold. On the traverse, Belgrave Ninnis was lost when he plummeted down a crevasse with a sledge carrying many of the supplies. Xavier Mertz perished from physical exhaustion, starvation and possible toxicity from eating dogs’ livers. Alone, Mawson was determined to return with the data and specimens they had collected. Mawson’s survival is testimony to his courage, physical strength, and psychological resilience. He struggled for 30 days, eventually reaching the base only to miss the ship retrieving the men by hours. Instead of returning on the Aurora, six men who had volunteered to search for the party overwintered again with Mawson.

The AAE successfully charted large segments of the east Antarctic coastline, and investigated sub-Antarctic Macquarie Island and the Southern Ocean. Their land exploration included over 6437 km in Adélie Land, King George V Land and Queen Mary Land. The expedition advanced scientific knowledge of Antarctica in the fields of geology, cartography, meteorology, geomagnetism, biology and marine science. Biological species on land and sea, never before encountered by man, were described for the first time. The 22 volumes of scientific reports produced included meteorological data from all three bases, and geomagnetic field records collected over 18 months at Commonwealth Bay.

1929–1931 British, Australian, New Zealand Antarctic Research expeditions (BANZARE)

Keen to further Antarctic discovery, Mawson lobbied the British, Australian and New Zealand governments to fund an expedition. Philantropist Macpherson Robertson donated 10 000 pounds to the expedition, a huge sum in 1928. In appreciation, Mawson named MacRobertson Land after the entrepreneurial owner of the Melbourne confectionery company.

The British, Australian and New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition (BANZARE) did not use land bases to explore. Crucial work was successfully completed on voyages along much of the Antarctic coastline, and sub-Antarctic Iles Crozet, Iles Kerguelen, and Heard Island. Mawson’s team were the first to map much of the coast, providing a foundation the establishment of the Australian Antarctic Territory.

Scientific advances were made in oceanography and biology, with results published in thirteen volumes.

Awards and honours

On his return to Australia in 1914, Mawson achieved public acclaim for his achievements, and received a knighthood. Mawson's account of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition, Home of the Blizzard, was published in 1915.

Mawson also received great recognition in the scientific community. He was made a fellow of the Royal Society of London in 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 to 1937.

In later years, as a long serving member of the Australian Antarctic Executive Planning Committee, Mawson continued to support the Australia's Antarctic research programs.

In recognition of his achievements in Antarctica, Mawson station, established in 1954, was named after him. By leading Australia’s first Antarctic research expedition, Mawson became an internationally acclaimed scientist and explorer. His face is well known today, having adorned postage stamps and the Australian $100 note.

Video of Douglas Mawson reading a proclamation during BANZARE:
[Video]

Douglas Mawson reading a proclamation during BANZARE

Video transcript

Douglas Mawson Proclamation during BANZARE

February 7, 1933

DOUGLAS MAWSON

I, sir Douglas Mawson, do hereby so claim and declare to all men that from and after the date of the present, the full sovereignty of the territory that we have discovered and explored south of latitude sixty-four degrees and as far as the south pole, this in his majesty King George the fifth, his heirs and successors, forever.

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