Louis Bernacchi was a physicist on the Southern Cross Antarctic Expedition, 1898-1900
Louis Bernacchi was a physicist on the Southern Cross Antarctic Expedition, 1898-1900

Born in Belgium to an Italian father and Flemish mother, Bernacchi voyaged from Plymouth to Hobart as a seven year old. This sparked his enthusiasm for exploration and adventure. James Clark Ross, who charted much of the Antarctic coastline during his 1839–1843 expedition, was one of Louis’ childhood heroes: he considered him capable and courageous. Bernacchi’s scientific curiosity and love of nature developed while growing up on his parents’ Maria Island farm. At this time, Hobart often resupplied whaling ships, and crews told tales of icebergs and islands to fuel Louis’ imagination.

Education and work

Bernacchi was educated at the Hutchins School in Hobart before studying astronomy, magnetism, meteorology and physics at Melbourne Observatory. He made significant contributions to science during his two Antarctic expeditions.

In 1910, he was unsuccessful in standing as a Liberal candidate in British politics. During World War I, he served in the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve before becoming naval staff. He served in the anti-submarine division, and the American destroyer squadron, reaching the rank of Lt. Commander. During World War II he returned to the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, organising Q ships, but died at home in 1942.

Expedition achievements

Bernacchi was physicist on Borchgrevink’s 1898 expedition, the first expedition to endure winter on the Antarctic continent. This expedition was significant in demonstrating survival skills and advancing Antarctic science, but was known for the conflict among the 10 man team. While it appears that Borchgrevink was often at the heart of discontent, Bernacchi was often able to quell tensions, enabling the team to function and complete tasks.

Bernacchi had a positive working relationship with Scott, making his experience as physicist on Scott’s 1901–1904 Antarctic expedition a more enjoyable one.

Place names in his honour are Cape Bernacchi, Bernacchi Head and Bernacchi Bay.

Awards

The Royal Geographical Society (London) made him a fellow in 1900 and awarded him the Peek Grant. He was given the Royal Geographical Society and the King’s Antarctic medal as well as the French Cross of the Legion d’honneur (1906). In 1919 he received a military OBE and the US Navy Cross for his war time contributions.

Imparting his knowledge of Antarctica

Bernacchi succeeded Shackleton as editor of the South Polar Times, and imparted his Antarctic findings in scientific writings and by travelling Tasmania giving presentations. Audience questions included “Are there any native people in Antarctica?” reinforcing how little was known about the continent in the 1900’s, and the importance of exploration, research, and education.

Bernacchi was one of the main organisers of the British Polar Exhibition of 1930 in Central Hall, Westminster, and founded the Antarctic club. His publications include the books: To the South Polar Regions (1901); The Polar Book (1930); A very gallant gentleman (1933); and Saga of the Discovery (1938).

Family

Bernacchi declined a position on Scott’s 1910–1913 expedition for family reasons. He had married Winifred Edith Harris in 1906, with Scott as his best man. Many of his fellow expeditioners were wedding guests, illustrating his popularity amongst his work teams and the bonds formed from mutual reliance for survival in the inhospitable Antarctic. Bernacchi and Winifred had four children; his eldest son was named after Lieutenant Michael Barne from Scott’s expedition.

Personal attributes

Bernacchi is described as having a methodical mind and a desire for organisation, giving accuracy and precision to his scientific endeavours. He was charming, idealistic, enthusiastic, a loyal friend, and resilient, making him highly valued in all work teams, but especially situations where lives depended on him: in Antarctica and during his war time service. His generous and forgiving nature is demonstrated by his letter of support for Borchgrevink, which led to Borchgrevink receiving England’s Royal Geographical Society Patron’s Medal in 1930.

Louis Bernacchi’s reflections on Antarctica strike a chord in expeditioners who follow him:

Life in the Antarctic is one of hardship, privation, monotony and isolation, but it has a subtle charm which is indefinable, and you look back with a vivid and lingering recollection to those days spent in geographical and scientific research near the South Pole.”