Sir Tannatt Edgeworth David (known as ‘The Prof’ or ‘The Professor’) (1858–1934)

Tannatt Edgeworth David
Tannatt Edgeworth David, Victoria Land, 1909
First at the South Magnetic PolePostcard showing the summit of Mt Erebus

Even before his arrival in Antarctica with Shackleton’s 1907 expedition, David can be credited with influencing Antarctic science. In his book First on the Antarctic Continent, Borchgrevink expresses appreciation to Professor David, among others, for inspiring his scientific endeavours in Antarctica. Borchgrevink’s 1898 expedition was the first to winter on the Antarctic continent.

Education and work

David was home schooled by his father until the age of 12, when he attended Magdalen College School, Oxford, followed by New College. David graduated from Oxford with a Bachelor of Arts in 1881, but also attended geology lectures. David’s father was interested in fossils, and sparked David’s interest in geology.

David’s first publication on glacial action preceded his appointment as assistant geological surveyor by the New South Wales government in 1882, placing him on the steamship Potosi migrating to Sydney, Australia.

In Australia, he travelled widely: documenting mineral and water resources; collecting fossils in the Yass district and mapping the area; and examining mining reserves in the New England region. David and Stonier found a seam of coal at Deep Creek. Memoirs, No. 1, of the Geological Survey of New South Wales (1887), was his first published monograph. His Geological Map of the Commonwealth of Australia and a volume of Explanatory Notes were completed and published in 1932.

David became Professor of geology and William Hilton Hovell lecturer in physical geography. In 1897, David led a team to bore a 340 metre deep section at Funafuti, an atoll in the Ellice Islands. David’s work includes research into the late Palaeozoic glacial remains of the Hunter River area and Mount Kosciusko’s Pleistocene glaciated region.

David’s contribution to the Tenth International Geological Congress on past ice ages shows his commitment to sharing knowledge. In 1907 he completed the Geology of the Hunter River Coal Measures, before participating in Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition.

Achievements in Antarctica

Shackleton solicited David’s geological expertise for his 1907 Antarctic expedition in the Nimrod. David took two of his former students, Douglas Mawson and Leo Cotton.

David led the first climbing party to the summit of Mt Erebus, the active volcano. He led the party, including Mawson, on the four month journey to the South Magnetic Pole. They dragged laden sledges about 1250 km.


The Geological Society, London, awarded him the Bigsby medal for his scientific findings in the Ellice Islands, and in 1900 the Royal Society, London, admitted him as a fellow. He received Honorary Doctorates of Science from the Universities of Manchester, Wales, Cambridge and Sydney. He is the only Australian resident to receive the Wollaston medal from the Geological Society of London, awarded in 1915.

His war service was honoured with the Distinguished Service Order in 1918.

Imparting knowledge about Antarctica

On his return from Antarctica, David completed a lecture tour, which included England. Despite the outbreak of war in Europe, the British Association for the Advancement of Science Conference proceeded. David contributed to its success showing his commitment to collaborating and sharing knowledge despite some delegates being from enemy countries.

World War I

David’s work with the Australian Imperial Force Mining Battalion involved finding ground water and determining sites for trenches and tunnels.


Caroline Martha (Cara) Mallett, was also travelling on the Potosi en route to Australia, and what started as a voyage romance between her and David, extended to a happy marriage and three children.

Personal attributes

David’s commitment to science and his leadership qualities are demonstrated by his terms as president of the Royal Society of New South Wales, and the Australian National Research council.

David’s success in all his scientific endeavours was made possible by his academic prowess and his personal attributes of being considerate, quietly charming and an inspiration to others. His passion for geological research influenced, among others, Borchgrevink and Mawson, demonstrating the importance of David’s wide, valuable, and ongoing contribution.