Remembering Sir Douglas Mawson.

Remembering Sir Douglas Mawson

With Mawson Station celebrating its 65th anniversary this season, it’s timely to highlight the contributions to Antarctic exploration made by our station namesake: Sir Douglas Mawson.

Born 5 May 1882, Mawson was an Australian geologist, Antarctic explorer, and academic. Along with Roald Amundsen, Robert Scott, and Sir Ernest Shackleton, Mawson was a key expedition leader during the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration in the first half of the 20th century. His Australian Antarctic explorations laid the foundations for formation of the Australian Antarctic Territory (AAT) and eventually the creation of the Australian Antarctic Division (AAD).

1907–1909 The Nimrod Expedition

Mawson’s first foray to Antarctica came in 1907 when, as a 26-year old geologist, he joined Sir Ernest Shackleton’s British Antarctic Expedition. This expedition had a range of geographical and scientific objectives including being first to the South Pole. Although this objective was not achieved, Mawson proved his worth by being part of a team that did reach the magnetic South Pole inclusive of a 122-day sledging journey. In addition, Mawson was part of a team that first climbed Mount Erebus (Antarctica’s active volcano).

1911–1914 Australasian Antarctic Expedition

Following completion of the Nimrod Expedition, Mawson got the familiar ‘ice’ in his veins and sought to return to Antarctica immediately — this time to organise and lead an Australian Antarctic research expedition.

Setting sail on the ship Aurora in 1911, Mawson led a team of 31 expeditioners on a mission focused on advancing scientific knowledge and exploration of relatively unexplored east Antarctica. The expedition proved highly successful and achieved many firsts, including charting large segments of the eastern coastline, identification of numerous new biological species on land and sea, establishing the first radio communications in Antarctica, along with setting up initial bases at sub-Antarctic Macquarie Island, Commonwealth Bay and Queen Mary Land.

This expedition also become synonymous for tragedy Mawson encountered during an epic sledging trip. In November 1912, Mawson, along with two other expeditions (Xavier Mertz & Belgrave Ninnis) was undertaking a deep field sledging trip when Ninnis was tragically lost in a crevasse. Lost along with Ninnis was a majority of their stores and sled dogs, forcing Mertz and Mawson to survive on meagre rations supplemented by sacrificing their remaining sled dogs for food. Tragically, Mertz later succumbed to illness forcing Mawson continue solo for some 100 miles (39 days) to reach the Main Base at Commonwealth Bay. Upon arrival, he then learned he had missed the departing ship by mere hours and was forced to overwinter with six other colleagues. During this period, Mawson experienced the true ravages of the eastern Antarctica weather, leading him to christen the region the ‘home of the blizzard and the windiest place on earth’. After finally returning home in 1914, Mawson’s efforts during the Australasian Antarctic Expedition led to awarding of a knighthood. 

1929–1931 The British Australian New Zealand Antarctic Research Expeditions (BANZARE)

Mawson’s third journey to Antarctica came as the leader of the combined BANZARE expedition of 1929–31. Keen to further Antarctic discovery, Mawson successfully lobbied the British, Australian and New Zealand governments, along with philanthropists to fund an expedition (this included one Macpherson Robertson, an entrepreneurial owner of a Melbourne confectionery company who donated $10,000 pounds to the expedition. In appreciation, Mawson named MacRobertson Land after him).

The BANZARE expedition built on the successful foundations of Mawson’s 1911 expedition, competing extensive mapping of the Antarctic coastline and discovering MacRobertson and Princess Elizabeth Land (which later became the Australian Antarctic Territory). Major scientific advances were also made in oceanography and biology, with results published in 13 volumes. It was the success of this expedition that directly resulted in the establishment of the Australian Antarctic Territory and later the Australian Antarctic Division.

Following this expedition to Antarctica, Mawson returned to ‘normal life’, going on to become a Professor of geology and mineralogy at the University of Adelaide and a long serving member of the Australian Antarctic Executive Planning Committee, as the Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions (ANARE) were launched.

Mawson passed away in 1958 aged 76.

In recognition of his Antarctic achievements, Mawson Station was named after him and he remains a highly revered figure within the AAD and broader Australian culture. Amongst other public recognitions, his likeness featured on the $100 note and the Canberra suburb Mawson (postcode 2607) is named in his honour.

- Mawson 72nd ANARE Team.