100 Years On: Douglas Mawson and Australian identity forged in the Antarctic

Today, Prime Minister Julia Gillard invoked “the spirit of Mawson” when she visited the University of Tasmania’s new state-of-the-art Marine Research institute. The site will open in 2014 and Gillard timed her visit to celebrate Douglas Mawson’s 100th anniversary as leader of Australia’s first Antarctic exhibition. Gillard said the facility committed Australia to the Antarctic in “a history 100 years old but with a great future in front of it.”

Mawson was a great Australian scientist and explorer. Gallipoli is where the newly-formed white commonwealth of Australia was supposedly forged. But Mawson’s earlier adventure did much also to put a young nation on the map – and expand Australian thinking about the map and its place on it. His 100th anniversary celebrations in the Antarctic were delayed a few days due to bad weather.

Like most Australians of the time (the Irish excepted), Douglas Mawson considered himself an Englishman. Mawson was of gritty Yorkshire stock born in Shipley in 1882. His family were cloth merchants who moved to Sydney while Douglas was a toddler. He was educated at Rooty Hill and at Fort Street Model School. He attended the University of Sydney at the turn of the century. While Australia federated and fought the Boer War, he studied mining engineering. After graduating he was appointed junior demonstrator in chemistry at the university. He did a six month geological survey of the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu) under the island’s deputy commissioner Captain E. G. Rason. Mawson’s The geology of the New Hebrides was one of the first major works of its kind on Melanesia.

He was then appointed lecturer in mineralogy and petrology in the University of Adelaide and became interested in South Australia’s glacial geology. Mawson came up with new classifications for the mineralised Precambrian rocks of the Barrier Range. In November 1907, Ernest Shackleton met him in Adelaide. Shackleton was leader of the British Antarctic Expedition heading south. He wanted to be first to the South Pole, something that did not interest Mawson particularly. Yet Mawson wanted to explore the glaciations of the southern continent. Shackleton was impressed and made him physicist.

By March 1908 Mawson was on top of Mt Erebus volcano in the first group to climb Antarctica’s highest peak. While Shackleton and his team pressed onto the pole, Mawson and Edgeworth David travelled 2000km to be the first to reach the south magnetic pole. They survived the return trip despite lack of food, exhaustion and Mawson’s fall into a deep crevasse. Shackleton failed in the main expedition and they returned to Australia chastened, but with Mawson’s reputation enhanced.

Back in Adelaide, he heard Scott was planning another assault on the pole. Mawson asked for a ride to explore the coast west of Cape Adare. Scott refused but invited him to go to the pole with him. Again, that did not interest Mawson so negotiations foundered. After Scott left in 1910, Mawson launched his own Australasian Antarctic Expedition.

He set sail in December 1911 and made three crucial stops in the name of Australia. At Macquarie Island he established a base where they were the first to relay radio messages from the Antarctic. Then he established a Main Base at Commonwealth Bay and lastly a Western Base on the Shackleton Ice Shelf. All three sites were dedicated to science.

The Commonwealth Bay base was ready by February 1912. Mawson went exploring in east Antarctica but two fellow explorers died on the harsh journey. Though Mawson was seriously debilitated, he cut his sledge in half, discarded everything except his geological specimens and records and dragged it 160km over 30 days to get back to base. He was forced to stay the winter and continued explorations to 1913.

Back home in 1915, Mawson told his story in The Home of the Blizzard. It was a sensational read but the Great War kept Australian preoccupied and Mawson did not get the credit his extraordinary adventures, exploration, innovation and scientific work deserved. Mawson served in that war as embarkation officer for shipments of high explosives and poison gas from Britain to Russia.

After the war he worked for the White Russians then returned to the University of Adelaide to spend 30 years researching South Australian Precambrian rocks of the Flinders Ranges. He collected so much data from his polar trip, it took him 30 years to complete his “Scientific Reports”, in 22 volumes. He led two more southern journeys for the British, Australian and New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition in 1929-30 and 1930-31, both sea-based only. His mapping was crucial to the Australian Antarctic Territory Acceptance Act of 1933 and the Australian Antarctic Territory three years later.

Mawson retired to Melbourne in 1952 and died of a cerebral haemorrhage at his Brighton home on 14 October 1958, aged 78. By then Australia’s first permanent Antarctic base was established at Holme Bay in Mac Robertson Land. The base was Mawson’s idea and after World War II he convinced foreign minister Doc Evatt to set one up. The base was founded in 1954 and named for Mawson. It was a deserved honour for a man many see as the greatest polar explorer. By 1984, Mawson’s reputation was secured with his place on the $100 Australian note. You could put your money on it: Mawson was a great Australian who always put science first.

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