Born in Yorkshire, England in 1882, Douglas was just two when his family moved to Australia. For young Douglas, the deserts and rugged coastline of this ancient continent sparked a fascination for nature and a keenness to learn how the earth was formed.
At school, he was a bright student and was only 16 years old when he started at the University of Sydney.
He graduated in Engineering and Science and got a job at the University of Adelaide lecturing in petrology – the study of the origin and structure of rocks. On field trips he took students to the Flinders Ranges. These ranges were partly sculpted by glaciers millions of years ago and he began to wonder about the unexplored frozen land known as Antarctica where glaciers still existed.
His first chance to visit this cold continent came when he was twenty-six. He joined an expedition headed by British explorer Ernest Shackleton. The team was the first to climb to the top of Mount Erebus, Antarctica’s active volcano, and the first to reach the magnetic south pole.
This new frontier had Mawson in its spell and he knew he had to return.
And in 1911 when he was 30, he did just that – as leader of the first Australasian Expedition to Antarctica. His aim was to map and explore the coastal area of Antarctica closest to Australia. Mawson selected his team and in the ship ‘Aurora’ they sailed through 1,500 kilometers of pack ice to the Antarctic coast. Their first job was to build a hut which they named “Home of the Blizzard” because three hundred kilometer per hour winds blew men off their feet. They were the most fearsome gales on the planet.
From their camp in Spring 1912 several parties of explorers set out on foot.
Mawson took with him, Swiss scientist Dr. Xavier Mertz and Lieutenant Belgrave Ninnis and a team of Greenland huskies pulled their sleds. Film maker, David Parer, re-created their journey in his film ‘Douglas Mawson The Survivor’. Mawson’s party traveled east for over a thousand kilometers mapping the coastline, collecting geological samples and discovering huge glaciers. But despite their success the journey proved tragic.
Fighting appalling weather and poor light, the trio had to drag themselves and their supplies around crevasses and slippery ice covered rock. Just five weeks into the journey Ninnis disappeared down a deep crevasse with a team of dogs and the sled carrying most of the food. Mawson and Mertz had to turn back and in order to survive they were forced to shoot and eat the remaining huskies. Mertz became sick and increasingly weak and he too died.
Mawson was near death – his feet were bloody, his skin was falling away and he had lost a lot of weight.
He would never know that what killed Mertz and made him sick was toxic levels of vitamin A from the dogs’ livers they had eaten. When he feel into a crevasse, he was saved by a rope. He later wrote in his diary he felt tempted to give up – to cut the rope that held him.
But time and time again Mawson felt the presence of a spirit and found the strength to continue. He sawed his sled in half and dragged his poisoned body over more than one hundred and sixty kilometers of blizzard-swept ice and snow…to finally reach the safety of expedition headquarters.
His epic trek was described as the greatest story of lone survival in polar exploration. When he returned to Adelaide, he was knighted for his contribution to our scientific understanding of Antarctica.
In 1914 he married Paquita Delprat the woman he often thought of throughout his Antarctic ordeal. Mawson loved to have his family around him and his two daughters came to know the qualities that made him a great leader.
“He was always interested in anything we were doing…really interested in promoting our activities without bossing us around.” (Patricia Thomas, Daughter)
In 1929 and 1931 Mawson headed two more voyages to the Antarctic. This time concentrating on oceanography and marine biology. They resulted in Australia claiming 42 percent of Antarctica as Australian Territory – an area the size of Australia without Queensland.
For the rest of his life Sir Douglas worked as Professor of Geology at the University of Adelaide and was involved in forestry, farming and the conservation of the unique wildlife in our oceans.
He died in 1958 at the age of 76.
Sir Douglas Mawson’s research has contributed to our knowledge of the world… his life has taught us something about the strength of the human spirit.
Courtesy of: Australian Broadcasting Corp