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Antarctica and Sir Douglas Mawson

A photograph of Sir Douglas Mawson, 1930.

Frank Hurley (1885-1962), Sir Douglas Mawson, affectionately known by his staff as 'The Dux', photograph: gelatin silver. Photograph courtesy of the National Library of Australia.: an10932811-47

Antarctica and the history of its exploration is an exciting and important part of Australia's history and culture, and the future of Antarctica's environment an important responsibility.

Sir Douglas Mawson

Douglas Mawson studied mining, engineering, chemistry and geology at university, and was a lecturer in mineralogy at the University of Adelaide in 1905. In 1907, Mawson was interested in rocks that had been left after glaciers had melted, so he travelled to Antarctica with the British Antarctic Expedition (BAE) of 1907–09 led by Ernest Shackleton. Shackleton offered him a place in the group that was to stay in Antarctica over winter. Mawson accepted, and became an important member of the expedition.

Mawson was a member of the trio that set out to locate the South Magnetic Pole. On this trip, Mawson, Mackay and David set a record for an unsupported sledge journey (over 2000 km in 122 days). As the trip got more difficult, David gave Mawson the leadership, saying later in a tribute:

Mawson was the real leader who was the soul of our expedition to the Magnetic Pole. We really have in him an Australian Nansen, of infinite resource, splendid physique, astonishing indifference to frost.
Australian Dictionary of Biography, Mawson, Sir Douglas (1882–1958)

The Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE) 1911–1914 was an important scientific expedition and established Australia's interests in the Antarctic. However, the success was not without cost. Mawson, Ninnis and Mertz set out on one of the scientific sledding parties. Only Mawson made it back.

After the AAE, Mawson could see the potential for Australia to become a major influence in the Antarctic region. He saw the potential for the commercial use of the resources of the continent, ranging from whaling to mining. He also thought other countries would become dominant in the region if Australia did not show interest. Mawson was knighted in 1914 and returned to the University of Adelaide in 1919 where he was later appointed professor in 1921. Mawson, and others, spent a great deal of time and energy persuading the government that another expedition was needed.

British Australian and New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition 1929–1931

As the Professor of Geology and Mineralogy in Adelaide, Mawson was given government assistance and led two more voyages to Antarctica – the British Australian and New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition (BANZARE), 1929–31. The voyages were mainly ship-based, but also included land exploration and Gipsy Moth reconnaissance flights. Mawson and his team made numerous scientific observations and were careful to map and claim territory for Britain (these claims were later transferred to Australia).

A photograph of the Mawson ice edge, Antarctica.

Mawson ice edge, Australian Antarctic Division, 2006.

The scientific plans driving Mawson's expeditions were wide-ranging and often quite specialised. They included studies of the weather, the oceans, geology, physics, biology, glaciology and bacteriology. Mawson and the other early Antarctic expeditioners started a series of weather reports which are being continued today as part of scientific work on predicting weather patterns and understanding climate change. Another important task was mapping, as Antarctica was an almost unknown land. Maps were drawn on ship and on land by Hodgeman, the cartographer (map maker) and sketch artist at the Australasian Antarctic Expedition Main Base.

However, the main occupation of the BANZARE expedition was marine science, which included extensive oceanographic work and marine biological sampling. Examination of the various species collected was done over the next fifty years by specialists all over the world, and their results described in the thirteen volumes of the BANZARE Scientific Reports.

Mawson's influence and materials

Mawson cultivated a broad range of interests including conservation, farming and forestry. He was a persistent advocate of decimal measures, a supporter of strict regulation of the whaling industry, and was influential in having Macquarie Island declared a sanctuary.

In 1928 Sir Grenfell Price gave an evaluation of Mawson as:

...the man who, of all southern explorers, gave the world the greatest contributions in south polar science and his own people the greatest territorial possessions in the Antarctic.
Australian Dictionary of Biography, Mawson, Sir Douglas (1882–1958)

The Mawson Institute for Antarctic Research was established within the University of Adelaide in 1959. Its library incorporates Mawson's collection of polar literature, his Antarctic diaries, a substantial collection of papers, correspondence, photographic records and objects of historical importance.

The Australian Antarctic Division

A photograph of an aurora at Mawson, Antarctica.

Glenn Duncan, Aurora at Mawson, Australian Antarctic Division, 2006, Kingston Tasmania 7050.

The Australian Antarctic Division leads Australia's Antarctic Program, which aims to increase understanding and protection of the Antarctic environment. The Australian Antarctic Division website includes information on station organisation, maintenance, research and a photo gallery of wildlife, icebergs, and the Aurora Australis.

By 1994 all of Australia's Antarctic stations had been rebuilt. The ongoing upgrade of facilities at Australia's Antarctic stations since 1969, combined with state-of-the-art satellite communication facilities, has enabled a greater emphasis to be placed on research that provides information and data, vital to further understanding global climate change and the role of the Antarctic in global systems.

The Australian Antarctic Arts Fellowship aims to communicate the significance of Australia's activities in Antarctica through the work of people especially gifted in communicating through various media including the visual arts, film-making, imaginative writing, education, and music as well as print and broadcast journalism. The Fellowship takes the form of a berth on a ship to Antarctica and associated logistical support i.e. food, accommodation and transport.

Antarctic bases may be seen through webcams set up at Mawson, Davis Station, Casey and Macquarie Island Station. The pictures are captured at the stations and sent via a permanent satellite link to the Australian Antarctic Division's headquarters in Kingston, Tasmania.

Conserving Mawson's huts

A photograph of King Penguins, Antarctica.

King penguins, Australian Antarctic Division, 2006, Kingston Tasmania 7050.

Mawson's huts, built at Commonwealth Bay early in 1912 to house Australasian Antarctic expedition members and their scientific equipment, are regarded as Australia's most significant historic presence in Antarctica. The site was included on the National Heritage List in 2005, and had been registered on the Register of the National Estate since 1980. The Mawson's Huts Historic Site Management Plan 2007–2012 sets out the direction of management of the site.

The Mawson's Huts Foundation was formed in 1996 to conserve the unique, historical buildings. The foundation works in partnership with the Australian Government, through the Australian Antarctic Division and the Australian Heritage Division, to carry out conservation work. The 2008–09 Mawson's Huts Foundation conservation team uncovered a collection of artefacts from the 1911–14 expedition, including smoking pipes, a Horlicks milk tin full of linseed oil, and the collar of one of Mawson's husky dogs. The remains of a seat from the first aircraft taken to the Antarctic have also been found, although the plane's fuselage has not been located.

Useful links


Sir Douglas Mawson

Education and research

Last updated: 22 December 2015