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Sir George Hubert Wilkins

Sir George Hubert Wilkins

Sir George Hubert Wilkins (1888-1958) was an Australian explorer, scientist, and adventurer who imaginatively used scientific techniques in widely diverse conditions in the Australian bush, the Arctic, and the Antarctic.

Hubert Wilkins was born at Mount Bryan near Adelaide, South Australia, on Oct. 31, 1888, the son of a pioneer farming family. Three years' drought brought disease and starvation to his father's sheep and cattle and an abrupt end to George's education at the local school. He gave ample and early evidence of his most remarkable personal energy, however, and displayed an extraordinary talent for improvisation. His interests, which were to expand still further as his curiosity about nature and humanity grew, spread to include music, botany, zoology, meteorology, geology, and particularly photography. He quickly became an inveterate and bold traveler.

In 1909 Wilkins arrived in England after an adventurous journey through the Mediterranean and Middle East as a stowaway. He lost no time in learning to navigate and fly both airplanes and dirigibles; and he established himself as a professional photographer, correspondent, and film editor. In 1912 he reported on the brutal Balkan War and the next year accompanied Vilhjalmur Stefansson's expedition to the Arctic. During the next 3 years he laid the firm foundations of a distinguished record in the field of polar science and exploration.

Wilkins served during World War I as an outstanding and intrepid pilot and aerial photographer. In 1919 he attempted to win the Daily Mail £10,000 prize for a record-making flight across the globe from Britain to Australia, but he crashed his plane in Crete.

Fascinated by polar exploration, and already an old hand, Wilkins seized the offer of a place in E. H. Shackleton's last expedition to the Antarctic, in 1921. The next year he spent in Europe and the Soviet Union as a photographer and relief worker for the Society of Friends. In 1923 he was appointed by the British Museum to lead a valuable and eventful two-year scientific expedition to northern Australia, the results of which he summarized in his book Undiscovered Australia.

By 1925 Wilkins had returned to his earlier project of flying in the Arctic, and his plans received the support and approval of the American Geographical Society. His pioneering Arctic flights from 1926 to 1928 earned him many honors, among them a knighthood from king George V. Many Antarctic flights followed throughout the next decade, and Wilkins consolidated his reputation as a major figure in polar exploration and the application of technology to harsh polar conditions. He spent 5 "summers" and portions of 26 "winters" in the Arctic regions and 8 "summers" in the Antarctic.

Wilkins supported submarine investigation under the ice caps in his work Under the North Pole, and in 1931 he carried out important experiments in the Nautilus, preceding the atomic-powered Nautilus by 27 years.

During World War II and afterward, Wilkins was respectfully consulted by the American, British, Australian, and Canadian governments as a scientific specialist, and he lived chiefly in the United States. His travels in the Antarctic continued until 1958, and he died in Framingham, Mass., on November 3 of that year.

Further Reading

Works on Wilkins include John Grierson, Sir Hubert Wilkins (1960), and Lowell Thomas, Sir Hubert Wilkins (1961). □

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Wilkins, Sir George Hubert

Sir George Hubert Wilkins, 1888–1958, British explorer, b. Australia. He made a number of trips to Antarctica and to the Arctic. Valuable experience gained when he accompanied Vilhjalmur Stefansson's expedition (1913–18) to the Arctic and Sir Ernest Shackleton's expedition (1921–22) to Antarctica prepared Wilkins to assume the leadership in the following years of a number of polar expeditions. A pioneer in the method of air exploration, he was the first to fly (1928) from North America to the European polar regions, traveling from Point Barrow, Alaska, to Spitsbergen; his Flying the Arctic (1928) described his observations during the flights. He was knighted that year. He commanded an antarctic exploration (1928–29) when flights were made in the region of the Antarctic Peninsula, and in 1931 he headed a submarine expedition to the Arctic, an exploit depicted in his Under the North Pole (1931). Though mechanical difficulties made it impossible for his submarine, the Nautilus, to reach the North Pole, Wilkins's work was to be very valuable for future arctic exploration by submarine. From 1933 to 1939 he was manager for Lincoln Ellsworth's transantarctic expeditions. During World War II and afterward, Wilkins served as a geographer for the British army.

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