Sir George Hubert Wilkins

views updated May 17 2018

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). □

Sir George Hubert Wilkins

views updated May 18 2018

Sir George Hubert Wilkins


Australian Explorer, Pilot, and Photographer

Sir George Hubert Wilkins was an Australian explorer of the Arctic and a pilot who is regarded as a pioneer in air exploration. He also contributed to the exploration of the Arctic by submarine.

Wilkins was born in Mount Bryan East, in southern Australia on October 31, 1888. He attended the School of Mines and Industry in Adelaide, where he studied electrical engineering; he also pursued his interest in photography and took up flying in 1910. He married Suzanne Bennett in 1929. Wilkins utilized his skills in photography and flight during the Balkan War, where he served as a newsreel photographer. His work was used in newspapers as well as in movies. Following the end of the Balkan War in 1913, Wilkins began his career in Arctic exploration after he was selected by Vihjalmur Stefansson (1879-1962) to be the official photographer of the Canadian Arctic Expedition, which lasted until 1917. Wilkins was rewarded for his commitment to the expedition by being promoted to second in command beneath Stefansson.

After the expedition was completed in 1917, Wilkins joined the Australian Flying Corps as a photographer during World War I; he was stationed on the French front. While in this position he served as the official photographer of the military history department. His love of flight led him to compete, in 1919, for a $50,000 prize for a successful flight from England to Australia; he did not succeed in this effort.

Wilkins was second in command again for another expedition, this time with the British Imperial Antarctic Expedition from 1920-21. Following this effort, he returned to Antarctica in 1921 with Sir Ernest Shackleton's (1874-1922) Quest Expedition as a naturalist, or one who studies animals and plants. Wilkins was in charge of the Wilkins Australia and Islands expedition for the British Museum in Australia from 1923-25. From 1926-28 he was in charge of the Detroit News Arctic Expeditions. His first book, Flying the Arctic, was published in 1928. His second book, Undiscovered Australia, was published in the following year.

On April 15, 1928, Wilkins and Carl Ben Eielson flew from Point Barrow, Alaska, to Spits-bergen, Norway. The team covered a distance of 2,100 miles (3,380 km) in 20½ hours in the first east to west crossing of the Arctic; this flight was regarded as the greatest Arctic flight of the time. On June 14, 1928, Wilkins was knighted by King George V; he received the Patron's medal from the Royal Geographic Society in the same year.

In the same year of his knighting, Wilkins led the Wilkins-Hearst Antarctic Expedition. With this effort, he was the first to fly in the Antarctic and the first to fly over both poles. He was able to determine also that Graham Land was an island and not connected with a continent. Wilkins and Eielson, teamed again with Eielson as pilot, made a number of geographical observations on their 1,200-mile (1,931-km) flight along the Palmer Peninsula. Three years later, in 1931, Wilkins flew around the world in the Graf Zeppelin. He also made the first exploration of the Arctic by submarine, in a vessel named the Nautilus. In the years 1933-39, Wilkins oversaw the completion of four of Lincoln Ellsworth's (1880-1951) Antarctic expeditions. Wilkins served as a consultant to several branches of the United States government from 1942, and he consulted with the United States Army Air Force during World War II regarding Arctic clothing. He also consulted with the Weather Bureau and the Navy, and was special consultant to the Army Quartermaster Corps in 1947. He died on December 1, 1958, in Framingham, Massachusetts.


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