Sir Douglas Mawson

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Sir Douglas Mawson

Sir Douglas Mawson (1882-1958) was an Australian scientist and explorer of the Antarctic. His intellectual boldness and skill were matched by a practical initiative and courage which confirms his place among the world's greatest explorers.

Douglas Mawson was born in Yorkshire on May 5, 1882. His parents took him to Sydney, New South Wales, when he was 4 years old, and he was educated at Fort Street High School and the University of Sydney. A student of the famous geologist Sir Edgeworth David, Mawson early showed high forensic capability in the field as well as a meticulous scholarly talent. In 1902 he graduated in mining engineering and taught briefly at the University of Sydney.

In 1903 Mawson was invited to accompany the team which made the first intensive geological survey of the New Hebrides Islands in the Pacific. From 1905 he held the lectureship and later the professorship of mineralogy and petrology (geology) at the University of Adelaide. He quickly gained the reputation of an outstanding teacher as well as that of a fine scientist and man of action.

Antarctic Explorations

By 1907 Mawson had turned his mind and energies toward Antarctica. Hitherto Britain, Sweden, and Germany had been engaged in surveying the land mass of the continent. Ernest Shackleton, a member of Robert F. Scott's team, had determined that year to reach the South Pole. Mawson accompanied the expedition as physicist and surveyor, and Edgeworth David joined the party. During 1908, together with Dr. A. F. MacKay, Mawson and David conquered the summit of Mt. Erebus—an ice-covered volcanic cone 11,400 feet high—for the first time. Among other notable achievements they observed, also for the first time, the shifting position of the magnetic pole. It was a thorough and successful introduction to the life and labor demanded of Antarctic scientists and explorers. Mawson had earned an invitation to join Scott in his forthcoming voyage of discovery.

In January 1911 the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science initiated a government-aided expedition under Mawson's leadership to survey the unknown and unmapped ice plateau west of the magnetic pole. When the expedition sailed from Hobart, Tasmania, in December, Mawson had already earned the utmost affection and respect of his crew.

During the course of the survey Mawson found himself, after the death of two companions, alone, without supplies, on foot, and a hundred miles from safety. His courage and ingenuity enabled him to survive a most terrible journey through blizzards and across frightening crevasses. At one stage the soles of his feet separated from the flesh. Yet by 1914 the objects of the scientific research had been triumphantly achieved.

In 1929 Mawson was asked to lead a combined British, Australian, and New Zealand expedition to Antarctica and to explore that huge part of the continent which lay to the south of Australia. Scott's old ship, the Discovery, was fitted out for them, and on the voyage from Cape Town Mawson carried out research on the unexplored islands of the Crozets and also on Kerguelen and Heard islands. The phenomenon of the shallowing of the ocean depths toward the Antarctic was observed carefully.

Mawson named Mac-Robertson Land and, in the 1930 season, Princess Elizabeth Land. Notable was his use of an airplane for scientific purposes. As an outcome of this expedition and of Mawson's work, Britain made over to Australia its claims in Antarctica, and in 1936 the present Australian sector of the continent was annexed. The chief Australian Antarctic base was named after Mawson, and he firmly established his country's status as an Antarctic power.

In addition to many scientific papers and reports, Mawson wrote a remarkable two-volume book on his experiences, The Land of the Blizzard (1915).

Though Mawson is chiefly remembered for his Antarctic exploration, his geological work at the University of Adelaide was outstanding. He was a pioneer in research on uranium and other minerals connected with radioactivity. In 1914 he was knighted for his services and later filled many high official positions in the scientific world. He died on Oct. 14, 1958.

Further Reading

Books that deal with Mawson's life and work include Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton, The Heart of the Antarctic (2 vols., 1909); Charles F. Laseron, South with Mawson (2d ed. 1958); Sir A. Grenfell Price, The Winning of Australian Antarctica (1962); and Lady Paquita Mawson, Mawson of the Antarctic (1964).

Additional Sources

Bickel, Lennard, This accursed land, London: Macmillan, 1977. □

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(b. Bradford, Yorkshire, England, 5 May 1882; d. Adelaide, Australia, 14 October 1958)


Douglas Mawson was the younger son of Robert Mawson and Margaret Ann Moore, both of long-established Yorkshire families. The family sailed to Australia in 1884, where the father eventually attained some success as a lumber merchant. The boys were educated at Rooty Hill country school and later at Fort Street Public School, Sydney. Mawson entered the University of Sydney in 1899, took a bachelor of engineering degree in 1901, and under the influence of T. W. E. David, professor of geology, decided to become a geologist. He received a bachelor of science degree in 1904, doctor of science in 1909 (South Australia), became a fellow of the Royal Society in 1923, and received a doctor of science degree from the University of Sydney in 1952. After joining the staff at the University of Adelaide in 1905 as lecturer on mineralogy and petrology, he became the first professor of geology in 1920 and remained there until his retirement in 1952.

Mawson was honorary curator of minerals at the South Australian Museum and chairman of the board of governors at the time of his death. He was also a foundation fellow of the Australian Academy of Science and an honorary member of the Geological Society of Australia. His scientific awards are too numerous to be listed here. He married Francisca Adriana (“Paquita”) Deprat, daughter of a mining engineer, on 31 March 1914 and had two daughters, Patricia and Jessica.

Douglas Mawson was foremost an explorergeologist. His first expedition to the New Hebrides in 1903 was followed by his participation in Sir Ernest Shackleton’s 1907–1909 expedition to Antarctica, where Mawson ascended Mt. Erebus and mapped the position of the South Magnetic Pole, helping to man-haul sledges for some 1,300 miles. He then helped organize and commanded two Antarctic expeditions. In the first, the Australasian Antarctic Expedition (1911–1914), six parties worked in Queen Mary Land and Adèlie Land. Mawson’s two companions died—Ninnis falling to his death in a crevasse 315 miles from base, and Mertz dying more than a hundred miles from safety—and he struggled back alone for the last 115 miles, reaching the winter base over a month later. His epic is well told in The Home of the Blizzard. As commander of the British Australian New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition (BANZARE) in 1929–1931, he traveled to subantarctic islands and to Kemp Land and Enderby Land as far west as 45°E.

Although not a first-rank scientific investigator, Mawson established an outstanding department at Adelaide and worked extensively on geological problems of South Australia, notably on the Precambrian Adelaide System. He insisted on the fusing of scientific and geographic exploration, and his highly successful pioneering expeditions inspired public and government support.


I. Original Works. Mawson’s writings include “The Geology of the New Hebrides,” in Proceedings of the Linnean Society of New South Wales, 3 (1905), 400–485; “The Australasian Antarctic Expedition, 1911–1914,” in Geographical Journal, 44 (1914), 257–286; The Home of the Blizzard: Being the Story of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition 1911–1914, 2 vols. (London,1915); The Winning of Australian Antarctica (Sydney, 1963), the geographical report of the BANZARE 1929–1931 research expedition; Macquarie Island: Its Geography and Geology, Australasian Antarctic Expedition 1911–1914, Scientific Reports, ser. A, vol. V (Sydney, 1943); and “The Adelaide Series As Developed Along the Western Margin of the Flinders Ranges,” in Transactions of the Royal Society of South Australia, 71 , pt.2 (1947), 259–280.

II. Secondary Literature. See Charles Francis Laseron, South With Mawson (London, 1947), reminiscences of the Australasian Antarctic expedition of 1911–1914; Paquita Mawson, Mawson of the Antarctic (London,1961); and A. Grenfell Price, Mawson’s B.A.N.Z.A.R.E. Voyage 1929–1931, Based on the Mawson Papers (Sydney, 1963).

J. B. Waterhouse

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Sir Douglas Mawson, 1882–1958, Australian antarctic explorer and geologist, b. England. His first geographical expedition was to the New Hebrides Islands as a geologist in 1903. As a member of the scientific staff of Sir Ernest Shackleton's south polar expedition (1907–9), Mawson took part in the famous ascent of Mt. Erebus and the journey to the south magnetic pole. From 1911 to 1914 he commanded the Australian antarctic expedition; he studied the antarctic coast W of Cape Adare, spent two winters in Adélie Land (now Adélie Coast), and discovered King George V Land (now George V Coast), while a subordinate party discovered and explored Queen Mary Land (now Queen Mary Coast). On this trip Mawson's two companions died, and he was barely able to save himself. His Home of the Blizzard (1915) describes these explorations. In 1920 he became professor of geology and mineralogy at the Univ. of Adelaide. As commander of the British, Australian, and New Zealand antarctic expedition (1929–30), he revisited Enderby Land, not seen since its reported discovery a century earlier, and discovered MacRobertson Coast. Using a seaplane in conjunction with his ship, he made many short flights; in the course of this expedition, Mawson charted over 1,000 mi (1,600 km) of previously unknown antarctic coast and recharted c.1,500 mi (2,400 km) of vaguely known coasts. In his three trips between 1907 and 1931, Mawson claimed 2,225,000 sq mi (5,762,750 sq km) of antarctic territory for Australia. In recognition of his accomplishments he received the King's Polar Medal. He wrote many scientific papers.

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Mawson, Sir Douglas (1882–1958) Australian geographer and Antarctic explorer, b. England. He accompanied Sir Ernest Shackleton on the first expedition (1907–09) to the South Pole and led the Australasian Antarctic expedition (1911–14). In 1929–31, he led a joint British, Australian, and New Zealand Antarctic expedition.