Debenham, Frank

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Debenham, Frank

(b. Bowral, New South Wales, Australia, 26 December 1883; d. Cambridge, England, 23 November 1965)

polar exploration, cartography, geography.

Debenham’s early education was at a private school run by his father, Reverend J. W. Debenham, vicar of Bowral. He attended the King’s School, Paramatta, New South Wales, and graduated in arts from the University of Sydney in 1904. After being a schoolteacher for three years, he returned to the university and graduated B. Sc. in geology in 1910.

Debenham’s research career began soon afterward, when R. F. Scott, while passing through Sydney, selected him as an additional member of the second Scott Antarctic Expedition of 1910–1913. In the Antarctic, Debenham carried out geological surveys and brought to bear the cartographic skills for which he later became famous.

After the return of the expedition Debenham worked in Cambridge for the rest of his life, apart from the interruption caused by World War I, in which he was seriously wounded. In 1919 he was appointed lecturer in surveying and cartography at the University of Cambridge. His early years in this post were devoted mainly to writing up his polar work, including entire responsibility for the account of the survey work of the expedition. At the same time he steadily developed his skills as a cartographer, and his polar writings were followed by several books concerned largely with the surveying and mapping of landforms.

In 1925 Debenham became the first director of the Scott Polar Research Institute at Cambridge and was a central figure in inspiring the surge of British polar exploration that occurred between 1925 and World War II. In 1931 he became the first professor of geography at Cambridge, holding this post until his retirement in 1949.

Debenham was essentially a practical man. Apart from his pioneering work in the Antarctic, he was noted for constantly devising new techniques in cartography that proved to be a great stimulus to geographers. He also made significant contributions concerning the water problems of central Africa. Debenham, an approachable man with a gift for kindly humor, was greatly loved by his colleagues and students, and was an outstanding inspirer and gentle leader of men.


Debenham’s scientific publications include approximately 100 papers, books, and review articles. His most noted works include The Physiography of the Ross Archipelago. British (Terra Nova) Antarctic Expedition 1910–1913 (London, 1923); Reports on the Maps and Surveys. British (Terra Nova) Antarctic Expedition 1910–1913 (London, 1923); Map Making (London, 1936, 1940, 1945); The Voyage of Captain Bellingshausen to the Antarctic Seas, 1819–1821, a translation from the Russian edited by Debenham (London, 1945); The Use of Geography (London, 1950); In the Antarctic: Stories of Scott’s Last Expedition (London, 1952); and The McGraw-Hill Illustrated World Geography (New York, 1960), written with W. A. Burns.

K. E. Bullen