Childhood & Early Years
Douglas Mawson was born on May 5, 1882, in Shipley, West Yorkshire, England. His father, Robert Mawson, was a cloth merchant from a farming background. His mother’s name was Margaret Ann née Moore.
In 1884, when Douglas was two years old, the family migrated to Australia and settled at Rooty Hill, now a suburb of Sydney. He began his education at a local school, but later shifted to Fort Street Model School in Sydney, graduating from there in 1899.
In the same year, he entered University of Sydney. Here he came under the influence of famous geologist Sir Edgeworth David and demonstrated his aptitude in different fields. Finally he passed out from there in 1902 with a bachelor’s degree in mining engineering.
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Immediately after passing out, Mawson took up the job of a junior demonstrator in chemistry. But in 1903, he took up six months leave to join a scientific expedition to New Hebrides. His report, titled ‘The Geology of New Hebrides’ was one of the first important works on the geology of entire Melanesia.
In 1905, he was appointed a lecturer of mineralogy and petrology (geology) at the University of Adelaide. Sometime now, he also began field investigations in the Broken Hill mining area of west-central New South Wales. This work earned him doctorate in science in 1909.
However, before he could complete his doctoral work, he was invited to join Nimrod Expedition to Antarctica under the leadership of Ernest Shackleton as a physicist and surveyor. He and his mentor Edgeworth David were the only Australians to join the team.
In February 1908, the team arrived at Cape Royds at Antarctica. In March, Douglas Mawson along with Alistair Mackay, Edgeworth David, Jameson Adams and Eric Marshal climbed Mount Erebus for the first time.
Next on October 5, 1908, Mawson and Mackay set out for the South Magnetic Pole under the leadership of David. The team reached their destination on January 17, 1909 after a long and difficult trek and immediately took possession of the area in the name of British King.
The return journey was equally tough. They were not only exhausted, but food was also scarce. Towards the end, Mawson had to take up the leadership of the expedition and earned great acclaim for his leadership quality. In all, they covered a distance of 1260 miles.
The trek to the South Magnetic Pole provided good opportunities for glaciological and geological investigations. On returning back to Adelaide, Mawson published his observations on the aurora and geomagnetism of the area.
In 1910, Mawson was invited by Robert Falcon Scott to join his Terra Nova Expedition. Since, by then, his own Australian Antarctic Expedition (AAE) was on planning stage he refused the invitation.
Team members for the AAE came mostly from different universities of Australia and New Zealand. Mawson, Frank Wild and John King Davis were veterans of Antarctic expeditions. Their ship sailed from Hobart, Tasmania on December 2, 1911 and reached Cape Denison on Commonwealth Bay on January 8, 1912.
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The main base camp was set up at Cape Denison. In addition, Mawson also set up two auxiliary bases. The scientists at these three bases began recording scientific as well as meteorological observations. They also set up the first radio connection at Antarctica.
The team conducted seven expeditions to the interior of Antarctica, all along collecting valuable scientific data. Mawson was a part of the Far Eastern Party, a three-man sledging team that also included Xavier Mertz, and Lieutenant B. E. S. Ninnis. They intended to reach King George V Land
On November 10, 1912 the team began their journey towards the east. Initially they made excellent progress; but on December 14, Ninnis disappeared into a crevasse. With him were gone six dogs, most of their rations, tents and other essential items. There was no other option left than to turn back.
Still they were hundreds of mile away from safety and there was ration only for one week, a primus and plenty of fuel; there was no tent, no dog food. Ultimately they were forced to kill their sled dogs and eat their meat. Mertz died on January 8, 1913, as much from exhaustion as from Hypervitaminosis A.
After Mertz’s death Mawson found him all alone on the snow. Yet, he trudged for thirty more days before he reached the main base camp. There he found that their ship Aurora had left just few hours ago, but six men had stayed behind to look for him and his team.
Although the ship was recalled by using wireless communication, it could not return due to bad weather. Therefore, Mawson and his companions had to stay back for another winter. Finally they were rescued in December 1913.
Mawson later described his experience in a book titled, ‘Home of the Blizzard’. Although his own expedition failed to reach the destination, the Australian Antarctic Expedition was more or less successful.
Different parties that set out from the base camps explored large areas of the Antarctic coast and described its geology, biology and meteorology. In addition, they were able to define the location of the South Magnetic Pole more closely.
On returning back, Mawson joined the World War I as a major and was posted in the British Ministry of Munitions. After the war, he rejoined University of Adelaide in 1919 as a lecturer. He was promoted to the post of Professor in 1921.
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In 1929, Mawson was back in Antarctica leading the British Australian (and) New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition (BANZARE). Although the aim of the expedition was more geopolitical than scientific the team produced 13 volumes of reports on various subjects such as geology, oceanography, meteorology, terrestrial magnetism, zoology and botany.
The expedition also mapped the coastline of Antarctica and discovered new land. At each landfall, Mawson proclaimed British sovereignty; but it was understood that these territories would later be handed over to Australia. In this way, Mawson’s expedition led to the formation of Australian Antarctic Territory.
Upon returning from the expedition in 1932, Mawson continued teaching at the University of Adelaide. During this period, he spent much of his time researching on geology at the Flinders Ranges, the largest mountain range in South Australia close to Adelaide.
Personal Life & Legacy
On March 31, 1914, Mawson married Francisca Adriana (Paquita) Delprat. The ceremony took place in the Holy Trinity Church of England, Balaclava, Victoria. The couple had two daughters, Patricia and Jessica.
Mawson retired from University of Adelaide in 1952. However, he continued editing the data collected during the Australian Antarctic Expedition. The work was ultimately finished by his daughter Patricia after his death and published in 1975.
Mawson died of cerebral hemorrhage on October 14, 1958 at his home in Brighton. He was buried at the historic cemetery of Saint Jude's Anglican Church.
Mawson Peak (Heard Island), Mount Mawson (Tasmania), Dorsa Mawson (a wrinkle ridge system on moon), Mawson Station (Antarctica) and a suburb in Canberra have all been named after him
Mason Hut, one of the six huts set up by the Australian Antarctic Expedition, is recognized as a Historic Site & Monument under the Antarctic Treaty since 1972.
From 1984 to 1996, Mawson’s image appeared on the Australian $100 note. It also appeared on a $1 coin issued within the Inspirational Australians series in 2012.