Antarctica: sacrifices in the name of Science

In the corridors of McMurdo’s Crary Lab building (a research facility for the advancement of Antarctic science) there is a permanent exhibit showcasing titbits of McMurdoan scientific history. It is a voyage that retraces the footsteps of men who came here with a strong sense of adventure. Many of the remarkable stories of Antarctica recount the sacrifices the first explorers, particularly Robert F. Scott and Douglas Mawson, made in the name of science.

Herbert Ponting (the expedition's photographer) took many intimate portraits of the men, here highlighting Cherry-Garrard’s youthful innocence.

The Worst Journey in the World, by A. Cherry-Garrard (a member of Scott’s second expedition), gives an example of the extremes these men went through to gather data. Edward Wilson, the biologist of the expedition, was convinced the embryos of emperor penguins would provide answers as to the evolution of ancient to modern birds. Due to the emperors’ reproductive calendar, the eggs had to be collected in the dead of winter at a nesting ground at Cape Crozier, some 60 miles South of Hut Point.

The three emperor penguin eggs collected by Wilson (the expedition's biologist and head of science) and his colleagues on 20 July 1911 are still in the collections of the Natural History Museum in London. They were presented to the Museum in 1913 by Cherry-Garrard.

To survive the cold the explorers spent the long winter in an ice-cave, with not much else to eat than raw seal meat. Even if relatively short, the voyage on foot and the terrible hardships endured by the team of intrepid Brits surpasses, in my opinion, many modern-day expeditions with more ambitious goals.

Wilson, Bowers and Cherry-Garrard tuck into a well-earned meal back at Cape Evans, having endured some of the worst conditions on Earth in the name of science.

During their ill-fated trip to the South Pole, Scott and his 4 men collected 35 pounds of fossils. Despite losing two of their companions and starving from cold and hunger, Scott and his party continued to man-haul the load of rocks (contrast this with Amundsen, who had no scientific agenda and dashed to the pole on ultra light sledges, pulled to and from the Pole by his team of dogs). Scott’s "rock solid data" was to be recovered along with their frozen bodies nearly a year after they perished.

(from left, standing) Oates, Scott and Evans, with (sitting) Bowers and Wilson, display the British flag at the South Pole, a little over a month after Amundsen and his three companions had claimed it for Norway. The film was found at the Last Camp and developed later.

One of these fossils was of Glossopteris indica, a Permian era (approximately 250 to 300 million year-old) beech-like tree. Glossopteris fossils had been found previously in India and Africa, so Scott’s discovery was a key piece of evidence supporting the existence of Gondwana and proved that Antarctica was once covered in temperate forests.

This rock contains a fossil of Glossopteris, a type of extinct tree-fern. The rocks that Scott and his Polar Party hauled back included fossils of Glossopteris.

On the walls of the McMurdo Station cafeteria there are posters of Yellowstone National Park. It is not hard to transpose these landscapes of tall, forested mountains and fast flowing streams to ancient Antarctica, in the days of Glossopteris. Ironically, it was the fossils not the penguin embryos that proved to be the major discovery, but Scott and his men didn't live to realize the significance of their find.

(Text by Yours Truly. Images and captions were taken from the book Scott’s Last Expedition, by Steve Parker, published in 2012 by the Natural History Museum, London for the Canterbury Museum)