The physical scientists

Studies of Antarctica’s physical phenomena, including its weather and rocks and the local behaviour of Earth’s magnetic field, formed a big part of Mawson’s scientific plans. He needed men who understood and shared his vision, but equally important, who were prepared to put in the hard, grinding effort to get there.

Cecil Madigan, whom Mawson knew as a science graduate from the University of Adelaide, was desperate to be part of Mawson’s band. But his mother had other ideas, admitting in a letter to Mawson that she had sent him to England to take up his Rhodes scholarship to Oxford ‘hoping he give up the idea of joining the Expedition’. (To which Mawson replied that judging by her letter, Madigan owed much to his mother’s qualities, and assured her that she would always be glad he decided to accompany the Expedition.) Madigan postponed his scholarship to become the AAE’s Cape Denison meteorologist.

For Macquarie Island Mawson employed George Ainsworth, who had been ‘lent’ by the Commonwealth Meteorological Bureau. Unlike the strongly intellectual Madigan, Ainsworth was a bureaucrat – a former teacher who had re-trained as a meteorologist and joined the Bureau less than two years before the expedition departed.

As his chief Antarctic magnetic observer, Mawson sought Edward Kidson of the Carnegie Institute in Washington, but long, frustrating negotiations came to naught. Less than two months before the expedition’s departure, he recruited New Zealand-born Eric Webb, 22, a well-qualified magnetician working for the Carnegie Institute on a magnetic survey of Australia. For his assistant (and also astronomer and tide recorder) Mawson chose a young Australian military officer, Robert Bage.

Two scientists in Wild’s Western Party – geologist Andrew Watson and magnetician Alexander Kennedy – were selected from the ranks of promising students. Watson was a protégé of Professor T.E. David of the University of Sydney, who recommended him to Mawson. Like Madigan, Kennedy was a science student at Adelaide University and an athlete of some renown, who Mawson had specially trained in terrestrial magnetism.

The geologist with the Macquarie Island party, Leslie Blake, was not hired until a little over a fortnight before the expedition was to sail. But his exceptional work in recording the island’s physical features was strong evidence of his suitability.

This page was last modified on August 5, 2015.