Scientific collections and data: Science and the AAE

In 1911, before Dr Douglas Mawson addressed an audience of potential supporters, he listed the reasons for organising the Australasian Antarctic Expedition. It included the usual reasons for support of an Antarctic expedition; territory, economy, national pride and science, and the unusual: the potential for tourism and for sanatoria. Mawson shifted the points around, adjusting their priority in the talk, but always left science at the top of the list, writing:

The expedition is an Australasian scientific effort, it will advance and stimulate science throughout Australia.

Science’s utilitarian potential is often used to attract support for Antarctic work and Mawson’s list included many examples; meteorology, he wrote would be ‘of value in weather predictions in Australia’, adding that ‘oceanographic and magnetic surveys will be of direct, practical benefit to shipping in Australian waters’. One significant and ultimately successful object of the expedition was the use of wireless operations from Antarctica to land and shipping to the north. Mawson had earlier secured the support of the Australian Association for the Advancement of Science and he listed this as evidence of widespread support for his expedition.

Mawson deliberately chose a team of experienced men and younger university graduates. Of the 37 staff, 20 were science graduates, representing general science, and more specifically engineering, geology, medicine, and biology. Others were trained as collectors or as wireless operators. Two, Mawson and Frank Wild had Antarctic experience and others such as Murphy and Mertz, had Arctic or extensive snow and ice experience.

A range of scientific equipment was purchased or borrowed and additional advice concerning the program of scientific work was provided by Professor TW Edgeworth David (Geology) Professor WA Haswell (Biology) and HA Hunt (Meteorology).

Magnetician Eric Webb who was to take part in the successful Southern party trip to the South Magnetic Pole region in 1912–13, was excited by the new opportunities. Fifty years later, he ironically recalled the working conditions:

… it was a different world. There were — no radio, no mechanical transport, no aircraft, no radar, no flashlights, no plastics, no electric light, no oil heating, no vitamins, no sound film, no computers, no magnetic tape or equivalent, no electronics, no television, no seismic nor echo sounding, little concentrated food, no modern compact type cameras, only primitive colour photography, no prefabricated buildings, no modern conveniences, and many instruments regarded today as obsolete and archaic. Faced with such a vacuum, the average science student today would not know where or how to begin.

The men studied many aspects of the south, including the life of the sea and the shape of the sea floor. As the expedition vessel, the Aurora, made its way across the Southern Ocean on several voyages, it stopped frequently to take sea temperatures and to take samples of the sea life. On December 28, 1913, for example, it stopped off the ice cliffs of Commonwealth Bay, made trawls and found creatures that later turned out to be new species.

They established a base and wireless station on Macquarie Island and two bases on the continent, one at Cape Denison, the other at Western Base on the Shackleton Ice Shelf. As soon as possible after landings at these places, the men settled into the routines of observation and taking regular readings from equipment set up near the huts. Checking these became a chore, particularly in extreme weather, but in another sense the practice became a comforting routine. Some practices were not so comforting. In January 1913, Morton Moyes of the Western Base wrote of his experiences skinning a penguin in the confines of a hut:

A mile further on I came across a penguin, which I slew hip and thigh … [later in hut] I go on with the Penguin when at the Hut & the place looks like the Government Abattoirs at present. The skin may be all right …

A full account of the scientific work is not possible here, but one example of the work, that of assessments of the Aurora Australis, is illuminating.

Throughout the expedition, records of the Aurora and its intensity were made. It was widely known that Auroral manifestations interrupted radio signals, and the studies were to examine atmospherics and the strength of signals in connection with the wireless communication from Macquarie Island to Australia, New Zealand and Antarctica, and magnetic storms as measured by the Eschenhagen Magnetograph. Like a lot of the scientific work of the expedition, it also had its benefits and the beauties of the Aurora were not lost on the men as the following quote from Archibald MacLean indicates:

8 June 1912 — At 11pm there was the first auroral display we had yet seen. Great curtains hung suspended from the sky, extending from the east to the west and travelling upwards to the zenith. With an indescribable rippling motion the curtain rays moved, and several times there was a rosy and green colouring to the nebulous pallour. A great arc of vibrant light curved across at the base of the curtains. The wind howled by with drifting clouds of snow, as two of us sat on the roof and watched the luminous curtains.

The results of the expedition’s Auroral work were eventually published in 1925 and 1929, in two large reports. (Series B Vol II) as part of the reports on Terrestrial Magnetism and related observations. These reports, which included some marvellous charcoal and watercolour sketches of auroral features, are a good example of the gradual combination of information concerning the auroral manifestations of the south. Mawson, who prepared the first volume, Aurora Polaris, wrote:

An added interest is given to these results on account of the geographic position of the stations. The Main Antarctic Base was in an entirely new sphere. Also it was on the opposite side of the Magnetic Pole to the McMurdo Sound region, where the bulk of previous Antarctic records of the kind had been secured. Finally, it was very suitably spaced in relation to a Western Base (Queen Mary Land) and a Sub-Antarctic Base (Macquarie Island); also to Captain Scott’s bases at Cape Adare and Cape Evans, which were contemporaneously occupied for a portion of the time.

Another example of this analysis is meteorology. In 1947 New Zealand meteorologist Edward Kidson published the results of his work as Meteorology, Daily Weather Charts extending from Australia and New Zealand to the Antarctic continent. (Series B Vol VII). Three hundred and 65 charts show the results of observations from Mawson’s expedition, Scott’s expedition and from weather stations in Australia and New Zealand. For perhaps the first time, the influence of Antarctic weather on that of its northern neighbours was mapped and published.

Mawson and the final party returned to Adelaide in February 1914. There followed a long and tedious process of analysing the work of the expedition and publishing the results. In one case, Birds, (Series B volume 2) finally completed by R Falla in 1937, the AAE results were combined with those of another, much later expedition, the British Australian and New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition of 1929–1931.

The reasons for this delay are many, money being the most significant, but Mawson was also beset by slow responses to requests for final work and by organisational difficulties. Finally, Mawson signed an agreement with the New South Wales Government, which ensured that the papers were published by the NSW Government Printer. In return Mawson gave the ‘assets of the expedition’ including negatives, maps, organisational papers and Copyright, to the New South Wales Government.

Many of these are now permanently housed in the State Library of New South Wales, where they are preserved. The science of the expedition was great and influential. The planned and careful collection of information bore fruit in over 90 published Reports. The work is still valuable. For example, the details of tide gauge measurements, available at the State Library of New South Wales have been added to a worldwide database of historic tide measurements. Notes of whale and other mammal sightings published in the Reports are useful for long term understanding of Southern Ocean life. And measurements of the temperatures and humidity in Mawson’s Hut 1911–1914, are now used in studies relating to the long-term conservation of this historic site.

In 1964 Eric Webb wrote about the struggle and boredom of dragging sledges across the ice. But there were motivations:

Where and when man has enough spiritual inspiration, he can indeed move mountains and does survive and surmount incredible conditions. Admittedly we were keyed to face the unknown, the unique, in the spirit and by the rules of adventure; but our only aid in the inspiration category was scientific search.

It’s an interesting point to make and one that surely sustained many of the men while pursuing their work. With a conscious and deliberate plan of scientific work and the perseverance of men like Webb, the Australasian Antarctic Expedition was well served by its scientists.

— Stephen Martin

[Stephen is an occasional visitor to Antarctica, is the writer of A history of Antarctica and the curator of several exhibitions about the southern continent, including Lines on the Ice: Australasian Antarctic Expedition, 1911–14.]

Slightly edited version from The Sceptic Vol 22, No 3 Spring 2002, Roseville, NSW. Pp 42–44.

Terrestrial magnetism

  1. Field Work.
    1. Dip determinations were made at Macquarie Island, on the eastern and southern journeys from the Main Base (Adélie Land) and on a short journey from the Western Base (Queen Mary Land).
    2. Declination by theodolite observations was determined at Macquarie Island and at intervals on all sledging journeys in the Antarctic.
    3. Rough observations of magnetic variation were made daily on the ‘Aurora’ during her five cruises.
  2. Station Work.
    1. Regular magnetograph records were kept at the Main Base (Adélie Land) for a period of 18 months. A system of term days for quick runs was also followed; Melbourne, Christchurch, and other stations co-operating. In connexion with the magnetograph work, Webb conducted regular, absolute observations throughout the year 1912. Bage continued the magnetograph records for a further six months in 1913, observed term days, and took absolute observations.
    2. At the Western Base (Queen Mary Land) Kennedy kept term days in the winter, using a magnetometer and dip-circle.

— Douglas Mawson, Home of the Blizzard (1915)


  1. Station Collections.
    1. At Macquarie Island, Hamilton worked for two years amongst a rich fauna and a scanty but interesting flora. Amongst other discoveries a finch indigenous to Macquarie Island was found.
    2. In Adelie Land, Hunter, assisted by Laseron, secured a large biological collection, notwithstanding the continuous bad weather. Dredgings from depths down to fifty fathoms were made during the winter. The eggs of practically all the flying birds known along Antarctic shores were obtained, including those of the silver-grey petrel and the Antarctic petrel, which were not previously known; also a variety of prion, of an unrecorded species, together with its eggs.
    3. At the Western Base (Queen Mary Land) eggs of the Antarctic and other petrels were found, and a large rookery of Emperor penguins was located; the second on record. Harrisson, working under difficulties, succeeded in trapping some interesting fish on the bottom in two hundred and fifty fathoms of water.
  2. Ship Collections.
    1. A collection made by Mr. ER Waite, Curator of the Canterbury Museum, on the first Sub-Antarctic cruise.
    2. A collection made by Professor TT Flynn, of Hobart, on the second Sub-Antarctic cruise.
    3. A collection made by Hunter, assisted by Hamilton, in Antarctic waters during the summer of 1913–1914. This comprised deep-sea dredgings at 11 stations in depths down to one thousand eight hundred fathoms and regular tow-nettings, frequently serial, to depths of two hundred fathoms. Six specimens of the rare Ross seal were secured. A large collection of external and internal parasites was made from birds, seals and fish.

— Douglas Mawson, Home of the Blizzard (1915)


  1. Observations of the pack-ice, coastal glaciers and shelf-ice from the ‘Aurora’ during her three Antarctic cruises.
  2. Observations of the niveous and glacial features met with on the sledging journeys from both Antarctic bases.

— Douglas Mawson, Home of the Blizzard (1915)


  1. Two years’ observations at Macquarie Island by Ainsworth
  2. Two years’ observations in Adélie Land by Madigan.
  3. One year’s observations in Queen Mary Land by Moyes.
  4. Observations by the Ship on each of her five voyages.
  5. Observations during the many sledging journeys from both Antarctic Bases.

— Douglas Mawson, Home of the Blizzard (1915)

Medical and bacteriological

In Adelie Land, McLean carried out many months of steady work in Bacteriology, Haematology and Physiology.

— Douglas Mawson, Home of the Blizzard (1915)


Self-recording instruments were run at Macquarie Island by Ainsworth and at Adélie Land by Bage.

— Douglas Mawson, Home of the Blizzard (1915)

Wireless and auroral

A very close watch was kept upon auroral phenomena with interesting results, especially in their relation to the ‘permeability’ of the ether to wireless waves.

— Douglas Mawson, Home of the Blizzard (1915)


  1. By soundings the fringe of the Antarctic Continent as well as the Continental Shelf has been indicated through 55 degrees of longitude.
  2. The configuration of the floor of the ocean southward of Australia and between Macquarie Island and the Auckland Islands has been broadly ascertained.
  3. Much has been done in the matter of sea-water temperatures and salinities.

— Douglas Mawson, Home of the Blizzard (1915)

Geography and cartography

  1. The successful navigation by the ‘Aurora’ of the Antarctic pack-ice in a fresh sphere of action, where the conditions were practically unknown, resulting in the discovery of new lands and islands.
  2. Journeys were made over the sea-ice and on the coastal and upland plateau in regions hitherto unsurveyed. At the Main Base (Adélie Land) the journeys aggregated two thousand four hundred miles, and at the Western Base (Queen Mary Land) the aggregate was eight hundred miles. These figures do not include depot journeys, the journeys of supporting parties, or the many miles of relay work. The land was mapped in through 33 degrees of longitude, 27 degrees of which were covered by sledging parties.
  3. The employment of wireless telegraphy in the fixation of a fundamental meridian in Adélie Land.
  4. The mapping of Macquarie Island.

    — Douglas Mawson, Home of the Blizzard (1915)