Wanted: brainy, enterprising, fit young men with moral qualities

Mawson took the selection of his people very seriously. ‘In no department can a leader spend time more profitably than in the selection of the men who are to accomplish the work,’ he wrote in Home of the Blizzard. ‘Even when the expedition has a scientific basis, academic distinction becomes secondary in the choice of men … The first consideration … should be the moral quality. Next should come mental and physical powers.’

He looked especially for ‘tempered youth’, the better to endure the cold. But youth and physical fitness alone were not enough: ‘mental ability, acquaintance with the work and sound moral quality’ were also essential to keep working productively and stay together, through the isolation and gloom of an Antarctic winter.

Mawson sought young enthusiastic men who were practical as well as scholarly. Like Shackleton, he was attracted to signs of initiative. Some members, such as McLean, nominated themselves after learning of the expedition by writing direct to Mawson. Frank Hurley’s novel — and successful — approach was to bribe a train conductor to be allowed to share a compartment with Mawson en route from Adelaide to Sydney.

The expedition was dominated by single men (only two of the shore parties were married) in their early to mid-twenties. Mawson was yet to celebrate his 30th birthday when the expedition set out. His deputy, Frank Wild, was only 28, and John King Davis, master of Aurora, 27. Only two members of the expedition were in their forties — Harrisson and Close. Archibald McLean, aged all of 26 in 1911, was given the nickname ‘Dad’.

The AAE may well have been the youngest Antarctic expedition ever. With most of its members being Australians or New Zealanders, its youthfulness made it a perfect symbol for these two young Dominions.

Scientists and technicians predominated. Of the 37 staff, 20 were science graduates, with engineering, geology, medicine, and biology training. Others were trained as collectors or wireless operators. Wild, a member of Shackleton’s ‘Farthest South’ journey, was the only Antarctic veteran apart from Mawson and Davis, and one of a handful of people, including Murphy and Mertz, selected for experience of cold places.