Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Bernacchi, Louis Charles (1876–1942)

by R. A. Swan

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

Louis Charles Bernacchi (1876-1942), by unknown photographer, 1899

Louis Charles Bernacchi (1876-1942), by unknown photographer, 1899

Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts, State Library of Tasmania, AUTAS001125883892

Louis Charles Bernacchi (1876-1942), scientist and Antarctic explorer, was born on 8 November 1876 in Belgium, eldest child of Angelo Giulio Diego Bernacchi and his wife Barbe, née Straetmans. Louis arrived in Tasmania with his parents in 1884 and they settled on Maria Island off the east coast. On 27 February 1886 the family was naturalized.

Bernacchi was educated privately and at The Hutchins School, Hobart (1889-91). From about 1895 he visited the Melbourne Observatory to gain experience in practical astronomy and terrestrial magnetism, and from March 1897 spent a year there training in sextant work and in the use of magnetic instruments. He was influenced by the work of the various Australian Antarctic committees, and showed his interest in both commercial and scientific aspects of Antarctic work through letters to the Tasmanian and Victorian press in 1896-97. In particular, C. E. Borchgrevink's account of his work on the whaler Antarctic during 1895 aroused Bernacchi's enthusiasm, and when Borchgrevink organized his Southern Cross expedition (1898-1900), he travelled to London to join it as physicist and astronomer; he became the first Australian to work and winter in Antarctica.

Bernacchi wrote a vivid account of the expedition, To the South Polar Regions (London, 1901). The Royal Geographical Society (London) made him a fellow in 1900 and awarded him the Peek Grant. Later he was recruited as physicist for Captain R. F. Scott's British National Antarctic Expedition (1901-04); he was regarded as a tireless and energetic observer and a 'cheerful and loyal friend' to all the party. His scientific writings and Scott's published views testify to the value of his work, and he was awarded the Royal Geographical Society and the King's Antarctic medals as well as the French Cross of the Légion d'honneur (1906). After his return he travelled in Africa and on 10 February 1906 at Preston parish church, Sussex, England, married Winifred Edith Harris; Scott was his best man. Later that year he explored the upper Amazon Basin, Peru. Scott tried to recruit him for his ill-fated second Antarctic expedition (1910-13) but family responsibilities deterred him. He then made a foray into British politics—in 1910 failing twice as a Liberal candidate—invested in rubber plantations in Malaya, Java and Borneo, and maintained a lively interest in the Antarctic.

In World War I Bernacchi was first a lieutenant-commander in the Royal Naval (Volunteer) Reserve, then worked on the Naval Staff of the Admiralty (anti-submarine division), and later with the United States Navy. In 1919 he was awarded the O.B.E. (military) and the United States Navy Cross. After the war he returned to his rubber interests in south-east Asia. He remained active in scientific organizations such as the Royal Geographical Society, of which he was a council-member in 1928-32, the British Science Guild and the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Plans in 1925 for an expedition of his own to the Antarctic were dropped because of the costs involved. In 1930 he organized the British Polar Exhibition; he published several books on Antarctic matters, including A Very Gallant Gentleman (London, 1933), a biography of Captain L. E. G. Oates; and helped to organize the Second International Polar Year (1931-32).

On the outbreak of World War II Bernacchi, with his former rank, returned to the R.N.V.R. to work on the organization of 'Q' ships. But his health was failing and on 24 April 1942 he died at his London home, survived by his wife and their two sons and two daughters.

Select Bibliography

  • Parliamentary Papers (Victoria), 1898, 3 (47)
  • Geographical Journal, 99 (1942)
  • R. A. Swan, ‘Louis Charles Bernacchi’, Victorian Historical Magazine, 33 (1962-63)
  • 'Obituary', Times (London), 25 Apr 1942, p 6.

Citation details

R. A. Swan, 'Bernacchi, Louis Charles (1876–1942)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/bernacchi-louis-charles-5219/text8645, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 22 December 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

Louis Charles Bernacchi (1876-1942), by unknown photographer, 1899

Louis Charles Bernacchi (1876-1942), by unknown photographer, 1899

Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts, State Library of Tasmania, AUTAS001125883892