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Frank Debenham (1883–1965)

by G. P. Walsh

This article was published:

Frank Debenham (1883-1965), Antarctic scientist and geographer, was born on 26 December 1883 at Bowral, New South Wales, younger of twins and third child of English-born parents Rev. John Willmott Debenham (d.1898), an Anglican clergyman, and his wife Edith, née Cleveland. Frank had a happy childhood and youth, camping in the bush and attending the little school run by his father. Sent to The King's School, Parramatta (1900-02), he was dux and excelled at Rugby football and cricket. After reading English and philosophy at the University of Sydney (B.A., 1906), he joined the staff of The Armidale School; there he taught himself some science and introduced compulsory classes in that subject. Back at university in 1908, Debenham studied geology under (Sir) Edgeworth David and became Deas Thomson scholar in geology.

In 1910 he and T. G. Taylor joined Captain Robert Falcon Scott's Antarctic expedition as geologists. Debenham's first scientific work was done on the western side of McMurdo Sound. A knee injury, from playing football in the snow, prevented his going on the ill-fated Polar journey, but he investigated the geology of the Granite Harbour region in the summer of 1911-12. Impressed with his expertise in large-scale, plane-table mapping, Scott wrote that he was 'a well-trained, sturdy worker, with a quiet meaning that carries conviction; [he] realises the conceptions of thoroughness and conscientiousness'.

In 1913 Debenham entered the University of Cambridge (B.A., 1919; M.A., 1922) to work up his field-notes. Next year he visited Australia with the British Association. On the outbreak of World War I, he returned to England and was commissioned lieutenant on 27 October 1914. Posted to the 7th Battalion, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, he served in France and at Salonika, Greece, where he was severely wounded and shell-shocked in August 1916. At St Philip's parish church, Kensington, London, on 27 January 1917 he married Dorothy Lucy Lempriere of Melbourne. Remaining in England, he was demobilized as a major and appointed O.B.E. in 1919.

Lecturer in cartography and surveying (from 1919) at Cambridge, in 1920 Debenham was elected a fellow (tutor 1923-28) of Gonville and Caius College. In 1921, with (Sir) Raymond Priestley and others, he produced two reports on the geology of Antarctica; in 1923 he published his Report on the Maps and Surveys of the Terra Nova expedition (1910-13). Debenham was appointed founder-director of the Scott Polar Research Institute at Cambridge in 1925. Reader in geography (from 1928), in 1931 he accepted the first chair of geography at the university. That year he began the Polar Record and was its founding editor.

Modest, approachable and friendly, Deb was essentially a practical man. He took a keen personal interest in the design and equipment of his new premises, and rejuvenated the teaching of his subject by emphasizing field-work, vacation camps and laboratory sessions. During World War II he trained service cadets, lectured to Royal Air Force navigators and devised relief-model techniques for briefing commandos. A much-loved, highly successful departmental head, he had, according to Lord McNair, 'a very warm heart under the control of a sound judgement'. Debenham wrote easily and well. In addition to numerous papers, he published The Polar Regions (1930) and Map Making (1936), and edited The Voyage of Captain Bellingshausen to the Antarctic Seas, 1819-1821, for the Hakluyt Society in 1945.

Debenham retired from the Polar Institute in 1946 and from his chair in 1949. He travelled extensively in Africa, and published on such subjects as the water resources of arid regions, the construction of small earthen dams, the ecology of the Kalahari, and on David Livingstone. Among his later publications were The Use of Geography (1950), Seven Centuries of Debenhams (Glasgow, 1957) and Antarctica: the Story of a Continent (1959).

A fellow (1914) and vice-president (1951-53) of the Royal Geographical Society of London, Debenham received its Murchison grant (1926) and Victoria medal (1948), as well as the American Geographical Society's David Livingstone centenary medal (1948); in 1952 he was president of the Geographical Association. He was awarded honorary doctorates of science by the universities of Western Australia (1937), Durham, England (1952), and Sydney (1959). In his last years Debenham suffered from heart disease and deafness, but continued to write and, with the assistance of Mrs Deb, to offer hospitality to former students and Polar travellers. Survived by his wife, a son and four daughters, he died on 23 November 1965 at Cambridge. His elder son had been killed in World War II. Debenham is commemorated by two buildings at Cambridge and by a mountain and a glacier in Antarctica. His portrait by H. A. Freeth is held by the Scott Polar Research Institute.

Select Bibliography

  • R. F. Scott, Scott's Last Expedition (Lond, 1923)
  • G. Taylor, Journeyman Taylor (Lond 1958)
  • G. E. Hall and A. Cousins (eds), Book of Remembrance of the University of Sydney in the War 1914-1918 (Syd, 1939)
  • Dictionary of National Biography, 1961-70
  • Geographical Journal, 132, 1966, p 173
  • Geographical Review, 56, 1966, p 596
  • Geography, 51-52, 1966-67, p 150
  • Institute of British Geographers, Transactions, no 40, Dec 1966, p 195
  • Journal of Glaciology, 6, no 45, 1966, p 455
  • Polar Record, 13, no 83, 1966, p 215
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 14 Apr 1959
  • Times (London), 25 Nov 1965
  • The King's School, Parramatta, Sydney, Archives.

Citation details

G. P. Walsh, 'Debenham, Frank (1883–1965)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 21 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (Melbourne University Press), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


26 December, 1883
Bowral, New South Wales, Australia


23 November, 1965 (aged 81)
Cambridge, Cambridgeshire, England

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