Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

Sir Douglas Mawson (1882–1958)

by F. J. Jacka

This article was published:

Sir Douglas Mawson, by Frank Hurley, 1930?

Sir Douglas Mawson, by Frank Hurley, 1930?

National Library of Australia, 45769252

Sir Douglas Mawson (1882-1958), geologist and explorer, was born on 5 May 1882 at Shipley, Yorkshire, England, second son of Robert Ellis Mawson, a cloth merchant from a farming background, and his wife Margaret Ann, née Moore, from the Isle of Man. The family moved to Rooty Hill, near Sydney, in 1884. Douglas was educated at Rooty Hill and at Fort Street Model School in Sydney. At the University of Sydney in 1899-1901 he studied mining engineering and graduated B.E. in 1902 when he was appointed as a junior demonstrator in chemistry. Next year he took six months leave to make a geological survey of the New Hebrides (Vanuatu), under the auspices of Captain E. G. Rason, the British deputy commissioner there. This was Mawson's introduction to scientific exploration, carried out in rugged country with dense jungle and among hostile inhabitants. His report, 'The geology of the New Hebrides', was one of the first major works on the geology of Melanesia.

He returned to further studies in geology in 1904 (B.Sc., 1905), having already published a paper (1903) on the geology of Mittagong, New South Wales, with Thomas Griffith Taylor and one (1904) on radioactive minerals in Australia, with Thomas Laby, in addition to several on the New Hebrides.

Through the early influence of Professor Archibald Liversidge, Mawson became a pioneer in the chemical aspects of geology and geochemistry. But the dominant influence was that of Professor (Sir) Tannatt Edgeworth David, foremost among workers in the geological sciences in Australia.

In 1905 Mawson was appointed lecturer in mineralogy and petrology in the University of Adelaide. He immediately became interested in the glacial geology of South Australia. Also, continuing his interest in radioactivity, he identified and first described the mineral davidite, containing titanium and uranium, in specimens from the region now known as Radium Hill. That deposit was the first major radioactive ore body discovered in Australia.

The major work of his early South Australian period was his investigation of the highly mineralized Precambrian rocks of the Barrier Range, extending from the northern Flinders Ranges through Broken Hill, New South Wales. The country is a complex of metamorphosed, igneous and sedimentary rocks with varying degrees of mineralization. Mawson identified two groups: an older Archaean (Willyama) Series, and a newer, Proterozoic (Torrowangee) Series. This investigation led to publication of his 'Geological investigations in the Broken Hill area'; he had previously submitted the substance of this work to the University of Adelaide (D.Sc., 1909).

In November 1907 (Sir) Ernest Shackleton, leader of the British Antarctic Expedition, visited Adelaide on his way south. Mawson approached him with a view to making the round trip to Antarctica on the Nimrod. His idea was to see an existing continental ice-cap and to become acquainted with glaciation and its geological consequences. This interested him because in his South Australian studies he was 'face-to-face with a great accumulation of glacial sediments of Precambrian age, the greatest thing of the kind recorded anywhere in the world'. After consulting with David, who had agreed to join the expedition, Shackleton telegraphed: 'You are appointed Physicist for the duration of the expedition'. Mawson accepted, and so began his long association with the Antarctic.

Although he recognized that Shackleton's prime aim of reaching the South Pole was considered essential to financing the expedition, he would have liked more opportunity offered to the scientists. Nevertheless, the scientists' achievements proved to be considerable and Mawson had good opportunities for glaciological and geological investigations; he published significant accounts of his observations on the aurora and geomagnetism.

In March 1908 Mawson was one of the first party, led by David, to climb Mount Erebus. Next summer David (leader), A. F. Mackay and Mawson were the first to reach the vicinity of the South Magnetic Pole, manhauling their sledges 1260 miles (2028 km); Mawson was responsible for the magnetic observations and the excellent cartographic work. The return was difficult because of exhaustion and shortage of food. David, aged 50, suffered badly and at his request Mawson assumed leadership. The journey almost ended in disaster: having reached their main depot two days late and hearing a rocket distress signal fired from the Nimrod, Mawson, while rushing towards the ship, fell into a crevasse. Help from the ship was required for his rescue.

Shackleton's confidence in Mawson may be gauged from his instructions: should his own expedition to the South Pole not return in time, Mawson was to lead a search party. David said in public tribute: 'Mawson was the real leader who was the soul of our expedition to the Magnetic Pole. We really have in him an Australian Nansen, of infinite resource, splendid physique, astonishing indifference to frost'.

Mawson returned to Adelaide and his university post in 1909 but was still making reports on the expedition when his plans for further Antarctic work began to mature. Captain R. F. Scott was planning his second (1910-13) expedition and Mawson asked him for transport on the Terra Nova for himself and three others, to form an additional party of the expedition to be landed on the coast west of Cape Adare. Mawson expounded the potential scientific value of the proposed work but Scott was not persuaded. Instead he invited Mawson to join his South Pole sledging party. This did not interest Mawson, who was dedicated to scientific exploration. Mawson then approached Shackleton for help; he took over Mawson's plan as his own but failed to get adequate financial backing. Mawson waited until Scott had raised all the funds he could in Australia and New Zealand, and had sailed for Antarctica in 1910, before launching his own appeal for support of what was to be the Australasian Antarctic Expedition.

With substantial private and government backing and a prodigious effort on Mawson's part in planning, organizing, recruiting personnel, and acquiring equipment and supplies the A.A.E., including Cecil Madigan, sailed in December 1911. Three bases were established: one at Macquarie Island which, apart from its scientific work, was to serve as a radio relay station; Main Base under Mawson at Commonwealth Bay (Scott having landed his second party at Cape Adare); and Western Base on the Shackleton Ice Shelf under Frank Wild. At each base, and in expeditions from them, major scientific investigation was pursued in geology, cartography, meteorology, aurora, geomagnetism and biology. Also, an extensive programme of marine science was carried out from the Aurora under Captain John King Davis.

At Commonwealth Bay building was largely completed by February 1912 and the scientific programme well established before winter set in. This included preparations for the several land expeditions of the following summer. Mawson took charge of the Far Eastern expedition, which included B. E. S. Ninnis and X. Mertz, but was to become the most extraordinary epic of lone survival. When 310 miles (499 km) out, Ninnis, with sledge and dog team, broke through the lid of a large crevasse and disappeared. With seriously depleted provisions Mawson and Mertz began their return, progressively using their dogs to supplement their food supply. It was not known then that the dogs' livers were very rich in Vitamin A and potentially toxic. After twenty-five days on the return journey, and the combined effects of hard physical exertion and starvation, this toxicity may have hastened Mertz's death. Mawson, himself seriously debilitated, discarded everything that was not essential for survival, except his geological specimens and records of the journey. Using a pocket saw, he cut his sledge in half and dragged it unaided the last 100 miles (161 km), taking another thirty days to reach Main Base. As he approached he saw the Aurora on the horizon; she had come and gone. A small party had waited to search for him; they remained for another year. The scientific work at Main Base and Macquarie Island continued through 1913.

While recuperating, Mawson began writing his account of the expedition. The Home of the Blizzard (London, 1915), profusely illustrated by the magnificent photographs of Frank Hurley, is a classic of polar literature and described the first major scientific exploring venture by Australians beyond their shores.

Mawson was helped by other eminent scientists to analyse and report on the data collected; but so great was the task that publication of the A.A.E. Scientific Reports, in twenty-two volumes edited by him, was not completed until 1947. A.A.E. land parties had explored some 4000 miles (6437 km) in Adelie Land, King George V Land and Queen Mary Land. They outlined the geology of the country traversed and described the nature of the land and the coast between longitudes 90 degrees E and 155 degrees E and at Macquarie Island. They identified the characteristic feature of the Antarctic continental shelf: the bottom at first deepens on passing out from the shore, then shoals again before plunging to deep water beyond the edge of the shelf. New biological species, on land and at sea, were described. They recorded meteorological data simultaneously at the three bases; they maintained continuous geomagnetic field records at Commonwealth Bay for eighteen months and made further field observations to define more precisely the location of the Magnetic Pole; they systematically observed the aurora australis. The first to use radio in the Antarctic, they transmitted meteorological data to the weather bureau in Melbourne every day for two years from Macquarie Island and, during part of that time, from Commonwealth Bay also. The use of radio facilitated the accurate determination of longitude at Commonwealth Bay. It also enabled the transmission to Australia of Mawson's account of his tragic Far Eastern journey.

J. Gordon Hayes's assessment in 1928 has stood the test of time:

Sir Douglas Mawson's Expedition, judged by the magnitude both of its scale and of its achievements, was the greatest and most consummate expedition that ever sailed for Antarctica. The expeditions of Scott and Shackleton were great, and Amundsen's venture was the finest Polar reconnaissance ever made; but each of these must yield the premier position, when fairly compared with Mawson's magnificently conceived and executed scheme of exploration … Its excellence lay in its design, its scope and its executive success; and [in its origin and conduct] by scientists of administrative ability … Mawson's was the first British [sic] Expedition which had clearly passed beyond the novitiate stage in Antarctic exploration, previously so painfully evident.

But in discussing the loss of Ninnis and consequent death of Mertz, Hayes is critical that they did not use skis. In fact Mertz was scouting ahead on skis; for Mawson and Ninnis, who were manoeuvring heavy sledges, this would have been difficult much of the time. In the event they made an error of judgement.

Mawson was knighted in 1914. In 1915 he applied to serve in a scientific capacity in World War I, and in May 1916 he was attached to the British Ministry of Munitions. He became embarkation officer for shipments of high explosives and poison gas from Britain to Russia. Later, working for the Russian Military Commission, he investigated and reported on production in Britain in order to increase output of high explosives in Russia itself. After the revolution he was transferred to the British staff of the Commission Internationale de Ravitaillement, concerned with the maintenance of supplies of high explosives, chemicals, poison gas and petroleum oil products; he held the military rank of major. In 1920 he was appointed O.B.E. After the war, until 1923, he was a committee-member of the Australian War Museum (Australian War Memorial).

Mawson returned to the University of Adelaide in 1919 and was appointed professor of geology and mineralogy in 1921. He successfully developed an effective teaching and research department, insisting on student involvement in geological field-work. His own research covered a wide scope and continued vigorously until his retirement. He made major contributions to the knowledge of Australian geology. His main interest during the next thirty years was the 'Adelaide System' of Precambrian rocks, especially in the Flinders Ranges. He concentrated on Proterozoic stratigraphy and Precambrian glaciation, showing that glacial beds extended for 930 miles (1497 km) and that glacial conditions existed intermittently over much of Proterozoic time. His interests also included the geochemistry of igneous and metamorphic rocks, the geological significance of algae, the origin of carbonaceous sediments and the identification of the rarer minerals. His stature enabled him to draw widely on the assistance of specialists around the world in describing rocks and fossils collected in Australia and Antarctica.

Mawson's extensive field-work was carried out on foot, by horse-and-cart, camel, and with motor vehicles. He was usually accompanied by students, who learned not only about geology but also about camping and survival in the bush, an activity which Mawson always enjoyed.

As a result of his initiatives, the support of the Australian National Research Council, and the backing of the Australian government which resulted from a decision of the Imperial Conference of 1926, Mawson was invited to organize and lead the British, Australian and New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition of 1929-30 and 1930-31. This expedition used the ship Discovery and did not establish land bases. They made extensive geological and biological investigations at Iles Crozet, Iles Kerguelen, Heard Island and at many points along the 1550 miles (2494 km) of coastline of Antarctica between 43 degrees E and 179 degrees E longitude. They were greatly assisted by the use of a small aircraft. Much of the coast was mapped for the first time and it was shown to be continuous from the Ross Sea to Enderby Land and beyond. This work provided accurate geographic data that supported the Australian Antarctic Territory Acceptance Act of 1933. The Act came into force in 1936 and, by arrangement with the British government, established the Australian Antarctic Territory.

But the main occupation of the expedition was marine science, which included extensive oceanographic work and marine biological sampling. Over the next fifty years detailed examination of the various species collected was carried out by specialists all over the world and their results described in the thirteen volumes of the B.A.N.Z.A.R.E. Scientific Reports. (Sir) Archibald Grenfell Price gives a cautious evaluation:

Although future generations may continue to afford a high place to the gallant men of several nations who reached the South Pole, or who died in the attempt or achievement, they will, I think, pay increasing honour to the man who, of all southern explorers, gave the world the greatest contributions in south polar science and his own people the greatest territorial possessions in the Antarctic.

Mawson's interest in Antarctica continued after World War II when he promoted the Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions; he was a member of the Australian Antarctic Executive Planning Committee until he died.

Apart from geology and Antarctica, Mawson cultivated a broad range of interests including conservation, farming and forestry. He was a persistent advocate of decimal measures, a supporter of strict regulation of the whaling industry, and was influential in having Macquarie Island declared a sanctuary. Mawson owned and worked a small farm, which he named Harewood, at Meadows, south of Adelaide, and he was a founder and, for over thirty years, a director of S.A. Hardwoods Pty Ltd.

He retired at 70. That year the university published a volume of contributions to geology titled Sir Douglas Mawson Anniversary Volume and named the new geology building after him. The Mawson Institute for Antarctic Research was established within the University of Adelaide in 1959. Its library incorporates Mawson's collection of polar literature, his Antarctic diaries, a substantial collection of papers, correspondence, photographic records and objects of historical importance. In 1983 the Douglas Mawson chair of geology was created.

Numerous biological species and geographical places have been named in his honour, among them Mawson Coast and Mawson, the first permanent Australian station, established in 1954, in Antarctica. His image has appeared on several Australian postage stamps and on the $100 note.

He was a fellow of the Royal Society from 1923, a foundation fellow of the Australian Academy of Science, and president of the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science in 1935-37. Numerous honours and awards included: two Italian decorations, the Royal Geographical Society's Antarctic (1908) and Founders' (1915) medals, Polar medals, gold medals of the geographical societies of America, Chicago, Paris and Berlin, the von Mueller medal of A.N.Z.A.A.S., and the Verco and Clarke medals of the Royal societies of South Australia and New South Wales. In 1979 the Australian Academy of Science established the Mawson lecture. As part of the celebrations of the centenary of Mawson's birth in 1982, the Fourth International Symposium on Antarctic Earth Science was held at the University of Adelaide and the proceedings were dedicated to his memory.

The A.A.E. and B.A.N.Z.A.R.E. were important events in Australian history, and Mawson was one of the most outstanding explorers of this century. But he was first and foremost a scientist, dedicated to the advancement of his subject and the encouragement of his students. He did not propound new, fundamental theories but he extended and developed geological thinking and knowledge over a wide range of topics and locations, and through his leadership created opportunities for the realization of major developments in many disciplines. His lectures about Antarctica were widely acclaimed around the world. As a lecturer to undergraduates his reputation varies, but his inspiration is universally acclaimed. His infectious enthusiasm and friendliness were appreciated by students and colleagues. He was physically impressive, tall and strong but, more significantly, he was courageous, kind and noble. He ranks high among our national heroes.

Mawson had married, on 31 March 1914 at Holy Trinity Church, Balaclava, Melbourne, Francisca Adriana (Paquita) Delprat (1891-1974), daughter of Guillaume Delprat; they had two daughters. Lady Mawson was tall and stately and they made a striking couple in the social life of Adelaide and of the university. She wrote biographies of her father (1958) and of her husband (1964).

Mawson died at his Brighton home on 14 October 1958 following cerebral haemorrhage. He was accorded a Commonwealth state funeral and was buried at St Jude's Anglican Church, Brighton. A memorial service, arranged by the university, was held at St Peter's Cathedral, Adelaide.

Portraits of Mawson by W. Seppelt (1922), H. J. Haley (1933), Jack Carington Smith (1955) and Ivor Hele (1956) are held in the University of Adelaide; and by Ivor Hele (1959) in the Royal Geographic Society, London. Bronze busts by John Dowie (1982) are in North Terrace, Adelaide, and at Mawson, Antarctica, and by Jean Perrier (1980) in Canterbury Museum, New Zealand.

Select Bibliography

  • J. G. Hayes, Antarctica (Lond, 1928)
  • A. G. Price, The Winning of Australian Antarctica (Syd, 1962)
  • P. Mawson, Mawson of the Antarctic (Lond, 1964)
  • Royal Society of South Australia, Transactions, 82 (1959) for list of Mawson's publications
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 31 Mar 1909.

Citation details

F. J. Jacka, 'Mawson, Sir Douglas (1882–1958)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 15 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (Melbourne University Press), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Sir Douglas Mawson, by Frank Hurley, 1930?

Sir Douglas Mawson, by Frank Hurley, 1930?

National Library of Australia, 45769252

More images

pic pic pic

Life Summary [details]


5 May, 1882
Shipley, Yorkshire, England


14 October, 1958 (aged 76)
Brighton, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

Key Events