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Readers note: This is an excerpt from the Trailblazers: Australia’s 50 Greatest Explorers exhibition, developed in 2015. This content was written as a brief biography on why this person was included in the exhibition.

One of Australia’s greatest Antarctic explorers, Douglas Mawson was responsible for one of the most extreme survival stories of all time. A scientist before all else, he sought information and knowledge rather than fame, fortune or ‘firsts’.

Born in England on 5 May 1882, Mawson migrated to Australia at the age of two. An outstanding student, he began studying geology and engineering at the University of Sydney when just 16 years old. While undertaking his doctorate, Mawson was asked to join Sir Ernest Shackleton’s 1907–09 British expedition to Antarctica. During this sometimes arduous expedition, Mawson led the first party to reach the South Magnetic Pole, and despite frostbite, hunger and exhaustion summited the 3794-metre Mount Erebus, the second-highest volcanic peak in Antarctica.

Douglas Mawson in the Antarctic

Australasian Antarctic Expedition 1911-1914.

Image: Frank Hurley
© State Library of NSW

He returned to the great white continent in 1911 as leader of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition. Over almost three years, this expedition charted the Antarctic coastline, explored sub-Antarctic treasures such as Macquarie Island, and travelled more than 500 kilometres inland, collecting geological and scientific data.

During one of these inland journeys in 1912, Mawson’s two companions died, leaving him alone, seriously malnourished and with severely damaged feet, more than 320 kilometres from base. Despite falling into a crevasse and having to haul himself out, Mawson eventually staggered back to base 30 days later, only to discover that his ship had left for home just hours before. It meant another winter in Antarctica.

When Mawson finally returned to civilisation, he was knighted and received both the Polar Medal and the Founder’s Medal of the Royal Geographical Society.

Mawson lectured for many years at the University of Adelaide, and led two more summer expeditions to Antarctica, in 1929 and 1931. Funded by Australia, New Zealand and Great Britain, these expeditions focused on marine studies to depths of 4700 metres, but also collected geological, magnetic, zoological and botanical information.

Mawson’s name is enshrined in the Australian Antarctic Station named after him, and in the heritage-listed hut that he stayed in between 1911 and 1914 at Cape Denison, one of the windiest places on Earth. A replica of this hut has been built in Hobart.

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