Douglas Mawson

Douglas Mawson was born in Shipley, West Yorkshire on 5 May 1882. At the age of two his family immigrated to Australia and he lived in Sydney, graduating with a degree in engineering in 1902 and going on to study geology under Edgeworth David. In 1903 he was appointed as geologist to an expedition to the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu, a South Pacific Island) and published one of the first major geological works on the region, before becoming a lecturer in petrology and mineralogy in 1905 at the University of Adelaide. In 1907 Mawson joined Shackleton’s British Antarctic Expedition, and was one of the team to first climb Mount Erebus and reach the Magnetic South Pole.

Australasian Antarctic Expedition

Mawson returned to Adelaide and his university post in 1909 and began planning his own expedition to Antarctica to chart the Antarctic coastline directly south of Australia, turning down a place on Scott’s British Antarctic Expedition to the South Pole. The Australasian Antarctic Expedition established three bases in Antarctica; one on Macquarie Island, one at Cape Denison and one on the Shackleton Ice Shelf at Queen Mary Land, with the aim of carrying out survey and exploratory work as well as extensive scientific research. Surviving ferocious weather conditions and a sledging trip from which Mawson was the only survivor, this expedition collected so much scientific data that the twenty-two volumes of reports were not completed until 1947. 

Extensive Research

The land parties had explored almost four thousand miles of land, outlined the geology of the country, identified the characteristic features of the continental ice shelf, discovered new biological species on land and at sea, recorded meteorological data simultaneously at three bases, and made field observations to define more precisely the location of the South Magnetic Pole. As well as being the first to use radio in Antarctica, this expedition also discovered the first meteorite in Antarctica.


On his return, Mawson was knighted as well as being awarded the Founder’s Gold Medal by the Royal Geographical Society and the David Livingstone Centenary Medal by the American Geographical Society. In March 1914, Mawson married Francisca Adriana Delprat, going on to have two daughters with her. During the First World War Mawson served as a major in the British Ministry of Munitions before returning to the University of Adelaide in 1919, becoming a professor of geology and mineralogy in 1921. His geological research would continue until his retirement in 1952.

British, Australian and New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition

In 1929 Mawson returned to Antarctica, leading the British, Australian and New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition over the course of two Austral summers. Carrying out extensive geological and biological investigations of the Antarctic coastline from the Ross Sea to Enderby Land by ship and plane, part of the expedition’s aims were to solidify British territorial claims to the region before control of the area was passed to Australia in 1936. Extensive oceanographic and marine biology work was also carried out.

Australian Antarctic Executive Planning Committee

Mawson’s interest in Antarctica continued throughout his life, and after the Second World War he promoted the Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions and was a member of the Australian Antarctic Executive Planning Committee until he died in 1958. Mawson was given a Commonwealth state funeral, and a memorial service was held at St Peter’s Cathedral in Adelaide.


Go back to our Antarctic history timeline here to learn more about Antarctica and its rich human history.

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