At the tail end of December in 1959 Mary Gillham and 3 other female scientists became the first females to join a research trip in the Antarctic. The likelihood of females joining future research trips would depend on the success of these ground-breaking women. We’re retelling Mary’s tale and talking more about Macquarie Island where this was all to take place…

von Bellingshausen

Approximately a decade after its “accidental” discovery by Hasselburgh, Macquarie Island was visited by a Russian expedition exploring the region in the name of Tsar Nicholas I and under the command of Thaddeus Thaddevitch / Fabien Gottlieb Thaddeus (Sources differ as to his forenames) von Bellingshausen. (See portrait, right.)

The Russian expedition sailed from Sydney on 11 November 1820 in two ships “Vostok” and “Mirnyi” (respectively “East” and “Peaceful”) and arrived at Macquarie Island on 28th of that month. Once there, von Bellingshausen’s men traded with the sealers living and working on the island, collected specimens of Macquarie’s flora and fauna and, quite literally, put the island on the map both determining its geographical position and mapping its coastline.

In 1822, just two years after von Bellingshausen’s expedition, Capt.Douglass of the ship “Mariner” failed to be impressed by his first sight of Macquarie deeming it: “the most wretched place of involuntary and slavish exilium that can possibly be conceived; nothing could warrant any civilised creature living on such a spot“.

Seemingly echoing this view (and despite the severe treatment meted out to convicts at this time in Australia’s history), the “authorities” concerned, having considered using Macquarie Island as a “prison colony”, turned down the idea thinking the place too hostile even for prisoners with a 1926 item in the Hobart Town Gazette reporting, “… the remote and stormy region in which Macquarie Island is placed is a strong reason against the adoption of that place as a penal settlement”.

For three and a half years beginning in 1896, Joseph Burton collected natural specimens from Macquarie while working with parties of oilers there.

Shackleton and Scott

In 1901 and 1909 respectively, scientists working with Captain Robert Scott‘s and Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Antarctic expeditions, also collected specimens on Macquarie though it is not clear if either of these renowned explorers set foot on the island.


An aside here: Evidence would seem to indicate that these two polar explorers who remain well known to us today, having been on an expedition together in the early years of the 20th Century did not like each other and would not work together after that time.

Royal penguin collected from Macquarie Island by Shackleton showcased at the Explore Your Archive event at National Museum Cardiff.

sir_douglas_mawson_circa_1916Sir Douglas Mawson (1882–1958) was born in Shipley, Yorkshire but lived in Australia from two years old when his parents emigrated to that country. As a sixteen year old, he gained entrance to Sydney University where he studied engineering and geology and (while studying for his doctorate) his first Antarctic experience came through his membership of Shackleton’s 1907-09 Nimrod expedition. Originally intending to stay only for the duration of the ship’s presence in the first summer both he and his mentor, Edgeworth David, stayed an extra year. In doing so they became, in the company of Alistair Mackay, the first to climb to the the top of Mount Erebus and to trek to the South Magnetic Pole  –  which, at that time, was over land.

Disappointed by what he considered to be the “glory seeking” of those who sought to be the first to reach the South Pole, Mawson turned down the offer of a place on Scott’s “Terra Nova” expedition and, instead, led the Australian Antarctic Expedition of 1911-14 whose aim was entirely scientific / geographical and contained no attempt to reach the South Pole.

Setting out in the MY Aurora on 2 December 1911, Mawson reached Macquarie Island on 11th of that month. On the Aurora were appropriate materials for the construction of huts, wireless masts and thirty one men of whom five were to remain on Macquarie to man meteorological and radio bases on the island, these bases being the first objective of the mission. The supply vessel Toroa, which arrived shortly afterwards in support of Aurora, carried a further seventeen expeditioners, a flock of sheep and a load of coal. In addition to setting up the radio relay station (appropriately enough at Wireless Hill), the group of five men he left on Macquarie mapped the island, studied its botany, zoology, meteorology and geology and conducted geomagnetic observations.

Macquarie Island Station party: Ainsworth, George F. – Leader, Meteorologist. Blake, Leslie Russell – Cartographer and Geologist. Hamilton, Harold – Biologist. Sandell, Charles A. – Wireless Operator & Mechanic. Sawyer, A.J. – Wireless Operator Image from http://www.coolantarctica.com/

The radio relay station was to meet most admirably the role that had been planned for it in allowing communication between Mawson’s Antarctic base at Commonwealth Bay and Macquarie Island, that island and Australia and, as might well be expected, in the reverse direction too.

The first aim of Mawson’s expedition having been achieved, the Aurora sailed south for the Antarctic “mainland” leaving Macquarie Island on 23 December 1911  –  forty eight years to the day before Mary Gillham landed there. Accounts of Mawson and his expedition after leaving Macquarie are well worth reading as these illustrate, in part, why Mawson has been considered to be a “Great Australian”.

The Ross Sea part of Shackleton’s Trans-Antarctic Expedition (again sailing on M.Y. “Aurora”) visited Macquarie in 1915.

Douglas Mawson himself returned to visit Macquarie Island (aboard “Discovery”) in 1930 with the British, Australian and New Zealand Research Expedition (BANZRE).

Moves were afoot to re-establish “sealing” on Macquarie. Mawson declared vehemently his opposition to this and (in part because of this opposition) the plan was refused.

Sir Douglas Mawson died in 1958, the year prior to the arrival of Mary Gillham and the other first female visitors to the Antarctic’s arrival on Macquarie Island.

A banknote, a coin and stamps issued in Australia all featuring Sir Douglas Mawson. Mawson’s image appeared on the A$100 note from 1984 – 96

He also appeared on the 2012 issue of the A$1 coin in the “Inspirational Australian” series of coins

Places named after Mawson are:

Mawson Peak on Heard Island, Mount Mawson in Tasmania, Mawson Station on Antarctica, Dorsa Mawson in the Mare Fecunditatis (on the Moon).


Suburbs of Canberra and of Adelaide are named Mawson

A campus of the University of South Australia, a sports house at Oxley college in Burradoo (NSW) and one at Clarence High School in Hobart (Tasmania) all bear his name as does the Geology building on the University of Adelaide’s main campus

The Mawson Collection of artefacts concerned with Antarctic exploration is on permanent display at the South Australian Museum

In Ranulph Fiennes’ book, “My Heroes: Extraordinary Courage, Exceptional People” he names Douglas Mawson as one of his heroes

2013 saw the “Australian Mawson Centenary expedition take place.

The ship carrying this expedition (the “MV Akademik Shokalskiy”) became trapped in Antarctic sea ice so, in December of 2013, members of the party revisited Mawson’s huts at Cape Denison on Commonwealth Bay.

Read on tomorrow!

Reference material and further reading:

Thanks to John Wilkins (MGAP volunteer) for coordinating this series of Macquarie blogs

The Mary Gillham Archive Project is funded by HLF and managed by SEWBReC
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