The golden age of exploration

This is an extract for the Black Country Geological Society newsletter.

The end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries can be regarded as the golden age of polar exploration and there was great interest in Antarctica, both from the British and Norwegians. There were many expeditions culminating in Amundsen reaching the South Pole on 14th December 1911, followed by Scott a month later, and then followed the heroic Trans-Antarctic attempt by Sir Ernest Shackleton in 1914. Although many would regard Amundsen’s trek as having only one aim, to reach the pole, most of the expeditions had a large scientific component, and the Chief Scientist on Shackleton’s expedition was the geologist James Wordie.

Sir James Wordie

Born in 1889, James Wordie studied geology at Glasgow University and then went to Cambridge and became a lecturer in petrology. He sailed on the Endurance in 1914; the ship was trapped and then crushed by the Weddell Sea ice in 1915. What followed, the trek and then sailing in open boats to Elephant Island and the final rescue has been told elsewhere, but what of the role of this quiet, unassuming geologist on an Antarctic expedition? One of the problems of course is that there is plenty of ice, but few exposures of rock. Wordie took measurements of ice thickness and movement; he was a meticulous recorder. To get geological specimens he would find pebbles in the stomachs of penguins

Sir Vivian Fuchs

He later returned to academic life in Cambridge, eventually becoming Master of St John’s College. Wordie went on nine more polar expeditions through the 1920’s and 30’s and led many University Summer Expeditions. Cambridge seems to have attracted students who were keen on exploration, and it was here that James Wordie met scientists who had been on Scott’s expeditions. Perhaps students chose Cambridge because of its tradition of exploration and the strong Climbing Club, and it certainly seems to have been a hotbed of enthusiasm. It was here that Wordie was to be tutor of Vivian Fuchs, who went on Wordie’s 1929 Greenland expedition, and then led the Commonwealth Transantarctic expedition of 1957/8. Fuchs made no secret that his geology degree was simply a means to pursue his interests in the outdoors.

Sir James Wordie became the elder statesman of Polar Exploration; he helped plan the 1953 Everest expedition and continued to influence proceedings until his death in 1962. Sir Vivian Fuchs died in 1999 aged 91, and that probably signifies the end of the golden age that was so greatly influenced by geologists.

written by
Bill Groves
BCGS Member

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