Edward Leicester Atkinson
DSO AM RN (1881-1929) was a Royal naval surgeon and Antarctic explorer who was a member of the scientific staff of Captain Scott's Terra Nova Expedition
, 1910-13. He was in command at the expedition's base for much of 1912, and led the party which found the tent with the bodies of Scott, "Birdie" Bowers
and Edward Wilson
. Atkinson was subsequently associated with two controversies: that relating to Scott's orders concerning the use of dogs, and that relating to the possible incidence of scurvy in the polar party. He is commemorated by the Atkinson Cliffs
on the northern coast of Victoria Land
, Antarctica, at .
Atkinson was born on 23 November 1881
in the Windward Isles, where he spent much of his childhood. He was educated at the Forest School, Snaresbrook
, and received his medical training at St Thomas's Hospital
, where he became the hospital's light heavyweight boxing champion. He qualified in 1906 and two years later joined the Royal Navy as a medical officer, based at the Royal Naval Hospital
, in Gosport
. He was primarily a researcher, and had published a paper on gonorrhoeal rheumatism when he was appointed physician and parasitologist to the Terra Nova expedition.
On the Terra Nova Expedition
The Southern Journey
After a winter spent mainly in scientific work, on 31 October 1911
Atkinson departed south with Scott's team and remained, first as a pony leader and later as a man-hauler, throughout the Barrier stage and the ascent of the Beardmore Glacier
. On 22nd December, at the glacier summit, lat. 85deg7'S, he returned to base with the First Support Party, reaching Cape Evans on 29 January 1912
after a generally straightforward journey.
Atkinson had received from Scott verbal orders about the future use of the expedition's dogs which had returned to base before the Beardmore ascent. These orders required Atkinson to ensure that the dogs were brought out to One Ton Depot in February and, "with the depot (of dog food) that has been laid at One Ton, come as far as you can" - presumably to meet and assist the returning polar party. This was a variation from Scott's earlier orders about the dogs (see section "Orders concerning dogs, below), and the lack of explicit intention in the new order would lead to problems later.
In charge at Cape Evans
On his return to Cape Evans, Atkinson took command. He learned that the chief dog driver, Cecil Meares
, had resigned the expedition, was waiting for the ship to take him home and was "not available" for Barrier work. Atkinson therefore decided that he would himself fulfil Scott's recent orders and take the dogs to One Ton. To this purpose he and dog assistant Dimitri Gerov were at Hut Point
on 19th February when Tom Crean
arrived on foot from the Barrier and reported that Lt Edward Evans
was lying seriously ill in a tent some 35 miles to the south, and in urgent need of rescue. Atkinson quickly decided that this mission was his priority, and set out with the dogs to bring Evans back. This was achieved; the party was back at Hut Point on 22nd February.
Evans was able to communicate to Atkinson a further change of orders concerning the dogs - Scott wanted them brought down to 82 or 83deg south, in the hope of meeting the polar party in mid-February. However, Atkinson's first concern was his patient's welfare and he decided to remain with Evans. The task of taking the dogs and supplies to One Ton in accordance with Scott's earlier order to Atkinson therefore devolved upon Apsley Cherry-Garrard, the latest order received via Evans being either overlooked or deemed impractical. It was still not in Atkinson's mind that Cherry-Garrard's was a relief mission, and he reiterated Scott's orders that the dogs must not be risked. Cherry-Garrard left with Dimitri and the dogs on 26th February, carrying extra rations for the polar party to be added to the depot. They did not go further south than One Ton, and after waiting for Scott there for several days, they returned to Hut Point on 16th March in poor physical condition and without news of the polar party.
By this time concern for that party's welfare was rising, and on 26th March Atkinson set out with Patrick Keohane (and without the dogs) on a further attempt to look for signs of Scott's return. They were able to proceed only to Corner Camp before the weather defeated them on 30th March. At that point, Atkinson recorded, "I was morally certain that the polar party had perished".
Before the full onset of winter Atkinson led an attempted rescue of the Northern party, from which nothing had been heard since its departure more than a year previously. The rescue party set out from Hut Point on 17th April, but they were not able to travel beyond Butter Point at the mouth of the Ferrar Glacier. The subsequent winter at Cape Evans was a difficult and tense time for the depleted expedition crew, but Atkinson maintained a programme of scientific and leisure activities, and managed to hold morale. As winter ended they faced a dilemma: should they first seek to establish the fate of the polar party, or try again to rescue the Northern party? They chose the former course.
Scott's tent found
On 29 October 1912
Atkinson led a party, with dogs and mules to begin the search for traces of the polar party. On 12th November, 11 miles to the south of One Ton Depot, the tent containing the bodies of Scott, Wilson and Bowers was discovered. Atkinson found Scott's diary and learned the story of the disaster; he then read to the assembled men the relevant sections including those recording the deaths of PO Evans and Captain Oates. A further march south, in search of Oates's body, found only his sleeping bag. On their return to Hut Point on 25th November the search party learned of the safe return of the Northern Party, at which point Victor Campbell
, as senior officer, assumed the leadership.
Controversy: Orders concerning dogs
While in command of the base during the critical Feb-March 1912 period, Atkinson had to interpret and execute Scott's varying instructions about how the dogs were to be employed after their return from the Barrier stage of the polar journey. Scott's original orders, which were "never changed", were that the dogs were to be saved for scientific journeys in the following year and were "not to be risked" otherwise. However, in orders to George Simpson
and Meares immediately before his departure south, Scott ordered that after their return from the polar journey the dogs be used "to transport to One Ton Camp 5 "XS rations, or at all hazards 3,....and as much dog food as they can carry
", this to be done by 12 January 1912
. The only obvious purpose in requesting a dog food depot to be in place at One Ton by Jan 1912 would be to allow the dogs to travel further south later, to assist the returning polar travellers. Unfortunately, Scott did not clarify his purpose (nor was he asked to - this was a Naval expedition), but perhaps even at that early stage he was anticipating that the dogs might be needed to see him home. In the event, although the XS rations were duly depoted, the dog food never was. This may have been due to an oversight, a misunderstanding, a lack of communication, or disobedience (see below). The significance of this omission was only apparent later - it meant that any future movement of the dogs south of One Ton, for rescue purposes or otherwise, would be problematic.
Scott also complicated the situation by taking the dogs much further on the polar journey than had been originally planned, so that they were not back at base until 5th January. Fiennes argues that Scott was simply "showing flexibility" in changing his plans. But a growing concern that he might need the assistance of the dogs is perhaps evident in Scott's "come as far as you can" order to Atkinson on 22nd December - see Southern Journey section above. Once again Scott did not elaborate, and as usual his subordinate didn't ask questions, but whatever Atkinson understood by this order, his mindset remained in the "dogs not to be risked" mode, and apparently stayed so even after he had received via Lt Evans Scott's later order to bring the dogs down to 82 or 83 deg. As noted, this order was received too late to be practical, but Atkinson might have discerned from it a further indication that Scott was anticipating some trouble getting back home. This, together with Evans's desperate physical condition, could have led him to change the policy - he was, as Fiennes has pointed out, an intelligent officer, not an automaton . However, after dispatching Cherry-Garrard and the dogs to One Ton on 26th February, Atkinson, who was by now aware that there was no dog food at One Ton , wrote: "It cannot be too firmly emphasised that the dog teams were meant merely to hasten the return of the Southern Party and by no means as a relief expedition". In Atkinson's defence it must be stated that Scott's party were not yet overdue. According to Cherry-Garrard, Atkinson had instructed him to "use his judgement" in the event of his not meeting Scott at One Ton. His choices were to wait, or to proceed further south by killing dogs for dog meat - he had no other option in the absence of the dog food depot. Ever mindful of Scott's "not to be risked" dictum (and faced with bad weather, eyesight problems, illness and lack of navigating skills) he chose to wait. This decision was commended as correct by Atkinson but would later cause Cherry-Garrard much distress.
In the face of mounting evidence, did Atkinson stick too long to the original policy? Or did he simply lack the resources to do other than he did? Fiennes asks if some blame might be due to Atkinson (or Meares, or Cherry-Garrard, or Scott himself), but does not come to a definite conclusion. He questions why Meares, who had returned to base on 5th January and must have known that the dog food depot had not been laid, was allowed by Atkinson to wait apparently unoccupied at Cape Evans until catching the ship on 5th March, and Charles Wright was certain that Meares should have been sent to One Ton and not Cherry-Garrard. In later years Atkinson claimed that Meares had "disobeyed orders" (whose?) in not laying the dog food depot, but this could not be backed up in writing. Fiennes concludes: "There are many individuals involved with what Scott termed a 'miserable jumble', and all have produced their own versions of what prompted their action or inaction at the time. Scott did not apportion human blame, nor did he accept it."
Atkinson was the only medically qualified officer to see the bodies of Scott, Wilson and Bowers. The extent of any detailed examination he made is not known, and no medical report on the causes of death was ever published. However, he reportedly told Cherry-Garrard emphatically that there was no evidence of scurvy
in the bodies.
The truth of this statement has been queried by Scott's detractors, on grounds which are largely circumstantial. For example: Lt Evans was seriously affected by scurvy on his return journey, so why not others? Scurvy had affected previous Antarctic expeditions, including Scott's with the Discovery, and dietary provision had not improved much meantime. The progressive weakening of the polar party on the return, and of Edgar Evans in particular, sounded like scurvy symptoms. And of course Atkinson's denials may have been intended to preserve the reputation of the expedition - scurvy carried with it a sort of stigma. These are emotional rather than factual arguments, but have not prevented apparently authoratative statements such as Huntford's: "By now Scott was almost certainly in the early stages of scurvy". He says much the same about Edgar Evans
The growth in scientific understanding of the nature and causes of scurvy in the years after 1912 may have helped fuel the assumption that Scott and his companions had been affected by it. Even Raymond Priestley of the expedition's scientific staff, who had at one time denied the incidence of scurvy was, fifty years later, beginning to think differently. However, despite the lack of understanding of the causes of the disease that existed in 1912, the symptoms were well-known, and Solomon and Fiennes both point out that it is unthinkable that so scupulous a scientific observer as Edward Wilson would have made no mention at all of any sign of scurvy in the polar party, had it existed, in his journals and various letters.
On his return to England Atkinson worked briefly at the London School of Tropical Medicine
on parasitic research, before departing on a medical expedition to China, to investigate a parasitic flatworm that was causing schistosomiasis among British seamen. After the outbreak of war Atkinson reported for active service. He was sent to Gallipoli
to investigate fly-borne diseases, and contracted pleurisy which left him hospitalised. In 1916 he served on the Western Front and fought at the Somme
, receiving the Distinguished Service Order
. After a stint in North Russia, in September 1918 he received horrific injuries from an explosion aboard HMS Glatton
in Dover Harbour
. Although burned and blinded, he was able to rescue several men before escaping, and was awarded the Albert Medal
After the war Atkinson revealed to Cherry-Garrard the results of research he had conducted on the nutritional value of Scott's party's Barrier and Plateau rations. He found that the Barrier rations were generating only 51% of the calories required to support a typical Barrier workload, the corresponding Plateau figure being 57%. These figures provided a substantial explanation (starvation) for the physical failure of the polar party. Thereafter Atkinson continued with his Naval career. In 1928 his wife died and he suffered a nervous breakdown. He recovered, however, and within a few months had married again and been promoted Surgeon-Captain. On board ship in the Mediterranean on 20 February 1929
, on his way back to England, Atkinson died suddenly, at the age of 47, and was buried at sea. Eight years later Cherry-Garrard wrote an extra preface to the 1937 edition of The Worst Journey
, as a tribute to Atkinson. "His voice has been with me often since those days - that gruffish deep affectionate monosyllabic way he used to talk to you...he could not help the tenderness poking through. I am glad to have this opportunity to witness something of what we owe him
Notes and References
- Scott's Last Expedition, Vols I and II Smith Elder & Co 1913
- Sara Wheeler: Cherry: A life of Apsley Cherry-Garrard Jonathan Cape 2001
- Ranulph Fiennes: Captain Scott Hodder and Stoughton 2003
- Roland Huntford: The Last Place on Earth Pan Books 1985 edition
- Susan Solomon: The Coldest March Yale University Press 2001
- George Seaver: Foreword to 1965 edition of Cherry-Garrard's Worst Journey, reprinted in Penguin Travel Library Edition, 1983
- Apsley Cherry-Garrard: The Worst Journey in the World Penguin Travel Library Edition 1983