Caught by the River

Captain Scott and Dr Wilson

26th October 2012

by Gavin Francis

There is thick church silence within the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge, generally known as ‘SPRI’. The smells are of dust, floor polish and furniture wax, and the atmosphere is heavy with the imperial certainties of the Edwardian age. There is something of the religious about the way Captain Scott has been remembered, with his sacred texts and his reliquaries, and in SPRI devotees find their house of worship. Since boyhood I had been fascinated by those old Antarctic stories, but had become enthralled not by Scott, but by his doctor and right-hand-man, Edward Wilson. Visiting SPRI was, I admit, a kind of pilgrimage for me. I would soon depart on a sea voyage the length of the planet, then, like Wilson a century before me, become base doctor at a remote Antarctic research station.

On my way up the stairs I passed the bell of the Terra Nova. Apsley Cherry-Garrard had said of the Terra Nova that it was better suited to hauling cargo down the Thames than sailing in Antarctic waters. I touched it briefly, and pictured it swinging madly through the gales of the Southern Ocean that almost sent it, and its crew, to the bottom of the sea. It had gentler duties now – I heard it rung to announce the arrival of the afternoon tea trolley.

On a table in the half-moon library was a two-volume first edition of Scott’s Last Expedition, with original maps framed by piles of foreign translations. My mouth gaped at the shelves – a polar bibliophile’s paradise. There were first editions of all the classic accounts in their original languages, and books I had never seen in other polar collections: Bernacchi’s To the South Polar Regions, Nordenskjold’s Antarctica, or, Two Years Amongst the Ice of the South Pole. Away from the main shelves at the bottom of another pile was Roland Huntford’s Scott & Amundsen, the book that more than any other sought to deflate the panegyric hyperbole that grew up around Scott. Among the buckram-bound and gold-embossed it was the only tatty paperback.

The base I was bound for was at 75º South, just a few hundred miles from the South Pole, constructed on a floating ice shelf that eases into the vortex of the Weddell Sea. For over a year I’d live on its empty plain of ice, devoid of life beyond that of my thirteen colleagues. But nearby on the sea ice there would be a single colony of emperor penguins, the only creatures evolved to survive year-round at those latitudes. Just as Edward Wilson had been fascinated by the birds’ extraordinary tenacity (undertaking the Worst Journey in the World to gather some of their eggs), I would live among the emperors and observe their lives first-hand.

On the wall above was a tapestry commemorating some of Wilson’s best-known aphorisms, revealing something of the humility, warmth, and intellectual restlessness of the man: ‘We see distinctly only what we know thoroughly’, he had written. ‘As long as I have stuck to Nature and the New Testament I have only got happier and happier every day.’ On a shelf nearby I found his biography. Written in 1933, it seemed more hagiography than biography. I might follow him to the Antarctic, be doctor for an expedition, even study his beloved penguins, but if he set the standard for polar medics I was never going to measure up.

Scott on Wilson: ‘the always good-tempered and cheerful one… the most valued and valuable of all.’ Thomas Hodgson on Wilson: ‘I have never met with a man so universally admired in every way.’ Jacob Cross on Wilson: ‘One could talk to him on any subject whatever… he understood.’ Shackleton on Wilson: ‘I admire you more than ever for your attitude. A man rarely writes out his heart but I would to you.’

I closed the book and, between the stacks of SPRI’s shelves, felt my first misgivings about the adventure ahead of me. Not everyone expects to be led by a Scott or a Shackleton. I just hoped they didn’t expect to be doctored by a Wilson.

Gavin Francis is the author of Empire Antarctica – Ice, Silence & Emperor Penguins. Chatto & Windus, on sale here from 1st November, 2012