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Antarctic heroes

Christina Harrison
17 January 2012
Blog team: 
Today marks the 100th anniversary of the day Captain Robert Falcon Scott and his team reached the South Pole. But did you know that in the Joseph Hooker exhibition at Kew Gardens, you can see a letter from Scott to Sir Joseph Hooker?

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the day Captain Robert Falcon Scott and his team reached the South Pole, only to find that the rival Norwegian team, led by Roald Amundsen, had got there before them, and not just by a few days but by over a month.

Captain Scott writing in his cabin

It must be the world’s largest understatement to say they must have been disappointed. The near super-human effort involved in getting there all for naught. But was it? Many forget that this was not simply a race for the Pole. For Scott this time in Antarctica had always been about science and thankfully many authors and commentators now bring this to the fore and recognise his dedication to this element of the expedition.

Letter from Scott to Hooker

It was on this subject that Captain Scott wrote to Sir Joseph Hooker when he was planning his first trip to Antarctica in 1901 on the Discovery. Until I saw the letter in the exhibition in the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art I had no idea that the two men had corresponded, but there it was – Scott’s letter to Hooker thanking him for his encouragement on his pursuit of science and the idea of setting up balloon experiments.

The letter dated 21 May 1901 reads: ‘It was your suggestion and the great weight of your practical experience alone that caused me to consider a balloon experiment as a practical possibility. Thank you very much for your generous support. I hope we shall manage to realise our wish.’ 

Scott's letter to Hooker currently displayed in the Shirley Sherwood Gallery at Kew Gardens

Joseph Hooker - Antarctic botanist

Hooker was of course, despite his much greater age at the time of this letter (he was 83), an experienced man in terms of Antarctica. He was there, on HMS Erebus, on Captain Clark Ross’s four-year southern ocean expedition (1839-1843). It is from that expedition that so many places in Antarctica take their names – McMurdo Sound, Mount Erebus and Mount Terror, the Ross Ice Shelf, to name a few.

As we all know, despite Scott’s great wealth of experience and his dedication, his second expedition on the Terra Nova (1910-1913) ended with all five of Scott’s Pole team dead only 18 km from a refuelling station. But with them they had scientific specimens and drawings, ones they had stopped to collect on the arduous journey back. And, of course, others survived with their completed experiments, measurements and specimens, including Apsley Cherry-Garrard and the famous emperor penguin eggs.

It is in fact for this we should remember Scott and all his team today, for it is this legacy that has had the most impact on Antarctica and its history. As the famous words, from Tennyson, on their memorial read: ‘To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield’. They speak for all scientists as well as polar explorers.

- Christina -


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