June – August 1911
Dr. Edward Wilson is perhaps best known for instigating and leading what has become known as the Worst Journey in the World, a six week trip in the depths of the Antarctic winter, which he himself described as the “the weirdest bird’s-nesting expedition that has ever been or ever will be”.
In truth, however, it was part of a far greater scientific project: the search for evidence to support Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. No evidence had been found to support the theory in the 50 years since its publication in On The Origin of Species in 1859. In particular, it was the search for the suspected evolutionary link between dinosaurs and birds.
The Worst Journey had its genesis during the Discovery expedition of 1901-1904 when the first rookery of breeding Emperor Penguins was discovered at Cape Crozier on Ross Island by a sledging party under Lieutenant Skelton. Wilson’s absence during the great Southern Journey with Captain Scott and Lieutenant Shackleton precluded him from immediately going to study the birds. When Discovery was trapped in the ice for a second year, however, it gave him the opportunity which he craved: to be the first biologist to study the breeding biology of these astonishing birds. He left early in the Spring of 1903 and was astonished to find well grown chicks instead of eggs, which led him to conclude, correctly, that the birds had to lay their eggs in the middle of the Antarctic winter. It was one of the most astonishing ornithological discoveries a biologist could have made. Subsequent visits to the rookery led to a wonderful series of observations and field sketches and to Wilson being the first to observe the seaward migration of the Emperors with the breaking up of the pack ice. Upon the Expedition’s return to England, Wilson declared that he wanted his monograph on the Emperor Penguin in the Expedition’s Scientific Reports to be ‘a classic’; which it most certainly has become.
Whilst Wilson collected the first scientific specimens of Emperor Penguin eggs and chicks (The famous Drayton Egg, collected on an ice-flow by the French Expedition of D’Umont D’Urville some sixty years earlier could not be confirmed as an Emperor’s egg until these specimens were collected by Wilson) the one thing that he had not collected, for obvious reasons, were eggs with embryos in their early stages of development. These were particularly craved by the ornithological scientists of the day because it was thought (incorrectly ) that the Emperor Penguin was a primitive form of bird. Since it was widely held at the time (also incorrectly but based on the work of Ernst Haeckel) that ontogony (the development of the individual) recapitulated phylogeny (the evolutionary development of the species) it was hoped that the study of the embryo of such a primitive bird would yield the scientific holy grail of the missing evolutionary link between dinosaurs and birds. The argument suggested that if only embryos of this primitive bird could be obtained in an early enough stage of development, then surely one would be found with reptilian scales or going through some other ‘dinosauresque’ phase of development. Thus it was that obtaining the embryo of the Emperor Penguin was regarded as a major ornithological prize, a scientific equivalent, perhaps, to obtaining the Pole itself.
It is for this reason that when Captain Scott started planning his second Expedition aboard Terra Nova and asked Wilson to accompany him South again as his Chief of Scientific Staff, Wilson almost certainly made the obtaining of the Emperor embryos a condition of his acceptance. The chance to continue studying the breeding biology of the birds was an irresistible temptation. As Scott and Wilson put the plans together for the scientific work of the Expedition, the reaching of the South Pole was considered to be a “mere item in the results” of an extensive scientific programme. The study of Penguins was to be to be at the core of its intended biological triumphs. As a key part of these plans it was decided to try to situate the main Expedition base at Cape Crozier itself, which gave the opportunity to study both the Adelie Penguins and the Emperor Penguins at close quarters – as well as providing a year round source of fresh meat and eggs.
As Terra Nova sailed towards Cape Crozier in early 1911, however, these plans were thwarted by the elements. A large swell precluded any possibility of landing the Expedition at Cape Crozier, nor could they wait for the possibility that it might decline. Due to the severe delay that the Expedition had experienced in the pack ice when entering the Ross Sea, they were already running considerably behind schedule. The depot laying parties needed to set out as soon as possible to lay the depots for the attempt on the Pole the following season. As a result the ship was ordered into the McMurdo Strait and the base was set up at Cape Evans instead.
The fact that they had been unable to make their base at Cape Crozier meant that a winter journey of some 130 miles would now need to be undertaken in order to secure the eggs of the Emperor Penguin at an early stage of embryonic development. Scott was reluctant to let Wilson go on what they all knew would be a very dangerous journey but at the same time, Scott would not break his promise. For Wilson, the scientific prize could not have been higher even though it now meant making a journey of considerable difficulty. Additionally, however, a winter journey also gave an unexpected opportunity for further scientific work which would answer questions that were of critical importance to the success of the forthcoming Pole journey. Firstly, it gave the opportunity to try out different sledging rations under extreme field conditions, with varying quantities of fats etc. to ensure that they had the very best sledging rations for the Pole journey ahead; and secondly, Scott had requested that his meteorologists deliver predictions for the most likely weather conditions to be encountered on the Great Ice Barrier during his attempt on the Pole. In order to complete these to their satisfaction, they needed weather data from the Great Ice Barrier in winter. Thus the Winter Journey now became of utmost importance to Scott and the success of the Pole Journey, as well as being of the greatest scientific interest.
Wilson chose as his companions, Birdie Bowers and Apsley Cherry Garrard. The 3 men left Cape Evans on 27 June 1911, marching out into the winter darkness for Cape Crozier, 65 miles (120km) away. The average temperature on the journey was -60°F (-51°C); it fell as low as -77°F (-60°C). It was so cold that the pus inside their blistered frostbite froze and their teeth cracked but they persevered, sometimes barely covering a mile per day. At Cape Crozier they built a rock ‘igloo’ to serve as a field laboratory to study the penguins. It was from here that they made their way onto the sea ice and became the first men to witness the mid-winter breeding of the Emperor Penguin. They collected five eggs but broke two in the struggle back to the igloo. Shortly after they had attained these first 3 eggs they became trapped by a blizzard. Their tent blew away, shortly to be followed by the igloo roof. As they lay in their sleeping bags with the blizzard raging around them, they sang hymns and Wilson passed his 39th birthday. Incredibly, when the blizzard was over, they searched and found their tent. Birdie Bowers tied himself to it whenever they stopped during the return journey, so that it didn’t get away without him again. The three men arrived safely back at Cape Evans on 1 August and had to be cut out of their clothing.
The Winter Journey was one of the most astonishing journeys to be successfully executed throughout the Heroic Age of Antarctic exploration. The scientific hypotheses on which this Worst Journey in the World was based subsequently turned out to be false but it still stands as one of the most extraordinary of scientific quests and a key moment in the search for the evolutionary link between dinosaurs and birds. It was to take most of the rest of the Twentieth Century before the long-searched-for evidence was found.
The process of studying the Emperor embryos that were obtained during the Winter Journey was disrupted both by Wilson’s own death and by the First World War. By the time that they came to be fully studied they were of little scientific significance, as the hypotheses on which their importance was projected were already known to be false. This wouldn.t have unduly bothered Wilson. For him, it was the search for Truth that was important, not worldly success. However, he would no doubt have been delighted that Emperor Penguins collected by him during the Worst Journey and left in the igloo were subsequently key control specimens in scientific work conducted during the 1960s to prove the existence of DDT in the Antarctic Environment, a project that led to a widespread ban of the chemical.
At the time, the comparative study of sledging rations was considered to be a success and the rations for the Pole journey were perfected accordingly. However, no-one knew in those days that a higher calorie intake was needed at altitude (calories and vitamins were unknown) and so the field-tests, even in extreme conditions, are subsequently known to have been inadequate for developing rations for use at the high altitude of the Polar plateau. Nevertheless, it explains Scott’s confidence that they had done everything scientifically possible to ensure the best sledging ration yet devised.
Likewise the meteorological data obtained during this journey allowed for the completion of the meteorological projections upon which Scott finalised his plans for his assault on the Pole. Despite this meticulous scientific planning, however, the weather conditions that were encountered by Scott on the Great Ice Barrier during the return from the Pole were not those expected and explains Scott’s surprise in his final diary at the weather conditions which killed him. For years the meteorological projections were questioned as a result. It took the work of Dr. Susan Solomon in her book The Coldest March to finally show that Scott’s meteorologists had got their projections right – and that Scott was simply unlucky by running into the one year in thirty when there is an early onset of Winter on the Barrier.
The scientific work of the Worst Journey in the World was perhaps not as entirely useless as the arm-chair critics suggest or Cherry Garrard feared.
Apsley Cherry Garrard was the only one of the three men to undergo the Worst Journey in the World to return from the Expedition. Both Wilson and Bowers perished with Scott on the return from the Pole. Cherry never truly recovered from the loss of his two companions (See Sara Wheeler’s biography, Cherry). However, upon his return to England, the Winter Journey became both christened and immortalised in his book as, The Worst Journey in the World. The search for the Emperor Penguin’s egg became written into sublime metaphor and the resulting book, one of the most popular travel books ever written, has never been out of print.