Edward Wilson

Edward Adrian Wilson (‘Uncle Bill’) (1872 – 1912)

Edward_A._WilsonEdward A. Wilson was an English physician, polar explorer, natural historian, painter and ornithologist, who accompanied Captain Robert Falcon Scott to the South Pole in 1911, and died with him on the return journey.

Early Years and Education

Dr. Edward Adrian Wilson was born in Cheltenham, UK on July 23, 1872. By the age of nine he had announced that he was going to become a naturalist and he soon started to develop his own natural history collections, collecting ‘everything he can lay his hands on’. Despite Wilson’s artistic talent and interest in natural history, it was decided that he should pursue a career in medicine. He studied Natural Sciences at Cambridge and quickly developed a reputation amongst his tutors and peers as a mediator and peacemaker, a role which was to follow him for the rest of his life. During this time, he also began to formulate the deep Christian code by which he lived his life. Every aspect of life became a part of an indivisible Divine Truth. Science, art and poetry were simply different ways of explaining and experiencing a complex but Divine creation.

Wilson studied for his Bachelor of Medicine (M.B.) degree in London, spending what time he could in painting, drawing and studying the works of the great artists in the London galleries. He also took on work at the Caius Mission House where he met Oriana Souper, a friend of the Warden’s wife. Wilson’s heavy workload took its toll and in 1898 he was diagnosed with pulmonary tuberculosis. A long convalescence provided opportunities to develop his artistic skills, including the blurring of color boundaries in nature and a color memorization technique which involved making pencil sketches with color notes in the field and accurately painting up the picture later. Wilson returned to medical school in late 1899, passed his exams and acquired a post at Cheltenham General Hospital. In June 1900 he was invited to apply for the post of Junior Surgeon and Vertebrate Zoologist for the forthcoming British National Antarctic Expedition (1901-1904) aboard Discovery, under Commander Robert Falcon Scott. Three weeks before the expedition sailed, Wilson married Miss Oriana Souper.

British National Antarctic (Discovery) Expedition 1901-1904

Discovery sailed on August 6, 1901 and reached Antarctica in January 1902. As they neared the coast, Wilson produced a series of panoramic sketches that provided a unique cartographic record of the coastline. Winter quarters were established on Ross Island, at what is now known as Hut Point. During the winter, Wilson undertook vertebrate zoology work, medical duties and assisted with the greater scientific program. He also made a number of sketches and watercolors and provided illustrations for the expedition magazine, The South Polar Times.

In the spring, Scott led an exploration party southward that included Wilson and Ernest Shackleton. By the end of December, after 60 days of sledging, they had reached latitude 82°17’S, 300 miles farther south than anyone before them. The men were showing signs of scurvy and Shackleton was suffering especially badly. It was time to head back. Scott named the inlet at their farthest South for Shackleton and the Cape for Wilson. They arrived back at Hut Point 93 days after setting off, having covered 960 miles. Heavy ice prevented the ship from leaving and the crew were forced to spend another winter in Antarctica. Wilson took advantage of this ‘bonus’ winter to continue his zoological studies and work up his sketches from the Southern journey into watercolors. He was particularly interested in emperor penguins whose biology, at that time, was completely uknown. Lieut. Skelton had discovered the first breeding rookery at Cape Crozier and Wilson set out early in the spring to collect emperor penguin eggs. He was surprised to find well-grown chicks and concluded that the birds must have laid their eggs in the middle of the Antarctic winter.

Expedition Follow-up and New South Pole Plans

At the end of the second summer, the expedition returned to the UK where it was greeted with wide acclaim. Wilson was kept busy writing and illustrating reports for the Discovery Expedition, as well as working on Captain Scott’s book The Voyage of the Discovery, a facsimile of The South Polar Times and the Expedition’s Album of Photographs and Sketches. He was subsequently appointed Feld Observer to the Grouse Disease Commission, the first major study to investigate fluctuations in numbers of a wild bird species, and was also asked to illustrate new editions of A History of British Mammals, and Yarrell’s A History of British Birds.

In February 1907 Shackleton wrote to Wilson, informing him that he was heading back to the Antarctic with the objective of reaching the South Pole. He wanted Wilson to be his second in command, but Wilson declined. Shackleton returned from the Antarctic in June 1909. He had set a new furthest South, but had failed to reach the South Pole. Scott had been making his own plans to return south and conquer the pole. With the prize still unclaimed, Scott rapidly got his dormant plans under way and Wilson was publicly confirmed as the Chief of Scientific Staff.

British Antarctic Expedition (1910-1913)

Terra Nova sailed from Cardiff, Wales on Jun 15, 1910, arriving at Cape Evans in McMurdo Sound in early January 1911. The men built a hut at Cape Evans and laid supply depots in preparation for the South Pole journey the following austral spring. Deteriorating weather conditions and weak, unacclimatized ponies meant that the main supply point, One Ton Depot, was laid 35 miles (56 km) north of its planned location at 80°S. This proved critical during the return journey from the Pole the following year. Wilson soon became the confidante of almost all on the Expedition. They called him ‘Uncle Bill’. He was a particular support to Scott who wrote, “Words must always fail me when I talk of Bill Wilson. I believe he really is the finest character I ever met.”

Throughout the 1911 austral winter Wilson studied biological specimens and painted up sketches. Apsley Cherry-Garrard praised the accuracy of his artwork, “If you look at a picture of a parhelion by Wilson not only can you be sure that the mock suns, circles and shafts appeared in the sky as they are shown on paper, but you can also rest assured that the number of degrees between, say, the sun and the outer ring of light were in fact such as he has represented them.” The scientific program also included a winter journey to Cape Crozier, to collect emperor penguin eggs at an early stage of development. They hoped that the embryos would provide clues to the missing evolutionary link between dinosaurs and birds. Henry (Birdie) Bowers and Apsley Cherry-Garrard accompanied Wilson on the 60-mile journey, which was made in almost total darkness, with temperatures reaching as low as -70 °F (-57 °C). Cherry-Garrard later described this expedition in his memoir, The Worst Journey in the World.

The South Pole Journey

On November 1, 1911, fourteen men set off from Cape Evans on the long trip to the South Pole. At the top of the Beardmore Glacier Scott announced the final team for the Pole, five men with Wilson among them. Scott, Wilson, Bowers, Captain Lawrence Oates and P.O. Edgar Evans achieved the South Pole 79 days later, on January 17, 1912. There they found Norwegian flags and a tent; Amundsen had beaten them to it. They took their positions, posed for photographs and headed north again a couple of days later.

The return journey soon became a desperate affair due to the combination of exhaustion, scurvy and exceptionally adverse weather. Evans died on February 17, near the base of the Beardmore glacier, likely from a brain injury sustained in a crevasse fall two weeks earlier. Then Oates deliberately walked out of their tent to his death on March 16, after his frostbitten feet developed gangrene. Wilson, Scott and Bowers continued on for three more days, but were stopped by a blizzard on March 20, 11 miles short of the ‘One Ton’ food depot. They died in their tent around March 29, 1912 (the date of Scott’s last journal entry). In his journal, Scott wrote to Wilson’s wife, “…I should like you to know how splendid he was at the end—everlastingly cheerful and ready to sacrifice himself for others… I can do no more to comfort you than to tell you that he died as he lived, a brave, true man—the best of comrades and staunchest of friends…” The men were found the following Spring by a search party, who also recovered their scientific specimens, their journals and the final sketch books of Edward Wilson.

More info: http://www.edwardawilson.com/

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