Douglas Mawson was born on 5 May 1882 at Shipley, Yorkshire, England, second son of Robert Ellis Mawson, a cloth merchant from a farming background, and his wife Margaret Ann, née Moore, from the Isle of Man. The family moved to Rooty Hill, near Sydney, in 1884. Douglas was educated at Rooty Hill and at Fort Street Model School in Sydney. At the University of Sydney in 1899-1901 he studied mining engineering and graduated B.E. in 1902 when he was appointed as a junior demonstrator in chemistry. Next year he took six months leave to make a geological survey of the New Hebrides (Vanuatu), under the auspices of Captain E. G. Rason, the British deputy commissioner there. This was Mawson's introduction to scientific exploration, carried out in rugged country with dense jungle and among hostile inhabitants. His report, 'The geology of the New Hebrides', was one of the first major works on the geology of Melanesia.
In 1905 Mawson was appointed lecturer in mineralogy and petrology in the University of Adelaide. He immediately became interested in the glacial geology of South Australia. Also, continuing his interest in radioactivity, he identified and first described the mineral davidite, containing titanium and uranium, in specimens from the region now known as Radium Hill. That deposit was the first major radioactive ore body discovered in Australia.
The major work of his early South Australian period was his investigation of the highly mineralized Precambrian rocks of the Barrier Range, extending from the northern Flinders Ranges through Broken Hill, New South Wales. The country is a complex of metamorphosed, igneous and sedimentary rocks with varying degrees of mineralization. Mawson identified two groups: an older Archaean (Willyama) Series, and a newer, Proterozoic (Torrowangee) Series. This investigation led to publication of his 'Geological investigations in the Broken Hill area'; he had previously submitted the substance of this work to the University of Adelaide (D.Sc., 1909).
In November 1907 (Sir) Ernest Shackleton, leader of the British Antarctic Expedition, visited Adelaide on his way south. Mawson approached him with a view to making the round trip to Antarctica on the Nimrod. His idea was to see an existing continental ice-cap and to become acquainted with glaciation and its geological consequences. This interested him because in his South Australian studies he was 'face-to-face with a great accumulation of glacial sediments of Precambrian age, the greatest thing of the kind recorded anywhere in the world'. After consulting with David, who had agreed to join the expedition, Shackleton telegraphed: 'You are appointed Physicist for the duration of the expedition'. Mawson accepted, and so began his long association with the Antarctic.
Although he recognized that Shackleton's prime aim of reaching the South Pole was considered essential to financing the expedition, he would have liked more opportunity offered to the scientists. Nevertheless, the scientists' achievements proved to be considerable and Mawson had good opportunities for glaciological and geological investigations; he published significant accounts of his observations on the aurora and geomagnetism.
In March 1908 Mawson was one of the first party, led by David, to climb Mount Erebus. Next summer David (leader), A. F. Mackay and Mawson were the first to reach the vicinity of the South Magnetic Pole, manhauling their sledges 1260 miles (2028 km); Mawson was responsible for the magnetic observations and the excellent cartographic work. The return was difficult because of exhaustion and shortage of food. David, aged 50, suffered badly and at his request Mawson assumed leadership. The journey almost ended in disaster: having reached their main depot two days late and hearing a rocket distress signal fired from the Nimrod, Mawson, while rushing towards the ship, fell into a crevasse. Help from the ship was required for his rescue.
Mawson returned to Adelaide and his university post in 1909 but was still making reports on the expedition when his plans for further Antarctic work began to mature. Captain R. F. Scott was planning his second (1910-13) expedition and Mawson asked him for transport on the Terra Nova for himself and three others, to form an additional party of the expedition to be landed on the coast west of Cape Adare. Mawson expounded the potential scientific value of the proposed work but Scott was not persuaded. Instead he invited Mawson to join his South Pole sledging party. This did not interest Mawson, who was dedicated to scientific exploration. Mawson then approached Shackleton for help; he took over Mawson's plan as his own but failed to get adequate financial backing. Mawson waited until Scott had raised all the funds he could in Australia and New Zealand, and had sailed for Antarctica in 1910, before launching his own appeal for support of what was to be the Australasian Antarctic Expedition.
Mawson was knighted in 1914. In 1915 he applied to serve in a scientific capacity in World War I, and in May 1916 he was attached to the British Ministry of Munitions. In 1920 he was appointed O.B.E. After the war, until 1923, he was a committee-member of the Australian War Museum (Australian War Memorial).
Mawson returned to the University of Adelaide in 1919 and was appointed professor of geology and mineralogy in 1921. He successfully developed an effective teaching and research department, insisting on student involvement in geological field-work. His own research covered a wide scope and continued vigorously until his retirement.
Mawson's extensive field-work was carried out on foot, by horse-and-cart, camel, and with motor vehicles. He was usually accompanied by students, who learned not only about geology but also about camping and survival in the bush, an activity which Mawson always enjoyed.
He retired at 70. That year the university published a volume of contributions to geology titled Sir Douglas Mawson Anniversary Volume and named the new geology building after him. The Mawson Institute for Antarctic Research was established within the University of Adelaide in 1959. Its library incorporates Mawson's collection of polar literature, his Antarctic diaries, a substantial collection of papers, correspondence, photographic records and objects of historical importance. In 1983 the Douglas Mawson chair of geology was created.
Mawson had married, on 31 March 1914 at Holy Trinity Church, Balaclava, Melbourne, Francisa Adriana (Paquita) Delprat (1891-1974); they had two daughters.
Mawson died at his Brighton home on 14 October 1958 following cerebral haemorrhage. He was accorded a Commonwealth state funeral and was buried at St Jude's Anglican Church, Brighton. A memorial service, arranged by the university, was held at St Peter's Cathedral, Adelaide.
Portraits of Mawson by W. Seppelt (1922), H. J. Haley (1933), Jack Carington Smith (1955) and Ivor Hele (1956) are held in the University of Adelaide.Biographical SourceAdapted from The Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986.
Douglas Mawson, TGB Osborn, Sir William Mitchell, Duke of York (future King George VI), Sir Langdon Bonython, 1927