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Robert F. Scott

Antarctic explorer

Robert Falcon Scott

Robert Falcon Scott was born just outside Devonport, England, on June 6, 1868, the third of five children born to John Edward and Hannah (Cuming) Scott (he had two older sisters, a younger brother, and a younger sister). Educated at Stoke Damerel and Stubbington House at Fareham, he joined the officer training college HMS Britannia in 1880, and joined his first seagoing ship in August of 1883, as a midshipman aboard the HMS Boadicea, the flagship of the Cape Squadron. After serving aboard various ships of the Royal Navy, Scott spent the winter of 1887-1888 at the Royal Naval College at Greenwich, where he was awarded first-class certificates in pilotage, torpedoes, and gunnery, in March of 1888. Promoted to Sub-Lieutenant in 1888 and to Lieutenant in 1889, Scott's naval career may have stagnated at that point had he not been given an opportunity to make history.

In 1899, on the recommendation of Sir Clements Markham, Scott was offered command of the British National Antarctic Expedition, then being organized by the Royal Geographical Society and the Royal Society. The expedition was being arranged to explore the South Victoria Land and the ice barrier which had been discovered back in 1841 by James Ross, and to extend further into the Antarctic continent. A survey ship was purchased in 1901, and the majority of the ship's crew was chosen by Scott, who was promoted to Commander upon taking up his duties aboard the HMS Discovery.

The Discovery departed from Cowes, Wales, on August 6, 1901, anchored in McMurdo Sound at Ross Island at the foot of Mount Erebus on February 8, 1902, and established a base camp at what became known as Hut Point. In November of 1902, Scott set off southwards with an exploratory party that included Ernest Shackleton and Adrian Wilson. After a difficult journey during which the party endured scurvy in addition to the bitter cold, they arrived back at Point Hut on February 3, 1903, having reached further south than any other humans. The relief ship Morning arrived the same day the expedition returned, and stayed until March 2; when it left, it took some of the expedition members, including Shackleton, with it due to a lack of enough supplies to sustain the full expeditionary team.

In October of 1903, Scott set off on a second expedition, this time heading west from Point Hut. Among his team on this expedition were Petty Officer Edgar Evans and Leading Stoker William Lashly. Beset by numerous problems, including the loss of the navigation tables, the expedition was forced to turn back on November 30 and make its way back to Point Hut by dead reckoning. When they finally arrived back at their base camp in mid-December, they found that the team members who had stayed behind had been trying to break the ice that had been holding the Discovery since soon after it dropped anchor. On January 5, 1904, the Morning returned, accompanied by the whaling ship Terra Nova, with orders from the Admiralty to bring Scott and his party back to civilization, even if they had to abandon the Discovery to the ice. The ice began breaking up during the first week of Februrary, however, and all three ships left McMurdo Sound on February 16. The ships reached New Zealand in April, and the expedition arrived at Stokes Bay, near Portsmouth, England, on September 10. The British National Antarctic Expedition had been a tremendous success. In addition to Scott's explorations, the team had taken soundings of the Ross Sea, investigated the structure of the continent, fixed the position of the South Magnetic Pole, and undertook observations the natural life of the continent, including a colony of Emperor Penguins at Cape Crozier. And, despite having had no prior command or scientific experience, Scott had showed his leadership skills and his ability to undertake scientific research.

Scott received many national and international honors in recognition of his achievements in Antarctica, including the French Legion of Honour, Commander of the Royal Victorian Order (CVO), the Polar Medal, and promotion to the rank of Captain, dated from his return to Portsmouth. He asked the First Sea Lord for a leave of absence in order to write up his narrative of the expedition, and The Voyage of Discovery was published in 1905. During this period, he was attached to the Admiralty as an Assistant Director of Naval Intelligence.

Scott returned to sea duty as Flag Captain of Rear-Admiral Egerton on HMS Victorious on August 21, 1906, and transferred to the HMS Albemarle in January 1907. On September 2, 1908, he married Kathleen Bruce, with whom he had one son (Peter). In March of 1909, after briefly commanding two different ships, Scott became the first naval officer ever appointed as Naval Secretary to the Second Sea Lord, Sir Frances Bridgeman (the position has previously always been held by a civilian). While fulfilling his various naval duties during this period, Scott spent his spare time planning a second expedition to the Antarctic, with the ultimate goal being to reach the South Pole. Scott publicly announced his intentions on June 19, 1909, at a dinner honoring Shackleton's reaching the magnetic South Pole earlier that year, and planning began in earnest soon after.

Scott's second expedition to the Antarctic departed from Cardiff, Wales, on June 15, 1910, aboard the whaler Terra Nova, which had been specially designed for traversing icy seas. The ship reached McMurdo Sound on January 5, 1911, and Scott's expeditionary team set off from its base camp on November 11, following the route taken by Shackleton on his expedition to the magnetic South Pole. The last supporting team left on January 4, 1912, and Scott continued on with a party of five -- himself, Dr. Edward Wilson, Captain Lawrence Oates, Lieutenant Henry Bowers, and Petty Officer Edgar Evans. Enduring fierce blizzards and temperatures as low as minus 23 degrees along the way, the small party reached the geographic South Pole on January 17, 1912, only to find a Norwegian flag and a note from Roald Amundsen that his party had reached the Pole a month earlier. By the time the dejected men began their return journey they were already suffering from frostbite and scurvy and their food supplies were beginning to dwindle. Evans was the first to die, followed by Oates. Scott made his last journal entry on March 29, 1912, and it is presumed that he and his last two comrades died within two days of that entry. A rescue party found the bodies of Scott, Bowers, and Wilson still huddled in their tent on November 12, 1912.

Scott (at head of table) celebrates his birthday at McMurdo Sound on June 6, 1911, as he and his team await the antarctic summer.
Scott's last birthday

A support party uses Siberian ponies in a supply caravan to depots set up along the route to the pole. The ponies could not stand the cold and died off quickly.
support party with ponies

The pole party hauls a sledge on the final 350-mile trek to the pole. Pulling 180 pounds each, they exhausted much of the energy they needed for the return journey.
final trek to the pole

Scott's party finds the tent and flags planted at the South Pole by Roald Amundsen, as well as Amundsen's note telling them how badly they had been beaten.
Scott's men find Amundsen's tent and note

Scott and his men pose for a picture after reaching the South Pole. Standing, from left: Oates, Scott, Evans; sitting, Bowers and Wilson.
final picture

Scott's grave is marked by a tall cairn and a cross erected by the rescue party that found the bodies and recovered Scott's diary and photographs.
Scott's grave

Royal Naval Museum

Roald Amundsen

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This page was last updated on 10/24/2017.