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Robert Falcon Scott
1868 - 1912

The English naval officer and polar explorer Robert Falcon Scott (1868-1912) made monumental scientific findings in Antarctica, and his geographical discoveries were extensive. He failed in his attempt to be the first to reach the South Pole.


Robert F. Scott was born on June 6, 1868, at Devonport. In 1880 he entered the naval college, H.M.S. Britannia, and 2 years later became a midshipman. He was promoted to first lieutenant in 1897. As early as 1887 Scott had come to the attention of Sir Clements Markham, the principal promoter of British exploration in the late 19th century. In 1899, after Markham had won partial government backing for the intended dash to the pole, Scott was chosen to head the National Antarctic Expedition.

Leaving England in August 1901, the Discovery, with Scott as commander, sailed south and reached the Ross Sea in January 1902. For 2 years the ship remained off Hut Point, Ross Island, in McMurdo Sound, and it was from here that many sledge journeys, including two led by Scott himself, began. On Dec. 30, 1902, Scott and two of his associates reached latitude 82°16'33"S over the Antarctic Plateau; this was then the southern record. A year later Scott reached latitude 77°59'S, longitude 146°33'E. A general reconnaissance of the area around South Victoria Land and the Ross Sea and Ross Shelf Ice was undertaken, and the findings added much to man's knowledge of Antarctica. The expedition ended when the Discovery, with the relief ships Morning and Terra Nova, reached New Zealand in April 1904. Promoted to captain on his return to England in 1904, Scott commanded, in turn, three warships and in 1909 became a naval assistant at the Admiralty. Scott recorded his impressions of his first expedition in The Voyage of the "Discovery" (1905).

Enthusiasm for Antarctic explorations had waned after 1904, but in 1909 Scott announced plans to reach the South Pole. British and Dominion governments gave financial support, and the Terra Nova sailed in June 1910. While at sea, Scott learned that Roald Amundsen and his Norwegian party were also attempting to reach the pole. The race was on. From winter headquarters at Cape Evans (latitude 77°38'24"S), Scott began his sledge journey on Nov. 1, 1911. He had placed much faith, too much as events were to prove, on motor sledges and ponies. The former broke down; the latter either died in crevasses or were shot for food. Consequently, the strength of Scott and his men was taxed even before they left the last supporting party at latitude 86°32'S on Jan. 4, 1912, for the attempt on the pole. On January 18 the party, composed of Scott and four others, reached the South Pole and found there the Norwegian flag, a tent, and a note left for Scott by Amundsen, who with his excellent knowledge and use of dogs, had reached the goal on December 14, 1911.

Heartbroken and weary, the party now turned for base camp. But weakened by the strain and lack of warm food, which brought on frostbite, the men became involved in a "race against time to reach one depot after another" before their strength gave out. At latitude 79°40'S, 11 miles from One Ton Depot, the remaining three members of the party made camp for the last time. On March 29 Scott made his last journal entry. Eight months later a relief expedition found the tent, bodies, journals, and records. In 1964 an account of this expedition was published as Scott's Last Expedition: From the Personal Journals of Captain R. F. Scott.

When news of the tragic and heroic end reached London and Europe, admiration was forthcoming from many quarters. A lasting action was the opening of a fund to commemorate the explorers which enabled publication of their scientific results and the opening of the great Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge, England.


Robert Falcon Scott, CVO, RN, (6 June 1868, "Outlands" – 29 March 1912) was a British Royal Navy officer and Antarctic explorer. In the so-called "Race to the South Pole" Scott was second, behind the winning Norwegian Roald Amundsen; he and his four companions died whilst trying to return to their base. Scott has become one of the most famous, and tragic, personalities of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration.

Early life

Scott was the third eldest son of a large family at "Outlands", Stoke Damerel, near Devonport in England, to John Edward Scott, a brewer and magistrate, and Hannah née Cuming. He had two elder sisters and a younger brother named Archibald. In 1881, Scott briefly attended Stubbington House School, in Hampshire, before he left home at the age of 13 to join the naval training ship HMS Britannia at Dartmouth and began his training.

There was a significant naval tradition in Scott's family and Scott joined the Navy as a midshipman in 1882, aged 13 years. He first sailed on HMS Boadicea, the flagship of the English Channel Fleet at that time. He transferred to HMS Rover in 1887. He was promoted to sub-lieutenant on his transfer to HMS Spider. Scott rose to become an engineering lieutenant in 1891 on HMS Amphion, specialising in torpedoes. He became a First Lieutenant in 1892 aboard HMS Majestic, at the time the flagship of the Channel fleet.

In 1893, his father was forced to sell the brewery in Plymouth and, in 1895, relocate the family to Somerset where he managed a brewery until his death in 1897.

Discovery expedition 1901-1904

At the request of Sir Clements Markham, the former polar explorer and then President Royal Geographical Society, Scott commanded the National Antarctic Expedition, which began in 1901, in Discovery. The major achievements of the expedition were an exploration of the Ross Sea; the land to the east of the ice sea being sighted for the first time and named "King Edward VII Land" in honour of the then British monarch; the Polar Plateau was discovered; and a new "furthest south" was achieved. Scott and Dr Edward Wilson reached 82°17' S on December 31 1902. Ernest Shackleton did not reach this far south, having been ordered to stay behind with the dogs at 82°15 ' S. Shackleton was Scott's third lieutenant on the expedition.

Many biographers of both men have written of an intense personal animosity and rivalry between the two. However, Ranulph Fiennes, in his 2003 biography of Scott, writes that there was little evidence of this and that the two were friendly on the expedition. Fiennes dismisses the autobiography of Albert Armitage, Scott's navigator and second-in-command, whose account provides most of the primary source data of the split between Scott and Shackleton, because Armitage, Fiennes says, felt slighted by Scott. Fiennes wrote that Shackleton was sent home early, on the first relief ship, from the Discovery expedition because he was ill, as Scott claimed, rather than because of a strained relationship between the two, as others have suggested. Scott and Shackleton both organised and led further expeditions, and found themselves in competition for experienced personnel and financial support.

The Chief Engineer, Reginald Skelton, who was in charge of photography, was the first person to discover an Emperor Penguin breeding colony and to photograph Emperor Penguins.

Terra Nova expedition 1910-1913

Scott was keen to return to Antarctica, and it was evident that he had enjoyed the command and the involvement with scientific endeavour, and had a strong personal desire to be the first to the South Pole. It took nearly eight years for him to mount a second expedition because of problems raising public interest when the North Pole was a much more immediate challenge, and in handling financial difficulties in his family.


After his marriage to Kathleen Bruce on September 14 1908, and the birth in 1909 of his only son, Peter, he embarked on his second polar expedition. His ship, Terra Nova, left London on June 1 1910, sailing via Cardiff, which it left on June 15. Scott sailed with the ship only as far as Rotherhithe and then returned to London to continue raising money for the expedition, and departed a month later to join the ship in South Africa.

Scott was informed en route that Roald Amundsen, who had appeared to have been preparing an expedition to the North Pole, was instead heading south. It has been suggested that Amundsen did not mean to deceive Scott, but that Nansen had lent him the unique ship Fram specifically for the Arctic journey. Like Scott, Amundsen had borrowed heavily to fund his expedition, and having been beaten to the North Pole by Robert Peary in 1909, turned to the South Pole in an attempt to recoup his costs. Amundsen sent word to Scott, and hosted a party of Scott's men at his camp in Antarctica, offering them a site next to his as a base. This amity aside, in the public mind there was certainly now a 'race to the Pole'. Scott could not have avoided it: a large part of the interest and funding for the expedition was based on priority, and Scott could not have been unaffected personally by a desire to be first.

Scott's expedition had a very large scientific component that went well beyond the observations (primarily geographical and meteorological) that were expected of exploration parties at the time. Scott carried equipment and had a programme of work for extensive geological and zoological study. Partly for this reason, and also because Terra Nova did not have the strength of the Fram to withstand the ice further south, he elected to set up his base camp on Ross Island, some 100 km north of Amundsen's, who had set up base on the edge of the Ross Ice Shelf, called the Ice Barrier at the time, hundreds of miles from the nearest land.

South Pole and return

After a year spent undertaking science work, and laying provisions along the route of the party who were to make the journey to the South Pole, a five-man party (Scott, Lieutenant Henry Bowers, Dr Edward Wilson, Petty Officer Edgar Evans and army Captain Lawrence Oates) was selected for the final stretch to the pole itself. On arriving at the South Pole on January 17-January 18, 1912, Scott found that Amundsen had been there a month earlier - Scott had predicted some months before this would probably be the case. Amundsen returned to his base in good order, while Scott's entire party perished on the return journey. Scott acknowledged that there had been no margin for error or delay in his calculations and his party succumbed to injury, frostbite, malnutrition and exhaustion. As their progress slowed the worsening and unusually cold weather further reduced their pace.

The first to die was Evans, who suffered a swift mental and physical breakdown near the foot of the Beardmore Glacier. The reasons for this and actual cause of death shortly afterwards remain uncertain. One theory that has been advanced is that he suffered a head injury that went unnoticed during a minor fall. Other theories as to the cause of his death have included scurvy owing to vitamin deficiency, effects of starvation and weight loss, hypoglycaemia and hypothermia. Oates, afflicted by frostbite, had lost the use of one foot, which made it very hard for him to keep up. Because the party would not abandon him to die, their progress was critically slowed. Oates' condition deteriorated, until at a point some 30 miles short of the One Ton supply depot he came to the view that he could not go on and his disability was endangering the remainder of the party. Waking on the morning of March 17, 1912, Oates left the tent, stepping out into the blizzard with the memorable words "I am just going outside and may be some time." It was his 32nd birthday. His body has never been found.

Final words

The tent containing the bodies of the remaining three members of the South Pole party was found six months later by a search party led by Atkinson, which included amongst others Apsley Cherry-Garrard - the last camp was only 11 miles (20 km) from the One Ton supply depot. With them were found their diaries, letters to family and friends and a "Message to the Public" written by Scott. In January 2007, Scott's family released the content of his final letter to his wife, entitled, To my widow. Their sled was still loaded with rock samples from the Queen Alexandra Range. Scott's journal said:

Had we lived I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman. These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale...We shall stick it out to the end, but we are getting weaker of course and the end cannot be far. It seems a pity, but I do not think I can write more. For God's sake, look after our people.
– Scott's journal

Cherry-Garrard records that after retrieving the diaries and the rock samples, the tent was collapsed over the bodies of Scott, Wilson and Bowers and a cairn of ice and snow erected to mark the place. Atkinson knew that the place they made this burial was part of the Ross Ice Shelf, moving north towards the open sea at 500 metres a year, and that effectively they were committing the bodies to the sea. The search party also looked further south for Oates' body, but found only his sleeping bag. They erected a cairn near the spot in memory of "a very gallant gentleman".

Scott famously left instructions to his wife, regarding their son, to "try and make the boy interested in natural history if you can". Peter Scott went on to found the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust and the World Wide Fund for Nature.

Posthumous "Scott of the Antarctic" legend

News of Amundsen's success reached Europe before Scott's fate was known. When the deaths of Scott and his companions became known grief was expressed throughout the British Empire. Cherry-Garrard described the sombre mood as the Terra Nova returned to New Zealand with the remaining expeditioners. Scott's eloquent diary became a best-seller, and through it the public became acquainted with the story of Oates and Scott. Books, art, sculpture, film and poetry subsequently developed the tragic and heroic aspects of the story. Streets, churches and towns throughout the British Empire were named after Scott and his companions.

Amundsen's achievement was eclipsed in the British Empire by Scott's reputation. There were accusations that Amundsen had breached convention by intruding into the Ross Sea, which had since James Clark Ross's discovery in 1841 been - in the public mind - an area of exclusively British endeavour. Conventions in exploration of that time gave subsequent exploration rights to the nation that had discovered an area. The public (but not Scott) was unaware that Norway had undertaken significant exploration work at the invitation of the British in the Ross Sea in 1893 and 1898, and on the later expedition discovered the Bay of Whales that Amundsen used as his base in 1911.

The mythologising of Scott, particularly after Cherry-Garrard's publication of The Worst Journey in the World took on an extra dimension - that of Scott as the flawed but very human character compared with Amundsen. Amundsen was portrayed in the British press as a professional explorer in an age where the amateur was seen as morally superior, and as a man pursuing personal ambition rather than national glory or the advancement of science. In fact, Amundsen was not unlike Scott, a highly-driven amateur who had at times difficult relations with his men and was uncomfortable in the public spotlight.

Scott's widow Kathleen Scott (later Baroness Kennet) was granted the rank (but not the style) of a widow of a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath, but Scott was not knighted posthumously, there being no such provision in English law. It has been suggested in recent times that Kathleen, as Scott lay dying, was conducting an affair with the famous polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen, who had hired his ship, the Fram, to Amundsen. Kathleen Scott had a reputation for being independent and strong willed, and never more formidable than when defending the reputations of Robert Scott and their child, Peter.










This web page was last updated on: 15 December, 2008