Mawson and Mertz: a re-evaluation of their ill-fated mapping journey during the 1911–1914 Australasian Antarctic Expedition

Denise Carrington-Smith
Med J Aust 2005; 183 (11): 638-641.


  • During the Australasian Antarctic Expedition of 1911–1914, Douglas Mawson and two companions, Belgrave Ninnis and Xavier Mertz, undertook an ill-fated mapping journey. Ninnis died when he fell down a crevasse, together with the sledge carrying most of their food supplies, and later Mertz became ill and died. Only Mawson returned.

  • In 1969, Cleland and Southcott proposed that Mertz died of vitamin A toxicity and Mawson suffered from the effects of hypervitaminosis A because, with little food left, they were forced to eat their surviving dogs, including the liver. This hypothesis was supported by Shearman in 1978.

  • After re-evaluating this hypothesis, I propose that Mawson and Mertz suffered from the effects of severe food deprivation, not from hypervitaminosis A, and that Mertz died as he was unable to tolerate the change from his usual vegetarian diet to a diet of mainly dog meat. I also suggest that Mertz’s condition was aggravated by the psychological stress of being forced to eat the dogs he had cared for for 18 months.

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  • Denise Carrington-Smith

  • PO Box 1143, Mossman, QLD.


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