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On the rocks with a twist

28 Nov, 2012

The centenary of Robert Scott’s expedition to the South Pole is being celebrated this year, but what about some of the forgotten tales of the heroic age? I spoke to Dr Henry Guly about his research into medicine on historical Antarctic expeditions, and discovered one particularly unusual form of ‘cold turkey’…

Writing from ‘The Fram’… Fridtjof Nansen endorses an alcoholic product

 Sending an alcoholic to the Antarctic to help them get over their addiction sounds a little extreme. It’s not the latest celebrity rehab craze, however, but an idea from 100 years ago, at the peak of the heroic age of Antarctic exploration. Dr Henry Guly from Derriford Hospital, Plymouth, has done extensive research into many of the medical issues associated with exploring the Antarctic, including alcoholism. He told me more about this less than obvious form of rehab and whether it actually worked.

The first case Dr Guly described was Dr Alistair Forbes Mackay, a Scottish surgeon and polar explorer. He accompanied Ernest Shackleton, a leading British explorer, on one of his most high-profile journeys towards the South Pole. As the expedition doctor, Forbes Mackay had a lot of responsibility but wasn’t always the most serious companion. He overindulged several times on the expedition, and seemed to become a bit of a ‘class clown’. One mid-winter, Shackleton’s crew were celebrating with a drink when they wondered where Forbes Mackay had got to. He was found in bed having drunk nearly an entire bottle of whiskey, missing most of the party.

On another occasion, when one of the expedition ponies fell in an icy pool, Forbes Mackay tried to help it by giving it brandy. But true to his reputation, he helped himself to the bottle as well. Forbes Mackay’s drinking got worse after their return, and Shackleton wanted to help his friend. His solution? He asked a fellow explorer, Vilhjalmur Stefansson, to take Forbes Mackay on his next trip, despite his alcoholism and somewhat reckless tendencies.

Alcohol was taken on almost all expeditions. It was comforting on the coldest and darkest days, and a treat on special occasions. But above all, alcohol was used medicinally: as a stimulant, a sedative and nourishment for the very weak. The supply was limited, however, so the drunken behaviour showcased by Forbes Mackay was rare. Although he slipped up from time to time, he was still able to carry out his duties as expedition doctor, and his addiction was much worse at home than on any expedition. The availability of alcohol of course contributed to his lapses, but its strict control at least limited them to just a few occasions.

Forbes Mackay was not the only case of this kind. Dr Guly told me another, more tragic story. A Norwegian polar explorer called Hjalmar Johansen was set to be one of the great explorers, but struggled with a drinking problem when he returned home. Johansen got his big break when he accompanied experienced explorer Fridtjof Nansen on a trip to the North Pole. They returned home heroes, but Johansen’s drinking started to take over and he lost his job in the navy. Nansen felt responsible for his former crew member, and convinced a fellow polar explorer, Roald Amundsen, to take Johansen on his next trip to the South Pole.

Early on in the expedition, Johansen and Amundsen had a serious falling out. Amundsen had set off South too early, so they had to turn back. On the journey back to base, Amundsen took the sled and left Johansen and another man to fend for themselves. Johansen saved the other man’s life and returned to base after a gruelling journey, frustrated and angry with Amundsen. They argued, to Johansen’s cost, and Amundsen ordered him to return to Norway.

Amundsen went on to become the first man to reach the South Pole; Johansen returned home disgraced and disappointed, and his drinking spiraled out of control. He hit rock bottom and killed himself in 1913.

Johansen’s demise was clearly linked to his struggle with alcohol, but alcoholism didn’t seem to be that detrimental while he was in the Antarctic. In the same way that Forbes Mackay held down his job as expedition doctor, Johansen seemed to cope well on the expedition. His disgrace was due to a clash of personalities, not addiction. But when he came back home, his drinking just got worse.

An Antarctic expedition may well have been a good distraction from drink for some alcoholics, and offered them a purpose through heroic deeds, but it did not cure them. Maybe it wasn’t the craziest idea, but I doubt it will be back in fashion any time soon.


Guly, H. (2012). Psychiatric illness and suicide in the heroic age of Antarctic exploration History of Psychiatry, 23 (2), 206-215 DOI: 10.1177/0957154X11399209

Guly, H. (2012). Psychology during the expeditions of the heroic age of Antarctic exploration History of Psychiatry, 23 (2), 194-205 DOI: 10.1177/0957154X11399203

Image kindly provided by Dr Guly

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