In Race To South Pole, Robert Falcon Scott Lost ... Or Did He? The British explorer may have been beaten to the South Pole, but the experiments he conducted along the way changed science forever. What Robert Falcon Scott achieved, says author Edward Larson, went far beyond what his peers accomplished.
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In Race To South Pole, Scott Lost ... Or Did He?

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In Race To South Pole, Scott Lost ... Or Did He?

In Race To South Pole, Scott Lost ... Or Did He?

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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GUY RAZ, host: Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Our book today is a familiar story. It's about the heroic age of Antarctic exploration in the early 20th century. But a new retelling by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Edward Larson offers up a revisionist account of the personalities and rivalries and competitors who set out to reach the South Pole. The man who would ultimately get there first in December 1911 was the Norwegian explorer Raold Amundsen. He went with a small team and a pack of sled dogs. And at the time, it was seen as a shattering defeat for Britain and the team that it sent out led by Robert Falcon Scott.

Now, when Lord Curzon, the head of Britain's Royal Geographic Society, reluctantly invited Amundsen to speak to his group, he intentionally humiliated the Norwegian.

EDWARD LARSON: (Reading) In his closing remarks following the banquet, Curzon added: I almost wished that in our tribute of admiration we could include those wonderful, good-tempered, fascinating dogs, the true friends of man without whom Captain Amundsen would never have got to the Pole. Then, as Amundsen remembered it, Curzon turned toward the Norwegians and added the phrase: I therefore propose three cheers for the dogs.

RAZ: That's Edward Larson reading from his book. Raold Amundsen, by the way, never forgot that slight, but history did vindicate him, and it was Robert Falcon Scott who was eventually regarded as a failure. But in his book, "An Empire of Ice," Edward Larson argues to the contrary: Robert Scott was the real hero because of the scientific work he did along the way.

LARSON: Scott's entire expedition was part of a large scientific enterprise. He had teams fanning out throughout the Ross Sea area of Antarctica while Amundsen simply achieved getting to the Pole, which is a human achievement. But Scott's work really changed the course of science. He established, along with his first expedition and Shackleton's - and they all should be viewed as a group, these three expeditions...

RAZ: Ernest Shackleton. RAZ: You write about one member of Scott's team. You describe how his teeth were chattering, right, so much that he actually broke them.

LARSON: One of the people on one of these winter expeditions lost their entire teeth because they couldn't stop chattering their teeth from the cold, and all their teeth shattered.

RAZ: Scott's team eventually does reach the South Pole 35 days after Amundsen's team had arrived. Amundsen's team leaves a tent and a note saying, welcome to 90 degrees. It must have been humiliating and painful for Scott's team to see that. They then turn around, and of course, they didn't make it back. They died. You describe how eight months later their bodies are found along with all their preserved research: 35 pounds of fossils and rock samples, copious notes. What was in that trove?

LARSON: There was quite a bit in that. But the most important thing was that on all three expeditions, British expeditions, the holy grail I think they were looking for most of all was evidence of a particular type of fossil, Glossopteris, which is a sort of a broad-leafed fern.

And the reason why they were interested - in fact, it's what launched the whole series - was that in the late-1800s, the creationists were attacking Darwin's theory that because there was this particular type of fossil found in the ancient record in Africa and South America and in Australia and all looked about the same age. And they said, well, it couldn't have evolved because it's all these different places. They couldn't have got from each other. And so Darwin hypothesized that, you know, there's probably a southern continent where this evolved, an Antarctic continent, that somehow was connected to these other continents and it evolved there and then spread out, and of course, by the time it makes it to the other places, it'll look the same.

So those expeditions in part - the Royal Society funded it to look for - to sort of to prove Darwin's theory. And three expeditions had gone out and they had found that there - there was a continent, which Darwin had predicted. They found there had been life there. There had been plant life. They found coal, they found other fossils, but they hadn't found this one. And on the way back in excruciating cold, the scientist going with Scott, Edward Wilson, spotted what might be this key - well, at least a collection of fossils, and they steered over and they spent a couple days in this awful condition that they were in, some would say, wasted a couple days digging out those fossils and they were it. They'd found it. That's what Wilson thought, and he insisted that they carry him back.

And so even when two men had died and things were getting critical...

RAZ: Amazing.

LARSON: ...Wilson insisted that they carry them back, and that's what they found - when they went back and found the bodies and the sledge and the tent. They found those fossils with Wilson's note that he thought they were finally the long-sought Glossopteris.

RAZ: And were they?

LARSON: Yes, they were. They came back, and they found out that those were the Glossopteris. And that showed that these continents in some way, the southern land mass, was in some way connected and that the particular type of ancient fossil had evolved first in Antarctica and then spread out. As the world got colder, it had moved north into South America, Australia and Africa.

RAZ: Scott was - Robert Scott was - eventually was remembered almost as a failed leader, even in Britain, someone, who wasn't able to manage his expedition. He lost the race to the South Pole and eventually, of course, he died in the very place he was exploring. But do you think now, you know, 100 years on, his legacy is being reevaluated?

LARSON: Certainly it is now. It took a while. Of course, at first he was a hero. He was the leading hero, one of the great explorers if you look at the early 20th century. But after the - especially - beginning after the First World War and especially after the second, when that sort of valiant but failed sacrifice became out of fashion, his star was eclipsed, and instead, Shackleton became more the hero. But what's beginning to happen now with some other books and this one is to show that as long as you're focusing just on getting to the Pole, well, of course, Scott failed. But if you look at the broader in context of what he was trying to accomplish and you see the type of scientific expedition that he mounted, it really was a remarkable effort far beyond anything that Amundsen even attempted.

RAZ: That's author Edward Larson. His new book is called "An Empire of Ice: Scott, Shackleton and the Heroic Age of Antarctic Science." It's in bookstores now. Edward Larson, thank you so much.

LARSON: Thank you so much for having me on the program.

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