Mawson Mertz in the Australasian Antartic Expedition

The Haunting Story from the Mawson Antarctic Expedition

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.

A mapping exercise

In 1915, Mawson published an account of the 1911–1914 expedition, including the mapping  journey. From this we know that Mawson, Ninnis and Mertz had taken sledge dogs with them to enable rapid travel over the first part of their journey to map an area more distant than that being mapped by other members of the expedition. We also know that Mertz and Ninnis were close friends. Together they had brought the dogs by ship from England and they cared for the dogs for the 10 months the expedition party spent in the Antarctic before they set out on their fateful mapping venture.

Mawson and Mertz Base Camp photo
Mertz leaving from the Base Camp hut via the trapdoor in the verhanda’s roof

When Ninnis fell into a crevasse to his death on 14 December, the sledge carrying most of the food supplies was lost too. Mawson and Mertz were faced  with the daunting prospect of making their way  back to Base Camp on reduced rations.

To survive, they had no option but to kill and eat the six remaining dogs.

The tragedy occurred as Mawson’s party were approaching the end of  their proposed outward journey, and the dogs were already weakened from the exertion of pulling sledges against strong winds and over very rough ground. By this time, Mawson had divided the dogs into two  teams — the strongest and fittest pulling the heavier load, which included all of the dog food and most of the human food, while the weaker dogs pulled the lighter sledge. It was the heavier sledge, with most of the food and the stronger dogs, that was lost in the crevasse.

The first of the remaining dogs died the next day. The dogs continued working until they ‘dropped’, as was their nature. They were then carried on the sledge in a comatose 

condition until shot and used for food for both man and dog. It is clear that the dogs were  already severely malnourished  — Mawson described the dog meat as “tough, stringy and without a vestige of fat”.

In his account, Mawson made it clear that all rations were shared with the utmost impartiality. It may be assumed, therefore, that Mawson and Mertz shared all rations equally until  31 December, when Mertz began to feel unwell and being vegetarian and understandably finding the dog meat difficult to stomach, requested an extra  portion of dried milk powder, while Mawson took an extra ration of dog meat in exchange. This is contrary to the suggestion by Shearman that Mertz may have found the liver less repulsive and they may have struck a ‘bargain’ on this issue.

If the food was shared equally, then in the three weeks before he died, Mertz could have eaten no more than three husky livers — about one a week or one-seventh per day. Levels of vitamin A in Antarctic husky liver vary considerably, even in healthy dogs. Although it is difficult to form an estimate of the likely vitamin A content in the livers of these emaciated dogs, it was probably low.

Did Vitamin A Toxicosis Seal Mertz’s Fate in the Antarctic Tragedy?

In 1912, while Mawson’s expedition was in the Antarctic, the term ‘vitamins’ was first used to describe a new class of nutrients believed necessary to support life, and 1915 saw the discovery of the fat-soluble vitamin “A” in cod-liver oil and in butter. The period between the World Wars was one of great discoveries in relation to the role of vitamins and the effects of vitamin deficiencies, but it was not until after World War II that vitamin preparations became widely available, were consumed in large quantities by the general public, and attention began to focus on the possible effects of vitamin overdoses.

The symptoms of chronic hypervitaminosis A are well documented. Vitamin A, being fat soluble and stored in the body to some extent, is known to exhibit toxicity at very high doses taken over long periods of time. However, most reports have been related to the ingestion of large amounts of the vitamin in tablet form over extended periods of time — usually several years rather than weeks.

Symptoms have included coarseness and sparseness of hair of the scalp, eyebrows and other parts of the body; dryness of the skin, ulceration, and desquamation;

hepatosplenomegaly; anorexia and diarrhea; cessation of menstruation; hemorrhagic tendency; hyperostosis, bone tenderness or pain, especially of the distal extremities

(which may be accompanied by weakness); myalgia; and dizziness, blurred vision, increased intracranial pressure (causing bulging of the fontanelles in infants and severe headache in adults); and irritability and depression.

Staggering Dosage: Surviving Extreme Vitamin A Intake Equivalent to Over 10 Pounds of Beef Liver

Furman described a laboratory worker who self-medicated with 1 300 000 IU of vitamin A over a 27-hour period and suffered intense headache, blurred vision, and was unable to sit or stand because of dizziness and vertigo. Desquamation followed a few days later. This is one of the few cases of acute vitamin A poisoning in which there was immediate medical evaluation. However, Furman noted that this case appeared to be one of individual hyperreactivity, as many other patients have taken far higher doses over longer periods without ill effect.

Nevertheless, similar to all accounts to date of presumed acute vitamin A toxicity, in this case there was a rapid onset and a rapid recovery.

Vilhjalmur Stefansson made it his life’s work to study the life and diet of the Eskimo. Some of his companions had experienced headache, nausea and weakness after eating bear liver, although they recovered the next day. On one occasion, Stefansson and three companions experimented by dividing up a bear liver between them. One man felt very nauseous, Stefansson suffered loss of appetite, the other two suffered no ill effects.

While some of the symptoms suffered by Mawson and Mertz occur in hypervitaminosis A, none were exclusively those of vitamin A toxicity. However, these symptoms may also be attributed to severe food deprivation and the effects of the cold and wet conditions which the pair were forced to endure. Mawson and Mertz had no change of clothing and wore their damp clothing for weeks on end, to say nothing of sleeping in damp sleeping bags.

Further, no mention is made by Mawson, in his meticulous account, of the symptoms which would have been expected in acute vitamin A toxicity — headache, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, weakness of the legs, excessive tiredness or hemorrhaging. If there was sufficient vitamin A present in the husky livers to cause acute toxicity, more of these acute symptoms should have been apparent. Indeed, it is difficult to comprehend how Mawson could have completed his journey enduring the unrelenting extreme physical exertion.

Stefansson in his Arctic parka in this undated photo.
UND Office of University Relations

Vitamin A toxicosis?

Why did Mertz, and not Mawson, die? Mertz was a near vegetarian. He accepted the need to eat pemmican biscuits, made from dried, powdered beef, as part of the sledging rations, but this is a far cry from being forced to eat the flesh of his beloved dogs.

When Ninnis died, Mawson suffered the loss of a companion and a member of the party for whom he was ultimately responsible, but Mertz had lost a close friend. Indeed, he had lost seven friends, one human and six animals.

Not only did Mertz lose these friends, but the remaining dogs were dying, one by one. In addition to witnessing their suffering, he then had to assist in their final moments

and eat their flesh. Also, a sudden change of diet to one consisting mainly of meat would have added to the difficulties that he and Mawson faced. Draper has reported that a sudden change from a mixed diet to a primarily meat-based diet leads to asymptomatic ketosis and ketonuria. This being the case, the change by Mertz, not from a “mixed” diet but from a vegetarian one, to a diet based primarily on meat may have resulted in problems which have not yet been considered.

These two additional factors, the psychological stresses related to the death of a close friend and the deaths of the dogs he had cared for, as well as the need to kill and eat his remaining dogs, and the physiological stress caused by a change in diet, may have contributed to Mertz’s death.

Paradoxically, Mertz’ death probably saved Mawson’s life, as it made available a double ration of the remaining food. Although the nutritional value of the dog meat would have been low, such little as there was, may have contributed to Mawson’s survival.

Hunter-Gatherers Prized Organ Meats

Liver in particular is famous for its “anti-fatigue factor.” It’s used worldwide by athletes & everyday individuals as a natural, long-lasting energy boost.

Who wouldn’t love some extra (all-natural!) energy? Our hunter-gatherer ancestors viewed raw organ meats as their #1 prized delicacy for a reason.

Raw organ meats

In particular, Weston A. Price discovered that certain foods, such as liver, bone marrow, fish eggs, egg yolks, and tallow, were staples in our ancestors’ diets to allow for easyconception and the creation of healthy, beautiful babies.

Today, modern science tells us why. For instance, we know that healthy sperm and fertile eggs require animal-sourced vitamin A to function properly. Organic Grass fed, liver is hands down the best source.

Our approach at Grassland Nutrition 

At Grassland Nutrition we care about sourcing the highest quality liver on the market and work with OBE organic in the Australian Channel Country, where the cattle naturally grazes on over 250 native species of plants and watered by natural rainfall. 

Our Organic liver has been freeze-dried, the term desiccated is a broad term and could indicate a variety of drying methods, including heat which can destroy the nutritional content of the liver, basically leaving the desiccated liver with no national value.  

The benefit of freeze drying the liver is the flavour is milder and much more palatable and can be easily mixed into your existing foods.  One standard serving of Grassland Nutrition Liver/Kelp  taken daily is 3 grams (3.5:1 Ratio), which roughly works out to a standard serving of liver per week.


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