Mawson and Mertz: what really happened? Another perspective

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.

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

A mapping exercise

In 1915, Mawson published an account of the 1911–1914 expedition, including the mapping  journey.3. 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.

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.

Vitamin A toxicosis?

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

Debunking concerns over eating Beef Liver: Is It Safe?

We often hear concerns about the safety of frequently consuming beef liver. 

The liver is a vital organ in the body performing several important functions. It stores nutrients, detoxifies the blood and makes bile to aid the digestion of fat. 

This blog has been created to look more closely at these common objections in order to debunk exactly what is perceived to be a risk and your key considerations to make an informed decision for what is right for you. 

Beef liver is a renowned superfood containing around 25 essential vitamins and minerals, such as vitamin A, vitamin B12, and iron. 

Is it safe? And if so, how much is healthy? Read on…

Beef liver is ‘nature’s ready-made nutrient package’ and is also a good source of many trace minerals, such as copper and selenium. As it is also high in folic acid, it helps the body to produce and maintain new cells. This is essential for fertility, and particularly in pregnancy to support foetal development. 

A great source of essential fatty acids like Omega-3s and Omega-6s, for heart, brain and eye health. Beef liver supports cognitive development in young children and throughout the development cycle, from 6 months to adulthood.

It improves energy levels and has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. With a good metabolic health approach, consuming beef liver can help to offset the biggest diseases in modern society today, such as heart disease, cancer and dementia.

Beef Liver ‘risks’

Beef liver contains high levels of Vitamin A that helps support vision, the immune and reproductive system…but Vitamin A is reported to cause adverse effects when excessive amounts are consumed as reported through Government and by standardised dieticians and nutritionists.

This deemed to be high risk Vitamin A advice is two-fold and without evidence: 

  • beef liver contains many toxins, and 
  • the dangers to be aware of given its high vitamin A content.

As we began in this blog, the liver plays a vital role in neutralising toxins, yet it does not store them. Instead the liver serves as storage for essential nutrients such as vitamins A, D, E, K, B12, folic acid, as well as minerals like copper and iron. These nutrients equip the body with the necessary tools to eliminate toxins.

Concerns about vitamin A arise from studies where doses of synthetic vitamin A were discovered to cause problems and potentially lead to birth defects. However, the natural form of vitamin A found in the liver is an essential nutrient for human health and does not cause issues unless in extremely large amounts.

Here we refer to the comprehensive The Liver Files as detailed in Weston A Price’s blog.

  • acute toxicity from vitamin A has only been induced by long-term consumption of megavitamin tablets containing 100,000 IU synthetic vitamin A per day over many months. 

The suggested toxic dose of 100,000 IU per day can be found in approximately three 100-gram servings of beef liver. 

“It is estimated that primitive diets included around 50,000 IU of vitamin A per day.”

  • With reference to pregnant women, a study found no cases of congenital malformations among 120 infants exposed to more than 50,000 IU of vitamin A daily
  • Another study examined blood levels of vitamin A in pregnant women and discovered that a dosage of 30,000 IU per day did not correlate with birth defects

In pregnancy, beef liver helps support healthy iron levels and traditional nutrition journals recommended consuming beef liver regularly. Nowadays the message has turned to that of caution and thus hesitation and even avoidance when so many benefits are to be had. 

The Natural Library of Medicine also emphasises in a paper focused on Vitamin A toxicity, published in August 2022 that:

  • “Reported incidences of vitamin A toxicity are quite rare, with fewer than 10 cases per year from 1976 to 1987.” 

Therefore it is highly unlikely to develop vitamin A toxicity from consuming liver. 

How to enjoy beef liver safely

As we have reviewed, whole food beef liver is known for its high bioavailability and nutrient content, including iron. When it comes to iron, beef liver is regarded as the best food source as it contains a type of iron called heme iron, which is more easily absorbed and utilised by the body, compared to non-heme iron found in plant-based sources. Heme iron has a higher bioavailability, meaning a greater percentage of the iron can be absorbed by the body.

Mercola recently published a paper on the possible effects of too much iron in the brain stating: 

“Most people are deficient in copper and actually need more copper in order for their iron metabolism to function properly.

Depending on your copper levels, you may need to eat copper-rich foods, such as grass fed

beef liver.”

“Retinol, which makes copper bioavailable, is also important. It’s found in beef liver and

beef organs, so if you eat that, you may not need any kind of supplement.”

Freeze-dried beef liver is highly concentrated, three times as nutrient dense as its raw equivalent. The freeze-drying process helps preserve the nutritional content of beef liver, even after the water content is removed.

Freeze-dried beef liver is lightweight and convenient to store, with a long shelf life (Grassland Nutrition’s products can be stored for three years). Freeze-dried beef liver doesn’t need to be refrigerated and can be carried when on the move or added to meals for a boost. This is a practical option for those with busy lifestyles, or that have limited regular access to fresh liver.

Convenience and peace of mind with wholefood supplements 

Overall, freeze-dried beef liver is a convenient and beneficial option for individuals seeking to increase their overall health, build strength, optimise energy levels  and thrive. In practical terms it has been known to aid sleep, digestion, build strength, support and maintain energy, improve the condition of skin, hair and nails as well as alleviate headaches. 

By choosing whole food products you can enjoy a plethora of nutrients and live life to the full, naturally without fear of overdoing it. 

By reading trusted sources and understanding what your individual body needs, you can safely enjoy beef liver and get all its amazing health benefits.

Consider beef liver supplements; taking a natural whole food supplement with no fillers or flow agents will help you maintain a healthy balance. Always source organic or grass-fed beef liver from trusted suppliers. This will ensure that the liver comes from grass-fed and nurtured animals that haven’t been exposed to antibiotics or other toxins. Here at Grassland Nutrition, it is essential we know the animal has lived a full life and has been free to roam natural pastures where no pesticides have been present and fed on a diet of grass all its life.

Grassland Nutrition’s organic sourced Australian grass-fed freeze-dried beef liver is available in capsules and powder and whole food chunks

Want to get in touch? We’d be delighted to hear from you. 

4 Benefits of Beef Liver for Your Child’s Health

We’ve compiled 4 great reasons to begin incorporating beef liver to your child’s diet and easy ways for you to add beef liver in your daily family food preparation.

Nutrient-Dense: Beef liver is a nutrient-dense food, meaning it is packed with vitamins and minerals that are essential for the body’s growth and development. It is a rich source of vitamin A, iron, zinc, and vitamin B12, all of which are crucial for maintaining good health.

Supports Brain Development: The high levels of iron and vitamin B12 found in beef liver are important for brain development and function. These nutrients are essential for the production of myelin, a fatty substance that surrounds nerve fibers and helps to transmit signals between brain cells.

Boosts Immune System: The high levels of vitamin A and zinc in beef liver also play a crucial role in supporting the immune system. Vitamin A is important for maintaining healthy skin and mucous membranes, while zinc is involved in many aspects of immune function, including the production of white blood cells.

Helps with Anemia: Beef liver is a great source of iron, which is important for the production of hemoglobin, a protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen throughout the body. Iron deficiency anemia is a common problem in children, and including beef liver in their diet can help prevent or treat this condition.

Follow the daily recommended guidelines and ensure that the beef liver you purchase is from a reputable source to avoid potential contamination with harmful substances.

Grassland Nutrition offers beef liver that is organically sourced from Australia’s Channel Country. Our beef liver is halal and is freeze-dried to retain high levels of nutrients that are 3 times the equivalent of its raw origin. We also freeze-dry our beef liver to offer you convenience, be that in powder, freeze-dried chunks (or capsules for adults).

In powdered form, freeze-dried beef liver is easy to mix into broths, burgers, tomato based sauces, scrambled eggs, smoothies, pancakes, and yoghurt. There are so many creative ways! Take a look at our recipe page for more ideas. You’ll find that young kids enjoy the taste as their palettes are intact and they respond well to what their bodies need to grow and thrive. 

Share with us the different ways you are incorporating beef liver into your kid’s diet and how they are stronger and more robust for it. 

How to Make Beef Liver Capsules