Isobel P. Williams
Royal College Physicians, London, England, United Kingdom
Edgar Evans (1876–1912), later one of the first British veterans of Antarctic exploration, spent his early years as a native of Rhosili, a little village on the beautiful Gower Peninsula in South Wales. One of twelve children, he had few educational opportunities. However as a member of one of the earliest generations to benefit from Foster’s Elementary Education Act of 18701—which required every child to attend full-time school between the ages of 5–10 and part-time between the ages of 11–13—he did get a rudimentary education.
In the late 1800s, education was one of the big divides between those who “had” and those who “had not” in Great Britain. Edgar was a good student, but his accomplishments were little when compared with the achievements of children from privileged classes; they were taught foreign languages, mathematics, geography, Latin and Greek—instant shibboleths that opened doors remaining firmly shut to children of Edgar’s background.
Boys like Edgar had few employment opportunities. At fifteen, he joined the Royal Navy, a wonderful chance to see more of the world than South Wales. He was clearly intelligent, rising from the rank of seaman to petty officer within five years. His climb up the naval ladder included training in gunnery and torpedoes, and his final posting, before sailing to Antarctica, was on the H. M. S. Majestic, the flagship of the Channel and Atlantic Fleet. The torpedo officer of this huge warship was Lieutenant Robert Scott. Because of Edgar’s specialized training, Scott and Evans likely met during this assignment.
In 1900, Scott was chosen to lead the British National Antarctic Expedition, the expedition that was to explore the tantalizing mysteries of Antarctica. He wrote to his previous captains asking for volunteers. Edgar’s name was put forward by the Captain of “Majestic” and accepted promptly by Scott. The expedition changed Edgar from one of thousands of unknown ratings into a man whom reporters wished to interview—a hardy veteran of Antarctic exploration. He went on seven sorties, a record only exceeded by Scott. On his final exploration in 1903, Edgar, Scott, and William Lashly (a stoker) ascended the mighty Ferrar Glacier to nearly 9,000 feet and traversed the Plateau until they reached 300 miles from their base. This was the first long journey on the Plateau and one that added valuable knowledge about unknown aspects of the geography of Victoria Land, plus important information about the South Magnetic Pole.
In 1909 Scott attracted enough funds to return to Antarctica. He wrote Edgar requesting his services on the expedition, and he expected Edgar to be appointed speedily. But acceptance was a big decision; in contrast to the earlier expedition, wages would come from the expedition’s shaky coffers rather than the Navy. While he would still retain his rank in the Navy, Edgar had to consider his financial responsibilities. But the lure of Antarctica and the possibility of more fame were irresistible. He signed on.
Sixteen men set out from base camp on Ross Island to cross the Ice Barrier to lay supply depots for the returning explorers. Edgar was the pony handler when Scott’s party left in November 1911. When the horses were killed and and four men returned to base from the Beardmore Glacier (discovered by Shackleton in 1908), he became a sledge hauler. Twelve men pulled up the 150 miles of the treacherous glacier.
On the Plateau, five men were to be selected from these twelve to make the final attempt at the Pole. These were Scott, Wilson, Bowers, Oates, and Edgar. Edgar was an obvious choice. His relationship with Scott was based on their shared experience of battling against the worst that Antarctica could throw at them. Their relationship transcended the barriers of class and education. Scott trusted Edgar and admired his practicality, intelligence, and humor.
On December 31, Edgar cut his hand while shortening a sledge on the Plateau. As it was not recorded in the diaries, he may have thought it was a trivial injury. But this injury had dire consequences. By January 7, the cut “had a lot of pus in it.”2 By February, Edgar’s frostbitten fingers were suppurating. At the South Pole ten days later, his hands were so bad they made an early camp stop. By the end of the month his fingernails had fallen off, leaving the fingertips raw.
As the group struggled back down the Beardmore Glacier, Edgar’s deterioration continued. He was “crocked up” on February 5, was going “steadily downhill” by the 7th, and by the 16th was “nearly broken down in brain we think.”3,4,5 On that day he stopped the march for what was described as a trivial excuse. The following day he took his place in the traces, but his foot worked out of his ski shoe, and he was left behind to readjust. When he failed to catch up, the group returned to find him crawling on the ice—clothes disheveled, gloves off, confused, and unable to stand. Three went to get a sledge and wearily pulled him across the icy surface. He lost consciousness and died quietly at 10 pm.6 Scott wrote that it was “a very terrible day.”7 All Edgar’s companions were to follow him to their deaths within weeks; Oates after three weeks and Wilson, Bowers, and Scott at the end of March 1912. Their tent, with their bodies and their records, was found in October 1912.
When the news of the disaster reached England in February 1913 the country was appalled. Edgar was blamed in some quarters as the real cause of the tragedy; not only was he the first to die, but he had so slowed the party’s progress that he had sealed their fate also. Scott wrote in his diary a “Message to the Public” claiming “the advance party would have returned in fine form and with a surplus of food but for the failure of the man whom we had least expected to fail. Edgar Evans was thought to be the strongest man of the party.”8 In Scott’s communication, the contrast of the modes of death between Edgar and the self-sacrificing Captain Oates—who left the tent to die alone—was gripping.
Edgar was stigmatized as the “strong man” with the implication that strength was his only asset. Remarkably in 1913 no physical cause for Edgar’s deterioration was suggested. Rather, it was attributed, by some, to his relative lack of education. He was not a gentleman and therefore, was less able to stand the stress of the return. It was written that the “dreary monotonous life amid eternal snow” could be endured more easily by the educated man and that Evans might have responded to this lack of stimulation with “a kind of self-mesmerism followed by mania and the delusion that he was being kept from food and home, both close to hand.”9,10
It took years before advances in medical knowledge suggested possible physical reasons for the big Welshman’s demise.11,12 There is no doubt that the main reason for the British tragedy was due to the fact that they endured the terrific strain of man-hauling, rather than using dogs for pulling. If Scott had taken the dogs, the animals could have pulled the enfeebled travelers across the Plateau and down the glacier, thereby reducing the huge calorie deficit of pulling the heavy sledges.
Edgar suffered from all the problems endured by his companions, but two particular aspects will be considered here: Firstly, the inadequate calorie intake was even more disastrous in him because of his size. Secondly, his hand proved a serious medical problem.
The degree of malnutrition that the party suffered has only been appreciated recently. Although summit rations provided approximately 4,571 kcal per man per day, recent studies have shown that over 7,000 kcal per day are required for the exhausting business of man-hauling.13,14
By the time Edgar died, the party had been on summit rations for 72 days. Each member of the team had built up a staggering deficit of approximately 1,750,000 calories and lost over 35% of their body weight. Since Edgar was the biggest man of the party, he required more food, his resting and hauling basal metabolic rates were greater than his companions. Food deficiency would have affected Edgar the most. His weight loss would have been more than his companions.
Much of his body fat and muscle had simply disappeared, making man-hauling an increasing challenge. In addition, this loss would make him feel the cold as his body temperature dropped. Hypothermia is defined as a core temperature below 35°C or 95°F. The men were pulling into wind and sometimes snow. As soon as they stopped, their body temperatures dropped precipitously. Edgar would have been fumbling with accustomed tasks, becoming forgetful, and feeling nauseated.
Apart from his weight loss, Edgar’s hand was a unique problem. His raw fingers were a natural focus for infection. Bacteria can survive in Antarctica at sub-zero temperatures. Staphylococcus aureus is a bacterium commonly carried in the nose and sleeping bags, and is likely the cause of Edgar’s hand infection.15 Abscess formation typically occurs seven days after a wound becomes infected, as happened to Edgar. Infection would also have increased his resting basal metabolic rate, exacerbating his calorie needs and weight loss.
The negative, uninformed London reports must have added to the anguish of Edgar’s widow Lois and his three children. Edgar’s failure was even emphasized in a children’s book; his behavior was contrasted with the brave self-sacrifice of Captain Oates. Cigarette cards depicted all the Antarctic heroes except Edgar, a shameful omission.
Edgar only regained his rightful place as Scott’s loyal petty officer and an Antarctic hero after many years. The 1948 film Scott of the Antarctic, placed Edgar fairly as an important part of the expedition. In the 1960s the Royal Navy named an accommodation block in Portsmouth after him—the Edgar Evans Building (the first not to be named after an admiral). In commemoration, Edgar’s polar medal and clasp was taken to the South Pole during the “Footsteps of Scott” expedition of 1986. Edgar’s name is now in the Oxford Companion for Literature of Wales and in the 2004 Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. His name can now be remembered with pride.
- Forster’s Education Act, 1870.
- Edward Wilson, Diary of the “Terra Nova” Expedition to the Antarctic Regions, ed. H. G. R. King (London: Blandford Press, 1972), 230.
- Robert Falcon Scott, “Scott’s Last Expedition.” In Robert Falcon Scott Journals, ed. Max Jones (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 390.
- Ibid., 391.
- Ibid., 396.
- Edward Wilson, Diary of the “Terra Nova” Expedition to the Antarctic Regions, ed. H. G. R. King (London: Blandford Press, 1972), 243.
- Robert Falcon Scott, “Scott’s Last Expedition.” In Robert Falcon Scott Journals, ed. Max Jones (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 397.
- Ibid., 421.
- The Daily Express, December 2, 1913, London, no. 4009.
- A. E. Rogers, “The Death of Chief Petty Officer Edgar Evans,” The Practitioner 212 (1974): 572-580.
- Isobel Williams, “Edward Wilson: Medical Aspects of His Life and Career,” Polar Record 44, no. 228: 77–80
- A. E. Rogers, “The Death of Chief Petty Officer Edgar Evans,” The Practitioner 212 (1974): 576.
- Ranulph Fiennes, Captain Scott (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2003), 283.
- Isobel Williams, Captain Scott’s Invaluable Assistant Edgar Evans (Stroud, UK: The History Press, 2012), 168.
ISOBEL P. WILLIAMS, MD, FRCP, DCH is qualified in medicine at St. George’s Hospital, London University. She became a consultant in Internal and Pulmonary Medicine, heading a busy National Health acute medical department. Her interest in Antarctica sparked as a junior doctor. On retirement, she visited Antarctica and researched the life of Dr. Edward Wilson. While writing With Scott in the Antarctic; Edward Wilson, Explorer, Naturalist, Artist she became fascinated by the lives of the ratings, those “below-deck” seamen who kept the expeditions going, and has now written Captain Scott’s Invaluable Assistant, Edgar Evans. She now speaks on Antarctic subjects and has spoken to the Harvard Travellers’ Club and the Explorers’ Club in Boston, Massachusetts. Her website can be viewed at www.isobelpwilliams.com.
Highlighted in Frontispiece Volume 4, Issue 3 – Summer 2012