Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Shackleton’s angel

Paul G. Firth
Boston, Massachusetts, United States


Shackleton’s angel. Photo by Paul Firth.

South Georgia Island is a tortured upheaval of mountain and glacier that falls in chaos to the jagged coastline of the South Atlantic Ocean.1 From thirty miles of this wind-blasted sub-Antarctic wilderness came walking on the afternoon of the 20 May 1916 “a terrible-looking trio of scarecrows,” soaked to the skin, cold, and exhausted.2 Their leader, Ernest Shackleton, wrote in 1917, “I know that during that long and racking march of thirty-six hours over the unnamed mountains and glaciers of South Georgia it seemed to me often that we were four, not three.”3

Shackleton and his two companions Frank Worsley and Tom Crean had an epic story of survival that would defy belief were it not true. They had navigated an open lifeboat from Antarctica to South Georgia Island, across hundreds of miles of the worst seas on the planet. Then they walked over the uncharted saw-tooth spine of South Georgia to reach help at the Stromness whaling station on the east side of the island. But while the details of their marathon journey have been extensively documented, the mysterious addition to their party has not been well explained.

Shackleton’s biographers suggested that some have interpreted the account as Shackleton’s attempt to court publicity, at a time of national emotion following the trauma of World War One, by producing his own “Angel of Mons.”4 Following the ferocious Battle of Mons in August 1914, numerous publications described angels who emerged to save outnumbered British troops from the German onslaught.5 There were no primary reports to support these rumors of divine intervention, however. Rather, the intense patriotism and propaganda of the time may have helped to popularize and sustain these myths.5

In contrast, however, Shackleton’s experience was clearly documented, and confirmed by the others: “I said nothing to my companions (during the crossing), but afterwards Worsley said to me ‘Boss I had a curious feeling on the march that there was another person with me.’ Crean confessed to the same idea.”3

Their expedition ship Endurance had left South Georgia for Antarctica in December 1914.They had sailed into the pack ice of the Weddell Sea, intending to land a party of men and achieve the first crossing of the continent. Instead, the Endurance was beset and finally crushed by the ice. The twenty-eight men of the expedition camped for months on the shifting ice until the pack broke up under them and thrust their three lifeboats into the open sea.

Surviving six days of exposure and hypothermia, they made land on Elephant Island, a desperately isolated rocky outcrop surrounded by treacherous reefs and ice. From here, Shackleton decided to take four men back to South Georgia to find rescue. Navigating an open 22-foot lifeboat by sextant and compass 800 miles across the brutal autumn South Atlantic, they made landfall on the storm-wracked west side of the island two weeks later.

Recovering from “trench foot” and exposure suffered during the two weeks of prolonged cold and damp, they were still exhausted by their sea voyage.

But deliverance lay with the whaling settlements on the more sheltered leeward side of the island. Their battered boat was now unseaworthy. With the lives of the men on Elephant Island hanging on a rescue, the only option was for some of the party to cross the inland on foot.

The weather was wet and ferociously cold, visibility was frequently poor, and the broken terrain was unexplored and unknown. Their clothes were threadbare, they had no portable shelter, and their climbing equipment amounted to little more than a length of rope, some brass screws driven through their boots, and a carpenter’s adze.2 Crossing the mountains in uncertain weather risked once again exposure, hypothermia, and inevitable death.

In his own expedition account, Frank Worsley wrote, “While writing this seven years after (almost), each step of the journey comes back clearly, and even now I again find myself counting our party – Shackleton, Crean and I and – who was the other? Of course, there were only three, but it is strange that in mentally reviewing the crossing we should always think of a fourth, and then correct ourselves . . . Three or four weeks after (arriving at Stromness) Sir Ernest and I, comparing notes, found that we each had a strange feeling that there had been a fourth in our party, and Crean afterwards confessed to the same feeling.”2

As mountaineers began to explore other remote parts of the globe in the decades that followed, similar descriptions of sensed companions began to accumulate in expedition accounts of extreme high-altitude settings.6 Comparable experiences have also been reported or described in the context of a variety of situations such as religious experiences, sleep disorders, neurological conditions, therapeutic or recreational drug use, and various states of intense psychological or physiological stress.7,8

While an early and famous example, the phenomenon Shackleton’s party reported is therefore not an isolated occurrence. The “feeling of a presence” or “sensed presence” can loosely be defined as the subjective experience of the presence of an external entity, being, or individual, despite no clear objective sensory or perceptual evidence. Various models have been proposed to explain or interpret this phenomenon.

A neurological model focuses the anatomical and physiological correlates of perceptual experience. Integration of proprioceptive, vestibular, and other sensory input occurs at the angular gyrus of the right temporo-parietal cortex, generating a coherent sense of bodily position. Disruption of this area of the cortical function, whether by experimental electrodes or seizures, is associated with a sense of being outside of the body, or of a nearby illusionary person.9,10 The sense of the phantom presence of another being may be part of a spectrum of conceptual anomalies that include out-of-body experiences and altered perceptions of body proportions.6

The three men walked across broken terrain for thirty-six hours, with no prolonged sleep or rest. They were exhausted and cold.2,3 A neurological explanation for these accounts, therefore, would involve perceptions arising from a low-level disruption of visuo-spatial integration in the parietal cortex, associated with extreme physiological stress during the latter part of their journey.

An alternative model situates an explanation at a higher level of functioning, as a subconscious psychological coping mechanism. The sensed presence may be an adaptive response, a normal reaction to an abnormal situation.11 Conceptualizing the presence of a helpful or comforting person in a highly stressful context may be a helpful method of dealing with the challenge of the situation.

Worsley’s account seems to place the experience of a sensed presence earlier in their trip, at a time of less physiologic stress.2 At this point, however, they were unsure of the route, and had to grope their way through steep and icy terrain, sometimes by moonlight or through thick fog. Their feet had not recovered completely from the exposure on the boat, and with worn boots, the fear of frostbite lurked.

Exposed to life-threatening danger for prolonged periods, it was unclear if they would survive this last portion of the journey. The sense of an additional steadying group member may have been subconsciously comforting during a period of immense danger. Their perceptions may therefore have been shaped by a coping mechanism during a difficult time.

It might be unusual for all three men to independently experience and report similar anomalous sensations. Although less frequently reported, however, descriptions of shared or common sensed presences by groups of people “alone together,”11 despite there being no independent confirmation of the presence outside the group, do exist. These include accounts of isolated groups of mountaineers and shipwreck survivors in desperate circumstances.7

With the quiet help, perhaps, of the fourth companion in reaching Stromness, Shackleton’s efforts were ultimately successful. The men waiting through the winter on Elephant Island had variously survived frostbite, illness, cold, hunger, and even surgery and anesthesia.12,13 On the fourth attempt at navigating the winter ice, Shackleton reached Elephant Island, and all were rescued and returned home.

Historical and medical science can guide examination of the fourth member of the trio of South Georgia explorers—but observations can only show associations, not explain causality. Psychological or neurological models allied to historical enquiry therefore can provide some insights, but ultimately cannot answer deeper questions: the “how” does not explain the “why.”14 Shackleton, however, had a very clear view of where the person came from: “When I look back on those days I have no doubt that Providence guided us across not only across those snowfields, but across the storm-white sea that separated Elephant Island from our landing-place on South Georgia.3



  1. Lansing, A. Endurance – Shackleon’s Incredible Voyage. New York: Carroll & Grafton, 1986.
  2. Worsley, FA. Endurance – An Epic of Polar Adventure. New York: WW Noton & Company, 2000.
  3. Shackleton, E. South – The Endurance Expedition. New York: Signet, 1999.
  4. Fisher, M., and Fisher, J. Shackleton. London: Barrie, 1957.
  5. Machen, A. The Bowmen and Other Legends of the War. London: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1915.
  6. Firth, PG, and H Bolay. 2004. “Transient High Altitude Neurological Dysfunction: An Origin in the Temporoparietal Cortex.” High Alt Med Biol  5, no. 1(2004): 71-75.
  7. Geiger, J. The Third Man Factor: Surviving the Impossible. New York: Weinstein Book, 2009
  8. Barnby, JM, and Bell, V. The Sensed Presence Questionnaire (SenPQ): initial psychometric validation of a measure of the “Sensed Presence” experience. Peer J 5 (March 28, 2017): e3149. Doi: 10.7717/peerj.3149
  9. Blanke O, Ortique S, Landis T,  and Seeck M. 2002. “Stimulating illusory own-body perceptions.” Nature 419, no 6904 (Sep 19, 2002): 269-70.
  10. Arzy S, Seeck M, Ortique S, Spinelli L, and Blanke O.  Induction of an illusory shadow person. Nature 443, no 7109, (Sep 21, 2006): 287.
  11. Suedfeld, P, Mocellin, JSP. The “Sensed Presence” in Unusual Environments. Environment and Behaviour (1987): 33-52.
  12. Macklin, AH. Mansucript 1589, Transcipt of Diary 1915-1916. Cambridge: Archives, Scott Polar Research Institute.
  13. Hurley, F. MS883;Papers of Frank Hurley Series 1: Dairies 1912-1961: Item 3. Canberra: National Library of Australia.
  14. Firth, Paul. “The Man Who Wasn’t There.” The Guardian, May 29, 2003.



PAUL G. FIRTH, MBChB, BA, is a pediatric anesthesiologist at the Massachusetts General Hospital. He trained in anesthesia in Pietermaritzburg, Boston, and Oxford. His hobbies include mountaineering in the Andes, the Himalayas, the Rocky Mountains, New England, Alaska, and East and Southern Africa. He has an interest in extreme medicine, and has lectured and published on aspects of mountaineering and Antarctic exploration.


Highlighted in Frontispiece Volume 10, Issue 4– Fall 2018

Winter 2018  |  Sections  |  History Essays

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