Noble Explorers Suffering from Polar Madness

Shelby Solomon


Prof. Beran

Noble Explorers Suffering from Polar Madness

On an Antarctic expedition in the middle of the winter of 1913, wireless operator, Sidney Jeffryes, began to think that his companions wanted to murder him. He also believed that his friend and fellow expeditionary, Douglas Mawson, had cast a “magnetic spell” on him and was playing with his mind. Although Jeffryes worked a strenuous job, operating a two-way contact with the Australian mainland, and was “curiously logical at times,” he seemed to have been at his mental breaking point when he transmitted a false message through the contact in Mawson’s name. Jeffyres was then isolated on the expedition so that his “madness” wouldn’t spread to his companions. Upon their return to Australia, Jeffyres was admitted to an asylum. Mawson confessed at the end of their journey that, “Most of my time during this winter was occupied in keeping myself and others sane” (Griffiths 1-2). Like the instance with Sidney Jeffryes, cases of Polar Madness arise throughout the history of Arctic and Antarctic expeditions. Even some of the famous explorers, like Frederick Cook and Robert F. Scott, have either experienced Polar Madness themselves or have seen it present in their crew members; but what exactly is this Polar Madness? The syndrome is an umbrella term for mental disturbances affecting those in the polar regions of the world, which symptoms include depression, withdrawal from society, and even sleep disturbances. Polar Madness also involves a ‘cabin fever’ aspect of staying in the desolate, non stimulating Polar Regions for too long (Suedfeld 2). It is estimated that sixty percent of all polar exhibitioners will be met with Polar Madness on their journeys (Dunham 1). Which leads to the question, were the famous explorers, like those mentioned in Jon Lewis’ Mammoth Book of Polar Journeys, victims of this mental disturbance? Although many explorers in Lewis’ anthology are considered noble, brave men, they actually could have been suffering from the condition of Polar Madness due to their behavioral changes, misjudgments, lack of sleep, and even their depression.

Polar Madness is a condition that affects the mental functioning and longevity of explorers in Polar Regions. Not only do sixty percent of exhibitioners develop Polar Madness, but nearly five percent of the cases meet the DSM-IV criteria for psychiatric disorders, meaning that the disorder has taken such a strong hold in the person that it is now a mental disease (Suedfeld and Palinkas 1). Psychologist EK Gunderson explored this statistic in relation to US Navy officers stationed in Antarctica and found a three times increase in psychiatric disorders amongst the personnel (Suedfeld and Palinkas 1). The main cause for this Madness is associated with stressors, whether physical, mental, or psychosocial. The high latitudes and the expansive, dangerous environments create stress on an exhibitioner’s body, especially if they become injured. Cold temperatures also play a role in stressing the individual since most exhibitions consist of traversing vast amounts of land in subzero climates.

In addition to physical stress, Polar Regions affect a person’s mental capabilities as well. Due to the strange cycles of daylight, consisting of six straight months of light, changes in the travelers circadian rhythm can occur, which distorts a person’s ‘mental clock.’ Hormonal changes can even derive from the low humidity of the Polar Regions (Suedfeld and Palinkas 1). On the psychosocial stress involved with Polar journeys, Professors Peter Suedfeld and Lawrence Palinkas state in their journal article, “The psychosocial environment of polar expeditions is characterised by isolation and confinement… People on such expeditions are separated from their family and friends and consequently feel degrees of emotional deprivation. Personal crises [also]…become magnified by the separation” (Suedfeld and Palinkas 4). Palinkas and Suedfeld continue on to say that the constant interaction of work and leisure creates rifts between people who have conflicting personalities; also, not being able to remove oneself from the tense social situations that arise on the expeditions cause a strain in the travelers relationships. This is exemplified in the Steger International polar expedition of 1986, where the group, affected by the blizzard outside, began intensely arguing about who had more soup (Suedfeld and Palinkas 4). Something that seems so ludicrous under ordinary circumstances is a common occurrence amongst explorers in the desolate, treacherous, and isolated Polar Regions. The stress of living in a non stimulating environment for such a long time can have a negative effect on the mentality of the explorers residing in the region, which has caused Polar Madness in over half of the exhibitioners that travel to Arctic and Antarctic locations. Based upon this information, we can now accurately analyze polar explorers like Scott, Cook, Mawson, Mertz, and Oates to determine if they were suffering from this dilapidating disorder in the cases present in Jon Lewis’ anthology, The Mammoth Book of Polar Journeys.

Let us begin our examination of adventurers in Lewis’ anthology with the notorious Fredrick Cook. Cook is the first, or one of the first, explorers to reach the geographic North Pole, emphatically claiming that he, not his counterpart Peary, discovered it. However, on his journey to attain the pole, Cook met fierce opposition from his senses due to the non stimulating environment. In his explorer account, Cook stated that he heard a strange noise while out on the ice, a noise similar to that of a crying child; “It came seemingly from everywhere, intermittently, in successive crying spells” (Cook 147). In an attempt to quiet the cries, Cook breaks two pieces of ice that had been rubbing together. The cries stop momentarily, but eventually the sound is reanimated. After this episode with the ice, Cook had a panic attack in response to the monotony of the Arctic, saying “No fixed point. Absolutely nothing upon which to rest the eye to give the sense of location or to judge distance” (Cook 147). Cook goes on to say that there is never any originality in the Arctic, there is no change (Cook 148). This idea is quite a contrast to what he had been saying in previous pages about the Arctic being beautiful and beholding glory (Cook 145). It seems as though Cook began to experience a somewhat ‘cabin fever’ effect of being in the Polar Region for too long. Since his behavior changed from the beginning of the trek, it displays that something was going on inside Cook, causing him to feel lost, unsure, and even claustrophobic in the Arctic.

Perusing Cook’s tale, it is also evident that he suffered from depression. After gaining the North Pole, Cook states, “a sense of the utter uselessness of this thing, of the empty reward of my endurance, followed my exhilaration” (Cook 148). Why, if being the first man to reach the North Pole, would Cook feel that his exploration was useless? Due to this experience he became world renowned and most likely gained a large profit. Why would he state that there was no reward to his endurance? Cook had been so full of energy after the discovery of the North Pole, that simply thinking about his accomplishment warranted him no sleep, “We had reached the zenith of man’s Ultima Thule, which had been sought for more than three centuries. In comfortable berths of snow we tried to sleep, turning with the earth on its northern axis. But sleep for me was impossible” (Cook 146). Yet within a few days Cooks mentality completely shifted as he became depressed.  Studies show that people on Polar journeys often become depressed because they doubt their performance in a particular task. Research done at a polar science station showed that “62.1% of residents reported feeling depressed” (Suedfeld and Palinkas 6). It seems as though Cook was truly experiencing the onslaught of Polar Madness due to his anxiety and depression brought on by the desolate environment of the Arctic.

While reading Lewis’ anthology, we come across the case of Douglas Mawson and his companion Xavier Mertz, both of whom experience extreme Polar Madness. Having already lost the rest of their crew and dogs, Mawson and Mertz must brave a fierce Antarctic blizzard by themselves. Mawson repeatedly mentions throughout his text that he was unable to sleep, blaming his insomnia on his overactive “nerves” (Mawson 368). However, this insomnia reoccurred nearly every night. A study recorded that 64.1% of individuals in Polar Regions experienced insomnia, mainly due to “disruption of circadian rhythms in both summer and winter, cold exposure, and psychosocial stress” (Suedfeld and Palinkas 5). Due to his insomnia, Mawson was able to witness his companion, Mertz, having psychological fits. Not only did Mertz become delirious and speak incoherently, he also had no recollection of his fits (Mawson 363). On this idea, Mawson writes, “Shortly afterwards [Mertz] became normal and exchanged a few words, but did not appear to realize what anything out of the way had happened” (Mawson 362). There is no other explanation for Mertz’s unusual behavior aside from Polar Madness; he was literally going crazy from the stress, both emotional and physical, that he had suffered on this journey. It seems as though he was experiencing the ‘cabin fever’ aspect of Polar Madness, in which one ultimately goes insane because they feel that there is no way out of their situation.

With further examination of the text we come to the case of Navy officer Robert F. Scott. Scott was not an experienced polar explorer, so the fate of his crew was rather imminent. What really attracts attention, however, is his awkwardly positive attitude. He seems nonchalant and distant, especially when his crew members fall ill. When returning to their depot to restock food, Scott states, “I’m afraid the return journey is going to be dreadfully tiring and monotonous,” already acknowledging the curse of the non stimulating Antarctic (Scott 337). When the men on his journey, specifically Edgar Evans, developed a terrible case of frostbite, Scott seemingly scolds him for not being cheerful, “his hands are really bad, and to my surprise he shows signs of losing heart over it. He hasn’t been cheerful since the accident” (Scott 344). Scott seems absolutely disconnected and unable to understand the pain that Evans is going through. This idea is also exemplified when Scott refers to Evans as “dull and incapable,” almost as if Scott is chastising Evans for not holding his attention (Scott 347). The interpersonal conflict between Scott and Evans is characteristic of those who are suffering from Polar Madness. Often times, individuals with the disorder are overly observant, even paranoid, of their companions to the point where they ostracize them from the group (Suedfeld and Palinkas 5). It is not certain why Scott chose to pick on Evans. Perhaps they had similar personalities or because Scott felt that Evans was getting more attention since he was sick; the reason why there was tension between the two is not evident in the text. In response to this, many could state that Scott was just naturally uncaring or rude. However, if this is true, why does he tend to his men before they die (Scott 357)? Scott cared about his men enough to give them dignity by wrapping up their bodies after they had perished; therefore, it is not that Scott was an uncaring man, rather, he was influenced by the disorder of Polar Madness, which caused him to quarrel with Evans.

In addition, the awkwardly positive attitude exhibited by Scott can also have an explanation in the symptoms of Polar Madness. Neurobehavioral effects of long term exposure to cold and darkness could be the reason for his abnormal attitude since it causes people to be overly positive and distant from reality. Although Scott’s friend J.M. Barrie describes him as being both dreamy and practical, it is no explanation for why he was constantly separate from reality in his writings (Barrie 466). Scott was uninterested with and inattentive to his dying comrade. Scott was also strangely positive about the team’s dire situation. Therefore, it is easy to make the connection that Scott was indeed suffering from Polar Madness.

Additionally, one of Robert Scott’s own crew members, Captain Laurence Oates, was suffering from the terrible disorder of Polar Madness, which drove him to take his own life. Although not much is mentioned about Oates in Scott’s text, what is mentioned of him displays his struggle with the incapacitating mental condition. It is often mentioned throughout the text that Oates slept much more than the other men (Scott 354). Oversleeping is a characteristic of depression, which in turn, is a characteristic of Polar Madness when in the Arctic and Antarctic regions of the world. Upon waking up from his long slumber, Oates tells the other men that he is “just going outside and may be some time” (Scott 354). It was rather peculiar for Oates to be taking a walk at this time since there was a blizzard raging outside. When the rescue party had come to gather the deceased men, Lieutenant Atkinson discovered that Oates had “walked willingly to his death” (Scott 359).

Although many view this as a noble deed, saving rations for the other men on the expedition, there is nothing noble about walking in a blizzard and freezing to death. Oates could have simply refused food; it was not necessary for him to abandon camp. The true question is, what compelled Oates to leave the camp and walk to his death when he could barely walk as is? Oates could have waited in the snow until death slowly took him, but he chose to move, almost as if something was urging him, calling him to continue on his own journey. Oates could have been suffering from cognition impairment, which consists of mixed judgments and reduced alertness to stimuli, and is another symptom of Polar Madness. Cognition impairment manifests itself when one is fatigued and absent of environmental stimulation; Oates fit both of those conditions. Studies show that 51.5% on individuals suffer from cognition impairment when exploring in the Polar Regions; Oates was no doubt one of them (Suedfeld and Palinkas 5).

Despite that these men were considered heroes for conquering, or at least living in, the Polar Regions, many, including Cook, Mawson, Mertz, Scott, and Oates, suffered from Polar Madness. One can still be a hero and suffer from this condition, yet their heroic, superhuman qualities seem to diminish once it is recognized that these explorers had weaknesses as well. Interestingly enough, some of the information presented in the texts of the explorers could be false; not that they were pretending they had Polar Madness, but rather the opposite.  Most of these tales took place during the ‘Heroic Age’ of exploration which occurred in the beginning of the 19th to 20th centuries. The reasons for this possible dishonesty in the explorer’s writings is, as Suedfeld and Palinkas say, “[The writings] rarely mentioned episodes of psychiatric disturbance or interpersonal conflict, as such was not in keeping with the image of polar explorers, who were expected to have specific qualities and characteristics, such as strength and resilience” (Suedfeld Palinkas 2).  Suedfeld and Palinkas continues on to say that is was equally rare when explorers stated that they did not have at least one member on their journey who was debilitated by depression, anxiety, paranoia, alcoholism, or sleep disorders, since these conditions were so common amongst Polar travelers.

Although the risks for exploring in the Polar Regions are especially high, due to the mental, physical, and psychosocial stressors present in the environment, there are many rewarding aspects of traversing the Arctic and Antarctic. Traveling in these destitute regions teaches individuals how to cope with stress, enhance their self-sufficiency, improve their health, and experience personal growth (Suedfeld and Palinkas 9). Through analyzing the cases in Jon Lewis’ Mammoth Book of Polar Journeys, we can see that Cook, Mawson, Mertz, Scott, and Oates, and probably many more explorers, were all confronted with Polar Madness in varying degrees and symptoms, some even being consumed by its effects.

Works Cited

Dunham, Will. “Polar Madness Grips Many.” Television New Zealand Limited. Reuters, 26 June

2007. Web. 30 Apr. 2010.

Griffiths, Tom. Slicing the Silence: Voyaging to Antarctica. Sydney: UNSW, 2007. The Age. The

Age Company Ltd., 12 May 2007. Web. 30 Apr. 2010.

Lewis, Jon E., ed. The Mammoth Book of Polar Journeys. New York: Avalon, 2007. Print.

Cook, Fredrick A. “Cook Attains the Pole…” Lewis 142-148.

Scott, Robert F. “Forestalled.” Lewis 333-359.

Barrie, James M. “Appendix II: The Early Life of Robert Falcon Scott.” Lewis 464-470.

Mawson, Douglas. “Last Man Walking.” Lewis 360-371.

“Polar Madness Grips Many.” Television New Zealand Limited. Reuters, 26 June 2007. Web. 30

Apr. 2010.

Suedfeld, Peter and Lawrence A. Palinkas. “Psychological Effects of Polar Expeditions.” The

Lancet 371.9607 (2008): 153-63. Science Direct. Web. 30 Apr. 2010.


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