A bipolar expedition

In 2008, The Lancet published an amazing article on the ‘psychological effects of polar expeditions’ that contains a potted history of artic madness.

Unfortunately, the paper is locked, or shall we say, frozen, behind a paywall, although this snippet on the history of mental health problems on artic expeditions makes for quite surprising reading.

Accounts of expeditions throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries 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. Nevertheless, equally rare was the polar expedition that did not have at least one member who was debilitated by depression, anxiety, paranoia, alcoholism, or sleep disorders. During Sir Douglas Mawson’s second Antarctic expedition (1910–14), that person was Sydney Jeffryes, the radio operator, whom Mawson believed “surely must be going off his base. During the day he sleeps badly, gets up for dinner looking bad, husky; mutters sitting on his bunk in the dark afterward.”

Frequently, the entire crew of a polar expedition would experience melancholy and depression, as was the case of the Belgica expedition to Antarctica in 1898–99. As described by the great polar explorer and expedition physician, Frederick A Cook, “The curtain of blackness which has fallen over the outer world of icy desolation has descended upon the inner world of our souls. Around the tables, in the laboratory, and in the forecastle, men are sitting about sad and dejected, lost in dreams of melancholy from which, now and then, one arouses with an empty attempt at enthusiasm.”

Cook tried to treat these symptoms by having crew members sit in front of large blazing fires. This baking treatment, as he called it, could be the first recorded attempt to use light therapy to treat symptoms of winter depression or seasonal affective disorder. Other expeditions, such as the Greely expedition of 1881–84, met a far worse fate than the Belgica exploration. In their attempt to establish a scientific base on Ellsmere Island in the Arctic, the crew of the Greely expedition was driven to mutiny, madness, suicide, and cannibalism, leaving six survivors of a crew of 25 men.


Link to frozen Lancet article.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: