When travelers book a trip to Antarctica or the Arctic with TravelWild Expeditions, they receive the benefit of Dennis Mense’s extensive experience to the far reaches of both polar destinations. Dennis shares a packing list that takes the guesswork out of what to bring. For explorers setting out 100 years ago, however, their packing list was quite a bit more colorful — items included cocaine, arsenic, strychnine and camel hair, among other exotics!
Scottish writer and physician Gavin Francis took a 14-month job as the base doctor at Halley Research Station, just a few hundred miles from the South Pole. He compared his preparations and medical kit with those of the doctors of the Heroic Age of Exploration,
“Shackleton had isinglass, prepared from the swim bladders of Russian sturgeons. Coated with silk, it was used on open wounds. He had ‘gold-beater’s skin’, a parchment-like dressing only fractions of a millimetre thick. Prepared from the intestines of oxen or of sand sharks, it was used in the manufacturing of hammered gold foil but also to promote the healing of open sores. He had tonics of iron and strychnine and tonics of iron and arsenic; the wrong doses of either would cause a lingering death. The kit carried a preparation to treat colic that combined tincture of cannabis with tincture of chilli pepper. Ginger was used as a carminative, a sonorous word that I had to look up (it stops farting). Cocaine was dripped in the eye to cure snowblindness, and chalk ground up with opium was used for diarrhoea. No antibiotics in 1907 of course. Perhaps the only medications that Shackleton carried that we would still use today were aspirin and morphine.
“I looked up the contents of Wilson’s sledging medical kit, the one that he dragged to the South Pole, that was buried with him when he died on the Ross Ice Barrier. The whole case weighed less than two kilograms, and, prepared only three years after the Nimrod sailed, showed an unsurprising degree of overlap with Shackleton’s kit. The list of contents read like an incantation to me: Aromatic chalk, kola, borate, digitalis tincture, chlorodyne, borofax, hazeline and camel hair. But isn’t all medicine a form of enchantment?”
Francis’ memoir of his time on the edge of the Weddell Sea is poetically descriptive. While reflecting on the Scott party’s final days, he writes,
“I pictured their tent as they set up each night. The silence around them unassailable, Oates and Evans dissolving by turn into the vastness of Antarctica the way that breath dissipates into the sky. Each day the surviving men edged closer to their hut and their salvation, but the day’s marches grew shorter. The temperatures plummeted as the summer’s radiance dimmed. The sun became murderous, reddening as winter approached. Their injuries had slowed them too much, they had left too late, and by mid-March, close to the autumnal equinox, they knew they would never get through. We know the rest.”
His book Empire Antarctica: Ice, Silence and Emperor Penguins will be published next month, telling the story of his experience as a base physician as well as of the penguins with whom he shared the ice.