Alistair Mackay

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Alistair Forbes Mackay
OccupationPolar explorer, doctor
Known forFirst ascent of Mount Erebus
First team to reach the South Magnetic Pole
Mackay, David and Mawson raise the flag at the South Magnetic Pole on 16 January 1909

Alistair Mackay was a Scottish doctor and polar explorer. He was one of the trio of explorers, along with Douglas Mawson and Professor Edgeworth David, that became the first humans to reach the South Magnetic Pole.

Antarctica with Shackleton[edit]

In 1907, Mackay joined the British Antarctic Expedition led by Ernest Shackleton as an expedition doctor. They arrived on the ship Nimrod at Cape Royds in Antarctica in February 1908 and set up camp in a small expedition hut that would house the 15-man party through the winter. In March 1908 along with Mawson and David, Mackay made up the party who undertook the first ascent of Mount Erebus.[1]

The following spring when Shackelton set off to attempt to reach the South Pole, he despatched Mackay, Mawson and Edgeworth David northward to reach the South Magnetic Pole which lay approximately 650 km north-north-west of Ross Island. The trek commenced on 5 October 1908 with the men hauling their own sleds and relaying the loads which meant that every kilometre gained by the sledges involved them travelling three kilometres by foot.[2]

For ten weeks the men followed the coast north supplementing their stores with a diet of seals and penguins. They then crossed the Drygalski Ice Tongue and turned inland. They still faced a 700 km return journey and established a depot to enable them to transfer their load to one overladen sled and to remove the need to relay. On 16 January 1909 they arrived at the South Magnetic Pole, took possession of the region for the British Crown and Mackay suggested three cheers for the King.[3]

Edgeworth David had been appointed leader of the expedition by Shackleton but by end January with all three of the party experiencing severe physical deterioration, David was increasingly unable to contribute. On 31 January with Mawson out of earshot, Mackay exerted his authority as the party's doctor and threatened to declare the Professor insane unless he gave written authority of leadership to Mawson. Mawson reluctantly took command but by 3 February he acknowledged in his diary that "the Prof was now certainly partly demented". That day the party reached the coast line with perfect timing as within 24 hours they were collected by the Nimrod for the return trip to Cape Royds.[4]

The trio had covered a distance of 1260 miles which stood as the longest unsupported sled journey until the mid-1980s.

Arctic exploration and death[edit]

Mackay was also the ship's doctor on the ill-fated Karluk expedition in 1913 led by Vilhjalmur Stefansson to explore the regions west of Parry Archipelago for the Government of Canada. After the Karluk, captained by Robert Bartlett, was stranded, crushed, and sunk by pack ice, Mackay and three other members of the crew died of exposure while struggling across the Arctic ice to reach Wrangel Island or Herald Island.



  • Lincoln Hall (1 July 2000). Douglas Mawson: The Life of an Explorer. ISBN 978-1-86436-670-9.

Online references[edit]


  1. ^ Hall p32
  2. ^ Hall p37
  3. ^ Hall p41
  4. ^ Hall p47