Suffolk and Kent: The forgotten polar expert whose knowledge could have saved Captain Scott

Dr Reginald Koettlitz was chief surgeon and lead scientist on Captain Scott’s first Antarctic expedition, bringing a wealth of crucial polar experience, but he was later airbrushed from history. STEVEN RUSSELL hears his fascinating story

TO little Ann Koettlitz, he was Great Uncle Reggie – a relative she’d never known but whose legacy could not be ignored. At the top of her home in Kent was a kind of museum, featuring birds in glass-domed cases and other artefacts. And then – initially at her doctor father’s surgery (!) and later in the hall of their house – stood an eight-foot, fearsome-looking, stuffed polar bear. They were all mementos of the adventurer’s trips to some of Earth’s most challenging places. Ann didn’t realise it at the time, but Reginald Koettlitz had packed an enormous amount into his 55 years. He’d spent years in the Arctic and Antarctic – the latter as a key member of Commander Robert Scott’s first trek to “The Bottom” – and had also been on expeditions to north-east Africa and up the Amazon.

“If you can find another person who did that, let me know!” says Aubrey (Gus) Jones – Ann’s husband – who has written a biography of Great Uncle Reggie.

The Suffolk couple hope it finally gives Koettlitz the credit he deserves. For the doctor and scientist was pushed into the shadows after the National Antarctic Expedition from 1901 to 1904. Although Koettlitz had been made Chief of Scientific Staff, his position wasn’t recognised in Scott’s book The Voyage of the Discovery. Worse, none of his work featured in the expedition’s final scientific reports. Even a report to the British Medical Journal was presented by Koettlitz’s deputy on the ship!

Also, ground-breaking colour photographs taken by Koettlitz seem to have been ignored, before disappearing into the ether.

For a serious scientist, with hundreds of interesting items in the expedition collection and who had diligently catalogued medical samples taken from expedition members, all this was heart-breaking. He went to work as a doctor in rural South Africa, still harbouring hopes of one day taking part in another adventure. Sadly, those dreams came to nought and his last 11 years were tinged with disappointment and frustration. The doctor and his wife died within two hours of each other on January 10, 1916 – he of acute dysentery and Marie of heart disease.

While this eminent surgeon and geologist is remembered to this day in the Eastern Cape, Gus explains, his death went virtually unreported in the UK. It seems Koettlitz was shunned largely because he was a serious man who found it hard to stomach those who lacked the same professional approach and was thus derided as aloof and uptight. (The Koettlitz family motto was, appropriately, Nil Sine Labore – Nothing without labour.) The thought of taking grease-paint to the Antarctic, so men could stage morale-boosting shows, was anathema – as was playing football when they should be practising putting up tents.

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Self-deprecating and humble, Koettlitz despised the class-based snobbery that was prevalent during an era when the British Empire was at its zenith. Not surprisingly, he was often the butt of jokes and pranks. In short, he was something of an outsider.

He was also incredibly skilled. The book draws on evidence that makes it clear things could have gone a lot more smoothly on the “Discovery Expedition” had only Scott tapped Koettlitz’s experience and knowledge, rather than treating him as an irritant.

Between 1894 and 1897 the doctor had been part of the Jackson-Harmsworth expedition to Franz Josef Land – an Arctic archipelago north of Russia. This experience, and other knowledge acquired, gave him:

• The ability to prevent and treat scurvy, which still affected polar expeditions at that time

• Insights about how dogs could pull sledges. Scott would prefer men to do the hauling – less efficiently

• Great competence at ski-ing, which should have been exploited to train the other men; but it was not deemed sufficiently important

• Knowledge about the kind of equipment needed to survive a polar climate, such as tents (he came up with his own design), cooking apparatuses and clothing. However, his views were either not sought or not fully heeded.

The feeling seemed to be that English grit and Royal Naval muscle would be enough.

The book raises the question: would Scott’s later ill-fated Terra Nova expedition of 1910 to 1913 have ended less tragically had he learned from Koettlitz (who was not part of that later attempt) and the lessons of the Discovery adventure?

Scott’s party had reached the South Pole in January, 1912, only to find they had been beaten to it 30-odd days earlier by Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen. Returning, Scott’s five-strong group succumbed to a fatal combination of exhaustion, starvation and cold. Scurvy is said to have contributed to this awful conclusion.

Gus Jones writes: “If Koettlitz had enjoyed a relationship of mutual respect with his contemporaries, the tragic events on the Ross Ice Shelf in 1912 could perhaps have been averted.”

Koettlitz had forecast in a letter to friend Fridtjof Nansen, the Norwegian explorer and scientist, that the approach favoured in the planning of the Discovery expedition could lead to disaster. “Koettlitz’s concerns warned of the tragic events yet to unfold at the pole: ‘How much better it would have been if someone had been placed in command who had had former polar experience. The final result will, I fear, be much blundering and it will be muddled through � l’Anglais.’”

They were prophetic words, bearing in mind what happened during Scott’s later quest for glory.

REGINALD Koettlitz was born on December 23, 1860, in Ostend. His father, Maurice, was a minister of the Reformed Lutheran Church. The Koettlitz roots were in East Prussia. Reginald’s mother, Rosetta, was born in Middlesex.

By the late 1860s Reginald’s family was established in Dover, where Maurice, still a minister, helped his wife run a boarding school.

Reginald went to Dover College and sought a career in medicine, becoming a student at Guy’s Hospital. Then, at Edinburgh, he graduated as licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians and developed an interest in geology and exploration.

Koettlitz was a GP in County Durham for nine years, where the poverty of mining families is said to have shaped his values. “This would have placed him clearly at odds with the traditional middle-upper class Victorian and Edwardian values that were common amongst his wardroom companions on both polar expeditions,” says Gus.

The young doctor wanted to test himself, however, so his brother took over the practice. Reginald signed on with Frederick Jackson’s expedition to Franz Josef Land.

Polar bear meat was a crucial part of the expedition diet. Koettlitz knew it was essential to eat fresh meat to prevent scurvy. It’s a polar bear shot by him during this expedition that was in Ann’s home and is now in Dover’s museum.

In the polar region, home became a log house brought from Russia. The winter routine involved meteorological, astronomical and magnetic observations, and taking regular exercise. Koettlitz’s knowledge meant the land party was scurvy-free for the three years on the archipelago.

On the plus side, he carried out a lot of geological research and honed his skills as an expedition surgeon. Balancing that were Jackson’s bouts of bad temper and unpredictability – probably not helped by a list of ailments that ranged from haemorrhoids to frostbite.

The expedition gave Koettlitz an appetite for more travel and a yearning to carry out more scientific, geological and botanical research. He joined a trek from British Somaliland overland to Cairo in 1898, and a solo expedition up the Amazon.

Next was the Antarctica adventure, with the National Antarctic Expedition coming together as a joint enterprise between the Royal Geographical Society and the Royal Society.

The main goal was the exploration of the interior of the Antarctic land mass, which was at the time mainly unexplored, and scientific work.

Scott, put in overall control, had no polar experience or specialised scientific knowledge. Koettlitz told Nansen he feared the expedition would lack “proper scientific staff” and effective leadership.

Only three of the men had survived winters in the severe polar climate, including Koettlitz, and only one had experienced Antarctica. The doctor felt the other naval officers and scientists were essentially enthusiastic amateurs.

Not surprisingly, it wasn’t long after the purpose-built ship Discovery set sail that Koettlitz and some of his colleagues were rubbing up the wrong way – one person speaking of the “baiting of Koettlitz”. The doctor was delighted to examine phytoplankton under his microscope and share his fascination with others. But some were not at all interested.

“Koettlitz’s frustration, which had begun to build during the chaotic preparations before they had even left England, was building,” writes Gus. The years spent in the challenging polar region are described in detail – from the many gallons of champagne within the cargo to incidents of apparent ill-preparedness that bore out Koettlitz’s fears.

The doctor and Scott often played each other at chess, “causing Scott much annoyance when he was beaten by the eccentric surgeon”. He disliked Koettlitz from the outset, it’s suggested. The book speaks of clashes over health care, with Scott apparently refusing to sanction a policy of slaughtering and eating game on a daily basis to prevent scurvy. There was a large-scale outbreak and the doctor had to treat the ill.

A team including Scott and master mariner Ernest Shackleton nearly died on a trip south through the snow and ice – a near-tragedy blamed on poor preparation. Later, Koettlitz got dragged into the ongoing friction between Scott and Shackleton that saw the popular third lieutenant sent home.

When the expedition ended, Koettlitz was dissatisfied, says Gus. “A trip which should have been one of scientific and medical discovery had been compromised by others within the wardroom. He was of the opinion that the ‘well to do classes, who know nothing of poverty and have no knowledge of the working classes’, also have no application for professional scientific study, which in his opinion should have been the main thrust of Scott’s expedition.”

The work he had managed to complete had been continually belittled from the captain down. And then came the humiliation of none of his work being used in the final reports. “Koettlitz had been almost entirely excluded from them, relegated to a footnote in history despite his crucial role and the scientific research he had carried out.”

His home town of Dover did appreciate his efforts. Koettlitz had a civic reception in the town hall and drew a packed audience for an illustrated lecture that featured his now-lost colour slides – shown for the first and only time in public.

He helped Shackleton with some planning for a hoped-for Antarctic expedition – aiming for the South Pole – but he had been away from his new wife for three years and now urgently needed a job and money after almost a decade travelling the globe.

Koettlitz went to a remote practice at Darlington, South Africa, in the autumn of 1905, where he used horse or pony-and-trap to travel to patients.

Sadly, wife Marie would become ill and he never managed to raise the money to mount one final journey to the Antarctic. “Sadly he was to remain a frustrated polar scientist until his death.”

In 1915 he bought a practice at Somerset East, but Marie’s health continued to deteriorate. The tired-out doctor developed dysentery and both died on January 10, 1916. Somerset East flew its flags at half-mast. For years the bodies lay in an unmarked grave. Then in 1922 the rural dean of Cradock launched a campaign for a memorial. So: remembered fondly in a land where he lived for 11 years, but hardly known here. Until now.

Many of Koettlitz’s diaries, journals and belongings such as a flag and a lovely microscope ended up in the hands of niece Ulrica, who cared for them.

“I suppose he was a slightly mythical figure,” remembers Ann, a former journalist, of her great-uncle. “We knew he’d gone on Scott’s first expedition, but we also knew he must have been written out of polar history because nobody had heard of him. Everyone had heard of Edward Wilson – and Wilson was his junior doctor!”

When Ann and Gus met 35 years ago, the story started to be pieced together. Aunt Ulrica saw Gus was interested and gave the couple many of the artefacts.

For Gus, a police officer for 30 years, things really started moving when he retired and could give the project his full attention. He had help from the late Joe Jones, who had researched the life of Koettlitz for more than 40 years and transcribed the doctor’s journals by typewriter. Gus was able to use those records. Joe also introduced him to the late Don Aldridge, up in Scotland, who had written The Rescue of Captain Scott. Don “ became my mentor”. The book has effectively been an eight-year labour of love for Gus, who with his wife has lived near Halesworth for the past four years. They moved to the county to be near their son, who studied at the University of East Anglia and settled in the Norwich area.

Publication has given them the satisfaction of highlighting Great Uncle Reggie’s place in history.

Scott was poor at managing men, feels Gus, who also acknowledges that Koettlitz was a difficult person to handle, because he was unbendingly serious and easily took offence if his judgment was questioned. However, there was little excuse for the commander’s failure to utilise the doctor’s knowledge of scurvy, the use of dogs, and expertise with tents and clothing. “He should have exploited those survival skills.”

“There was no doubt they [Scott and men like him] were very brave and courageous – but incredibly foolish. The more I looked into it, I thought ‘I’m writing this with a clear conscience.’ All these facts were available; he didn’t use them. Mistakes made on the first expedition were repeated on the second. He didn’t learn.”

Gus shakes his head as he recounts how officers on Discovery were given their own porcelain and silver items, such as condiment bowls! “Amundsen didn’t take personalised plates. He took husky dogs.”

• Scott’s Forgotten Surgeon: Dr Reginald Koettlitz, Polar Explorer, Whittles Publishing, �18.99