Field trips 100 years ago

In those days, the Chemistry and Geology Departments at Sydney University faced each other across Science Road and much of the work that went on in the two buildings, teaching and research, was complementary. That is not surprising. Liversidge held the Chair of Geology and Mineralogy before taking over Chemistry from John Smith in the 1880s. It was a collaboration that seems to have worked well. Liversidge and Geology professor T.W. Edgeworth David were an effective team, combining to set up a School of Mines where courses were offered to engineering students, leading to a degree in mining and metallurgy.

Women were welcome on the field trips, and enjoyed themselves despite ankle-length skirts

Women were welcome on the field trips, and enjoyed themselves despite ankle-length skirts

On the matter of field trips, Liversidge travelled widely to follow his interests in chemical mineralogy. But this article is about the field work of his adventurous colleague Edgeworth David who made a practice of getting himself into (and out of) precarious situations. On ice fields in Antarctica. In the trenches on the Western Front. Even, sometimes, on student excursions. The scene recorded around 1900 in the photo on the right was apparently nothing out of the ordinary. David is the one bending low to examine a rock, surrounded by students half-way up the cliff face.

Everyone agreed. Fine as his lectures were, David was at his best as a teacher in the field. He had introduced student excursions, the first at Sydney University, soon after his appointment in 1891. These included half- and whole-day visits to Long Reef, Prospect and a working coal mine at South Clifton. Later on, he held week-long camps further afield, in the Hunter Valley and in the Kosciuszko region. By 1903, field work carried out during University vacations and on Saturday excursions was an established part of the Geology syllabus.

Arranging transport for 50 or 60 students to many of the locations – by rail or by ferry and tram – would have been as easy then as now. Probably easier. But getting to some of the places, even with smaller parties, must have been hard work. By rail as far as it went, then by horse-drawn coach to a camp site, followed by a lot of walking. Hiking 30 km in a day was not uncommon.

From the start, women were welcome. They enrolled in Geology and went on field trips in large numbers, with David's wife Cara often along as chaperone. In the photo on the right, there are three of them up there on the cliff face, in spite of the ankle-length skirts, and obviously enjoying themselves. And look at the photo below, taken on an excursion to Mona Vale in 1904. Half the group are women, at a time when women still made up little more then 10% of the student population. David stands third from the end, on the right.

Field trips were the basis of David's research, as well as his teaching. He came to the Chair at Sydney after almost a decade with the NSW Geological Survey, much of it spent in the field. Achievements during that period included the mapping of the Hunter River Coal Measures and discovery of the rich South Maitland Coalfield. At the University, the field trips continued, notably in 1897 to Funafuti, a Pacific atoll in the Ellice Group (now Tuvalu). There, David and his group drilled for cores to test and eventually confirm a suggestion originally made by Charles Darwin, that an atoll forms when coral builds up on the slowly subsiding base of an extinct volcano.

David had talked his wife into going with the expedition and she was a wake-up. She wrote to a friend: "[He] wants me to go too … to cook and wash for him and to nurse and doctor the party." Afterwards, Cara had the satisfaction of publishing a lively account of the expedition that was well-received, Three Months on a Coral Island: An Unscientific Account of a Scientific Expedition, although, she complained, "a heap of nice but naughty things" had been censored, along with her opinion that the islanders had been taught by the British "to read the Bible, sing hymns and be greedy".

Another of David's interests was ancient glaciation, which saw him off on a series of field trips, with students and colleagues, to the Australian Alps and, most famously, with Ernest Shackleton to the Antarctic. David was looking, in particular, for evidence that a southern supercontinent (Gondwana) had existed at some time in the distant past. Later, in the 1920s, he would be an early supporter of Alfred Wegener's controversial (in fact much-scorned) theory of Continental Drift. In the photo below taken at Kosciuszko in 1922, David stands on the left and his wife Cara on the right, as one of the party prepares to throw a snowball.

Sources for this piece were the University Archives and David Branagan's enjoyable and richly detailed biography T.W. Edgeworth David: A Life, National Library of Australia, (2005).

A Mona Vale excursion in 1904

A Mona Vale excursion in 1904

A group at the top of Mt Kosciuszko in 1922 includes T.W. Edgeworth David and his wife Cara

A group at the top of Mt Kosciuszko in 1922 includes T.W. Edgeworth David and his wife Cara

Edgeworth David in Antarctica


A drawing of T.W. Edgeworth David, 1908, by the expedition artist

A drawing of T.W. Edgeworth David, 1908, by the expedition artist

Mackay, David and Mawson, taken at the South Magnetic Pole

Mackay, David and Mawson, taken at the South Magnetic Pole

Edgeworth David spent 1908 on the ultimate field trip, to the Antarctic, as a last-minute addition to the expedition led by Ernest Shackleton. The original plan had been for David to travel down with the team on the Nimrod during the University's long vacation and to return with the ship for the start of the new academic year. The Nimrod arrived back without him.

Letters from David, to the University Senate and his wife, announced that he was staying behind to oversee the expedition's geological and meteorological work. He would be away for at least a year. He wasn't sure how the University authorities would react. Or for that matter his wife.

Edgeworth David turned 50 in January that year which must have seemed ancient to the other team members. "The old Prof", perhaps feeling he had something to prove, soon led the first ascent of Mt Erebus, the active volcano rising more than 13,000 feet (4,000 m) above their camp on Ross Island. From the summit, David and his fellow-climbers looked out across McMurdo Sound, by then well on the way to freezing over as winter approached.

After the long winter months, David set off again, with Douglas Mawson who had been a student of his at Sydney University and the Scottish physician Alistair Forbes Mackay, to trek from Ross Island to the South Magnetic Pole and back to the coast. They made it – "the longest unsupported sledge journey until the mid-1980s" – but only just. And David himself recognised that, strictly, the trio could only claim to have reached the Magnetic Pole area (meaning the area of verticity, where the dip circle needle is vertical). This can be up to 60 miles in diameter around the Magnetic Pole which itself would not be conclusively reached until 2000.

Meanwhile, a team led by Shackleton fell just short of the main goal, the geographical South Pole – the Norwegian Roald Amundsen would be first, 3 years later. The expedition had achieved much, however, and its members returned to Sydney to a heroes' welcome.

During the winter of 1908, expedition artist George Marston drew the crayon sketch of David (below). The photo below, of (left to right) Mackay, David and Mawson, was taken at the South Magnetic Pole ("or very near it") by David pulling string attached to the shutter release.