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Stories Behind The Faces (Part 1) – Douglas Mawson

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Immortalised on a banknote a sure way to ensure you go down in history! So who gets this honour? In the last edition we examined the complexities involved in the lengthy process of banknote design. An arduous task but one with definite prestige assured for the designer chosen. But, perhaps, even greater distinction goes to those chosen few whose portraits actually grace our notes.

Of course, for many of those who feature the legacy of their contribution is obvious, most notably Queen Elizabeth II. Interestingly, though, a special honour was achieved for the $1 note, the design panel was granted its request for a new portrait and the Queen undertook a special photoshoot to produce a never before seen picture specifically and only for this purpose. Along with the Queen many other well-known identities that played a part in forging our history were chosen. There are some, however, whose profiles are not quite so high to a large part of the public, and it is the remarkable achievements and input to our nation of these individuals that we will attempt to discover over the next issues.

Starting with one of the later additions to our currency, the paper $100 note, the life of Douglas Mawson who is featured on the front, provides a fascinating story of a courageous man who gave his all, and very nearly his life, to explore and study one of the coldest and wildest places on earth, Antarctica.

Although best known as an explorer Mawson was a scientist, specialising in geology and remained committed to this throughout his life. After migrating from England to Australia his strong interest in glaciation took him to South Australia where he studied the formation of the Flinders Ranges and if you look closely you will find that recognition of his geological studies is featured on the note, abstract in the background based on various drawings of rock strata formations. And it was these ranges, proved to be partly sculpted by glaciers millions of years ago, that fueled his fascination for Antarctica, then an unknown, unexplored land where glaciers were still a reality, and began his journey to becoming one of Australia’s greatest explorers.

His first trip in 1909 was an expedition headed by a well-known British explorer Ernest Shackleton that brought two achievements. The first team to climb Mount Erebus, Antarctica©s active volcano, and the first team to reach the South Magnetic Pole. Inspired, this led on to what was to become the most famous of his trips, a journey that has been described as “the greatest story of lone survival in polar expedition history”.

> The very first Australasian expedition, with Mawson as the leader, set off in 1911. Their purpose being to explore and chart the areas closest to Australia which they did with great success at first. Unfortunately tragedy was too soon to strike when in Spring 1912 the group split and ventured out in small parties to explore on foot. Mawson and his two companions, fighting appalling weather, were 500 kms from base and five weeks into their journey when trouble struck. One member of their team and almost all their supplies were lost in a crevasse. Turning back to face the grueling trek to return to base the remaining two were eventually forced to eat their Huskies (sled dogs). An act that was one of the most basic instincts of survival, it soon turned against them. Mawson’s last companion, a noted swiss scientist became increasingly ill and died 25 days into their return journey. The cause is now known to be due to toxic levels of vitamin A from the dog’s livers. And so he trekked on alone, very nearly perishing himself but fighting all odds to save himself after he too fell into a deep black crevasse. The ordeal lasted another 30 days and one can only imagine the courage, endurance and mental strength it took to drag his poisoned body through the remaining blizzardous160 kms.

He made it back to base but only to see the supply vessel Aurora already well on its way and a mere spec on the horizon. It was another year before he was able to depart for home.

Remarkably though, he made another two trips. In 1929 he was the leader of BANZARE (British, Australia and New Zealand Research Expedition) which resulted in extensive new areas of the Antarctic charted and claimed as Australian Territory. And in 1930-31 he revisited his old base of 1909 and documented the significant movement of the South Magnetic Pole.

mawsonKnighted in 1914, Sir Douglas Mawson died in October 1958 aged 76 years. His story is one of a reserved man with great humility never seeking the limelight, but whose contribution to science and the discovery of one of the last great unknowns of the world has ensured him a place in history. A man whose strength of character and will to survive has inspired so many, and perhaps should inspire us all as we reflect on the story behind the image immortalised on the original $100 note.

On the practical side though, if you are lucky enough to have one of these notes come your way or crewwere canny enough to stash one aside, already in “uncirculated” condition the average paper $100 note can be worth $150. And if you are really fortunate and come across one with a prefix serial number ZAA these can be worth up to $500 “uncirculated”!