Wrong rations led to Scott’s death on ice
Captain Scott and other members of his ill-fated expedition to the South Pole were effectively killed by a slimming diet, research has shown.
The men expended more energy than Olympic athletes as they hand-hauled their supplies on sledges across hundreds of kilometres of ice and snow.
Their rations were too high in protein and too low in fat and simply did not deliver enough calories, say scientists.
As a result, the polar explorers starved to death.
“There has been much speculation about what Scott died of,” said lead researcher Lewis Halsey, from the University of Roehampton in London. “Almost certainly his death was due to chronic and extreme emaciation.”
Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s disastrous attempt to be the first to reach the South Pole began in June 1910 as he set off from Cardiff in the whaling ship Terra Nova.
Appalling conditions greeted the explorers in Antarctica, proving too much for the mechanical sledges, ponies and dogs they brought with them.
By January 1912, only Scott and four other members of his expedition remained. Without support, they were forced to haul their supplies across the Antarctic plateau by hand.
On January 17 they reached the pole, only to find that a Norwegian party led by Roald Amundsen had beaten them there.
They now faced a return journey of 1,500 kilometres. In mid-February, team member Edgar Evans died.
Then, in an act of heroism that has gone down in history, frost-bitten Lawrence Oates took his famous walk into a blizzard saying he “may be some time”.
Scott and his last two companions, Edward Wilson and Henry Bowers, died in their tent on March 29, 1912.
They were just 18 kilometres from a pre-arranged supply depot.
Dr Halsey’s team examined the expedition in light of today’s knowledge of nutrition and the effects of extreme exercise.
Scott’s rations consisted of biscuits, pemmican (a concentrated fat and protein mixture), butter, sugar, chocolate, cereals and raisins, with initial supplements of pony meat.
The study, to be presented this weekend at the annual meeting of the Society for Experimental Biology in Salzburg, Austria, suggests they were inadequate.
Each of the polar explorers were burning nearly 7,000 calories a day hauling their sledges, it is estimated. At the same time, they were consuming only around 4,400 calories.
In comparison, elite cyclists covering 4,900 kilometres over six days burn around 6,500 calories per day. Their rations were also too low in fat, which provides more energy than protein weight-for-weight.
The balance was 24 per cent fat and 29 per cent protein.
Today, adventurers setting out on tough expeditions consume up to 57 per cent fat and just eight per cent protein.
Other nutritional factors may also have been involved, according to the scientists.
Vitamins were not known about at the time and there was confusion over which foods prevented scurvy.
While it is not clear whether or not the men developed scurvy, they probably did not consume enough vitamin C.
The research is also published in the journal Physiological Reviews. In their paper, the scientists conclude: “Since Scott and his last two companions, Wilson and Bowers, faltered on their return journey just 18 kilometres from the next depot, it seems reasonable to conclude that augmented rations based on modern physiological wisdom would have kept them alive.
“Most importantly, they would have had more strength because of larger muscles, more insulation due to greater fat deposits, and a greater ability to recover and heal after each period of man-hauling due to adequate vitamin levels in the body.”