McLean, Archibald Lang

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Archibald Lang McLean

Archibald Lang Mclean (MB 1910 ChM 1911 MD 1917) was Chief Medical Officer under Douglas Mawson for the first Australian Expedition to Antarctica in 1910. McLean’s scientific findings during the expedition have formed the basis of much further research in Antarctica. When Mawson, Ninnis and Mertz were lost in Antarctica, McLean remained behind to search for the party. He was a gifted writer and his collaboration with Mawson towards ‘Home of the Blizzard’ created a work of inspiration for all those interested in Antarctic exploration and adventure.

Archibald (Archie) Lang McLean was born in Balmain, Sydney in 1885. After secondary education at Fort Street High School, he completed a Bachelor or Arts at the University of Sydney, with honours in French. In 1906 he graduated and entered the Department of Medicine, graduating MB in 1910 and ChM in 1911, then completing his residency at Lewisham Hospital and the Coast Hospital, Little Bay.

In 1911, Antarctic explorer Douglas Mawson decided to lead the first Australian Antarctic expedition. Mawson was keen that this expedition gave the opportunity for young Australian men to follow in the heroic endeavours of British Antarctic explorers. Although a fresh young intern at Lewisham Hospital, McLean applied to join the Mawson expedition and was selected to go to Antarctica as Chief Medical Officer and Bacteriologist for one year, residing at Main Base . Despite his relative medical inexperience, McLean’s youth and vigour were considered favourable attributes for work in the extreme conditions of Antarctica.

McLean sailed to Antarctica aboard the Aurora, a Scottish steam yacht Mawson had bought for the expedition. In December 1911, the Aurora made the journey from Hobart to Macquarie Island where Mawson first set up his operations. They then sailed south to Commonwealth Bay and arrived on January 7, 1912. Here McLean and the team set up camp in Adelie Land and the Aurora departed.

McLean’s role was to attend to the medical needs of the expedition team, begin his bacteriological research and, like all men, engage in general duties; such as assisting in the meteorological and tidal observations or attending to repairs of the base. There was constant work to be shared and the expedition team lived closely with good cheer. The most urgent task on landing was to build the huts for their quarters and this took the most part of the first few weeks. During this time McLean attended to minor injuries, such as cut fingers and hands from the building work, but the general health of the men was excellent and their mood was spirited.

McLean’s medical observations of the team had begun in Hobart with the Adelie Land party subjected to blood examinations and estimations of blood pressure. He noted that once in Antarctica it took approximately six weeks for each of them to acclimatise somewhat to the extreme cold and that during periods of constant physical labour, red cell numbers increased quickly, totalling in one instance more than 7,000,000. All men put on substantial weight, the average weight gain being ten pounds and in two cases, twenty-eight.

Research in Antarctica proved difficult and McLean’s own account gives a glimpse of the tribulations: A small corner of the hut was reserved for bacteriology. Here, a few shelves and a table accommodated stains and other reagents, slides, a spirit lamp, a centrifuge, a microscope, a steriliser and other miscellaneous apparatus. For more than four months I was unable to make up Gram’s iodine, owing to the potassium iodide and the iodine having been misplaced… The heat for the incubator was supplied by a kerosene lamp. The ether capsule and lever regulators worked well, so that it was possible to grow cultures either at 18 to 20 degrees Celsius, or at 37 degrees Celsius… However the rolling of the ship during gales and blizzards – as well as the occasional extremities of cold – made it difficult to keep the incubator at a uniform temperature… Boxes containing my stock of materials were buried in snow outside the Hut and were only accessible on the rare fine days, when they had to be dug out, opened and re-packed.

Regardless, McLean’s work went well for this first year and he amassed a substantial collection of bacteriological specimens of Antarctic ice, soil, mud, sea, mammals, birds and fishes. He also analysed regular swabs of the expedition team.

In December 1912, McLean and the expedition team were due to be collected and sail back to Australia but Mawson, Ninnis and Mertz had set out on a sledge expedition to the eastern coast and were well overdue for their return. The Aurora and crew waited as long as possible but after their anchor chain broke they were forced to sail or risk being trapped in the ice for winter. McLean and five others requested to wait behind and search for Mawson even though it meant remaining in Antarctica for another year. Supplies were unloaded from the ship so that the volunteers had sustenance and materials for yet another winter.

Immediately, McLean Hodgson and Hurley began searching for Mawson, leaving food parcels and notes outlining the location with compass directions for his return to base. On January 29, 1913, a near-dead Mawson found their food and notes and filled once again with the will for his own survival, began navigating himself back to base. Tragically, Mertz and Ninnis had perished on the expedition. Mawson himself arrived back on February 8th in a desperate state with multiple internal and external injuries, including his skin and hair having come off much of his body from starvation and frostbite, but McLean was slowly able to nurse him back to more reasonable health and repair.

These sorry events meant that Mawson, McLean and the others remained at Main Base for another year until the Aurora was able to return through the ice. In this second year, McLean also took part in a sledging expedition and a group of three nunataks discovered within the western part of Mertz Glacier were named the McLean Nunataks in his honour.

In Antarctica, McLean established and edited a monthly newspaper, the Adelie Blizzard, to occupy idle hours and to encourage a healthy stimulation of literary enjoyment. Mawson saw the writing of creative pieces and newsworthy articles for the Adelie Blizzard as part of his men’s duty and McLean who took to it with fervour.

In December 1913, the Aurora returned to collect the expedition team and set sail yet again, this time with all onboard. They arrived back in Australia in March 1914. On his return, McLean accompanied Mawson to England to continue their scientific research and to “revise and amplify” his journals towards Home of the Blizzard, the published account of their Antarctic travails.

McLean was in England at the outbreak of World War I and joined the Royal Army Medical Corps, serving until his discharge in 1916 after suffering from a poison finger. He returned to Australia to join the AIF but it was nine months before he was to see active service. Waiting out his pending departure, McLean submitted his Medical Doctorate to the University of Sydney - Bacteriological and other researches in Antarctica – for which he received the University Medal .

The first part of his work illustrates the results of his bacteriological investigations and the latter discusses human viability in Antarctic conditions, with a chapter each on Physiology, Immunity, Dietetics and Psychology. Mclean writes graciously and delightfully elucidates his passion for the metaphysical wonders of scientific discovery and worldly exploration: The evening of a day approaches when the sun of midnight rides low over the snowy ridge of the upspringing plateau. The torn and writhing glacier, suffused the palest lilac surges down and stands in the sheerness of might as a steel-blue wall, fronting the sea that glitters in the slanting sun…And imagination, as it will when confronted by an overawing spaciousness, soars to a supernatural explanation, and there is born the essence of religious thought; one with the sense of mortality that springs from contemplation of a star beyond the human orbit…

His final description defers to Mawson returning after his epic sledge journey:

There is the vision of a figure stumbling, companionless, dragging on through the changeless days of threshing, seething snow-drift… He is impelled to stumble on, sinking in the yielding beds of downy snow – so white and pure, yet so relentless in its mockery of human suffering! Hands and feet numb to the flapping gust of the sleeting blizzard; yet the heart palpitates hot in the will-driven frame of the man who fights for the life still sweet to self, who fights for a life in the service of others…

Despite his grandiose writing style, McLean remains self-effacing and at no time makes claim to any personal heroic action. Yet his treatise makes clear his passion for the wonders and beauty of Antarctica, his respect and admiration for ‘grand’ explorers, and particularly for his expedition leader and friend - Douglas Mawson.

After submitting his doctorate, McLean began his service with the Australian Army Medical Corps as Captain on the 29th September 1917, first serving on a cruise to Rabaul then accompanying the AIF to Egypt and France. McLean was attached to the 17th Battalion and the 5th Field Ambulance. He suffered no further injuries but was gassed twice. Throughout his period of active service he gained a high reputation for gallantry and devotion to his duty and was awarded the military cross.

At wars end, McLean was appointed Medical Officer in charge of the Red Cross farm at Beelbangera, (South Western New South Wales). Despite having been gassed, McLean survived the influenza epidemic in 1919 but contracted pulmonary tuberculosis. In 1922 he died at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, aged 37, survived by his Father and his wife Eva, but no children.

Archibald Lang McLean was laid to rest in the Gore Hill Cemetery. At his funeral were representatives of the NSW Presbyterian Assembly, members of the Mawson Antarctic Expedition, the 17th Battalion, Directorship of Military Medical Services, members of the 2nd Division, members of the Black Watch Association and the Department of Repatriation.

Reverend Maynard Riley, an old comrade of McLean’s, delivered an address at the cemetery in which he said:

He gave his life to his fellow men. As a student he was zealous and accurate, and in Antarctica he revealed some fine traits. When called to greater work during the way he manifested there doggedness and courage. When the seeds of disease took root in his system he waged war against the death in order to find out something to combat it in the interests of mankind. He wanted to live to relive millions, and he felt as if he were on the verge of a great discovery. Australia could well feel proud of her son. When his research work was taken and considered, many in the future would thank God that he lived.

  • Lise Mellor would like to thank Colin Sproule of the NSW Chapter of the Clan McLean for provision of initial biographical information, particularly the details regarding Archibald Lang McLean’s military involvement.