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Person of Interest: Sir Hubert Wilkins

Sir Hubert Wilkins was an Australian explorer, pilot, photographer and geographer who gained fame for his documentation of the Arctic and Antarctic regions.

Sir Hubert Wilkins explored Antarctica.
Victoria Nicholson/WWTW via Getty Images

Hubert Wilkins was born in Hallett, South Australia, on October 31, 1888. His parents were sheep farmers and he was the last of 13 children. When he was a teenager, Hubert moved to Adelaide (located about 100 miles away from him birthplace) and found work with a traveling cinema. Through this job, he traveled to Sydney and then London, England. While in England, Hubert garnered a position with “Gaumont Studios” as an aerial photographer; a pioneer concept at the time. In his later life, these special photography skills would shape his career.

In 1917, Hubert returned to Australia and became a Second Lieutenant in the “Australian Flying Corps.” During World War I he worked as a war photographer and won a Military Cross medal for his efforts at rescuing soldiers who were wounded during the Third Battle of Ypres. He was promoted to the rank of Captain and continued photographing war scenes; he even captured images of the severe fighting that took place in the Battle of the Hindenburg Line.

After World War I ended, Hubert Wilkins became an ornithologist (a zoologist who specializes in studying birds). Between 1921-1922 he was aboard a ship called “Quest” on the Shackleton-Rowett Expedition that traveled to the Southern Ocean and adjacent islands (presently, the area known as Antarctica). After returning to England, Hubert began a two year course of study at the British Museum about the bird life in Northern Australia. The ornithology project occupied much of his life until 1925. During this time his work was acclaimed by the British Museum but criticized by the Australian authorities due to the fact that Hubert was an outspoken opponent of the environmental damage that was being done to Australia at the time. Hubert was also openly sympathetic to the plight of the native Aboriginal people who, he felt, were ill-treated by the Australian government.

In March 1927, Hubert Wilkins and a pilot named Carl Eielson flew to Alaska to explore the drift ice and the approximate water depth of the area (it was estimated to be 16,000 feet). In 1928, Hubert was honored to be the first recipient of the “Samuel Finley Breese Morse Medal,” which was presented to him by the American Geographical Society. In April 1928, Hubert and Carl made a trans-Arctic flight from Alaska to Norway. The endeavor took 20 hours to complete and, for this feat, Hubert Wilkins was knighted.

Shortly after being knighted, Hubert went to New York where he met an Australian actress named Suzanne Bennett. They were married on August 30, 1929.

Hubert Wilkins is best known for his innovative trans-Atlantic exploration via a submarine. He started planning for the “Nautilus Expedition” in 1930 when he and his wife, Suzanne, were on vacation. Hubert was determined to go on the expedition in order to gather data about the Arctic weather conditions and the creatures that lived there, including polar bears. He was also curious to see what scientific, technological and economic possibilities that Arctic could offer mankind.

Although the root causes of his interest were intriguing, the expedition was bound to be expensive and Hubert spent many months financing it. He eventually raised enough money to lease an American 1918 submarine that was scheduled to be decommissioned. Hubert named the 175 foot long, 560 ton vessel “The Nautilus” as an ode to Jules Verne’s novel “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” The submarine was capable of diving down 200 feet and a custom-made drill was attached to it that would enable it to bore through ice. Although the vessel could hold up to twenty men, Hubert only took eighteen with him on his voyage but they were all chosen with great care.

Hubert Wilkins and his crew set off for the North Atlantic on June 4, 1931. Unfortunately, the engine broke down and the crew was forced to send out an SOS message. They were rescued on June 14 and the Nautilus was towed to England for repairs later that month. Despite this early setback, by August 1931 the Nautilus reached the Arctic and the crew was able to take samples of ice. However, the submarine was having further technical difficulties and the expedition had to be cut short. Although the overall mission was regarded as a disappointment, Hubert had proven that submarines could operate under the polar ice cap; something that was previously thought to be impossible. His discovery paved the way for later—successful—explorations.

On March 16, 1958, Hubert Wilkins appeared on the popular American TV game show “What’s My Line?” He died in America that same year, on November 30, of a heart attack. He was 70 years old. In accordance to his last wishes, his ashes were scattered at the North Pole.

Sir Hubert Wilkins made a lasting impression on society’s knowledge of the Arctic. The Wilkins Sound, the Wilkins Coast, and the Wilkins Ice Shift in Antarctica are all named after him as are an airport and a road in Australia. His research papers are still widely regaled and read by students studying scientific and geographical subjects and his contributions to science will be forever remembered and celebrated.

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