Edward Adrian Wilson

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Edward Adrian Wilson
Edward A. Wilson.jpg
Edward Adrian Wilson
Born(1872-07-23)23 July 1872
Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, England
Died29 March 1912(1912-03-29) (aged 39)
EducationCheltenham College, Gloucestershire
(independent boarding school)
Alma materGonville & Caius College, Cambridge
Spouse(s)Oriana Souper (married 1901–1912)

Edward Adrian Wilson FZS ("Uncle Bill") (23 July 1872 – 29 March 1912) was an English physician, polar explorer, natural historian, painter and ornithologist.

Early life[edit]

Born in 91 Montpellier Terrace, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, on 23 July 1872, Wilson was the second son and fifth child of physician Dr Edward Thomas Wilson (1832–1918) and his wife, Mary Agnes, née Whishaw (1841–1930).[1] A clever, sensitive, but boisterous boy, he developed a love of the countryside, natural history and drawing from an early age.[2] He was sent as a boarder to a preparatory school in Clifton, Bristol, but after failing to gain a scholarship to public school, he attended Cheltenham College for Boys as a day pupil.[3] His mother was a poultry breeder and he spent much of his youth at The Crippetts farm, Leckhampton near Cheltenham.[4] By the age of nine he had announced to his parents that he was going to become a naturalist.[5] With encouragement and tuition from his father, he started to draw pictures of the wildlife and fauna in the fields around the farm.[6] After passing his Oxford and Cambridge exams with honours in science, in 1891 he went to Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge where he read Natural Sciences, obtaining a first class degree in 1894.[7][8] It was during his time there that he developed the deep Christian faith and asceticism by which he lived his life.[9] He studied for his Bachelor of Medicine (M.B.) degree at St George's Hospital Medical School, London and undertook mission work in the slums of Battersea in his spare time.[10] In February 1898, shortly before qualifying as a doctor, Wilson became seriously ill and was diagnosed with pulmonary tuberculosis, contracted during his mission work.[11] During a long convalescence from this illness he spent months in Norway and Switzerland, time he used to practise and develop his skills as an artist.[12] He qualified in medicine in 1900 and the next year was appointed Junior House Surgeon at Cheltenham General Hospital.[13] He married Oriana Souper on 16 July 1901 just three weeks before setting off for the Antarctic as a member of Robert Falcon Scott's Discovery Expedition.[14]


Wilson's 1911 watercolour "The great ice barrier – looking east from Cape Crozier"

Wilson took part in two British expeditions to Antarctica, the Discovery Expedition and the Terra Nova Expedition, both under the leadership of Scott.

Discovery Expedition[edit]

Drawing of two emperor penguins with chicks by Wilson (Sept. 1903), held in the collections of the Scott Polar Research Institute.

From 1901 to 1904, Wilson acted as Junior Surgeon, Zoologist and expedition artist, setting off with the expedition on 6 August 1901. They reached Antarctica in January 1902. On 2 November 1902, Wilson, Scott and Ernest Shackleton set off on a journey that, at the time, was the southern-most trek achieved by any explorer. The party had dogs but they were not experienced in using them and the food brought for the dogs had gone bad. With many of the dogs dead, they turned back on 31 December 1902 having reached latitude 82°17'S. They had travelled 300 miles farther south than anyone before them and were only 480 miles from the Pole. Shackleton was deteriorating rapidly, coughing blood and suffering fainting spells and unable to help pull the sledge. Scott and Wilson, themselves suffering, struggled to get the party home. It was a close call but 93 days after setting off, having covered 960 miles, they reached the Discovery and safety in February 1903. The following month, Shackleton, having suffered particularly badly from scurvy and exhaustion, was sent home early by Scott on the relief ship, Morning. On his return, Shackleton asked Wilson to join his Nimrod expedition to Antarctica in 1907, but partly out of loyalty to Scott, he declined.

Terra Nova Expedition[edit]

On 15 June 1910, Wilson set sail from Cardiff on the Terra Nova, as Chief of the Scientific Staff of Scott's final expedition. After making stops in Madeira, South Trinidad, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, the Terra Nova was trapped for 3 weeks by pack ice, and finally arrived at Cape Evans in McMurdo Sound in early January 1911. A base camp hut was built and 3 weeks later work began to establish the supply depots in preparation for the journey to the South Pole the following austral spring. Deteriorating weather conditions and weak, unacclimatised ponies meant that the main supply point, One Ton Depot, was laid 35 miles (56 km) further north of its planned location at 80°S, something that was to prove critical during the return journey from the Pole the following year.

Herbert Ponting's photograph of the three Emperor penguin eggs
Wilson (left), Bowers and Cherry-Garrard after their return

In the austral winter of 1911, Wilson led "The Winter Journey", a journey with Henry Robertson Bowers and Apsley Cherry-Garrard, to the Emperor penguin breeding grounds at Cape Crozier to collect eggs for scientific study. The 60-mile journey was made in almost total darkness, with temperatures reaching as low as −70 °F (−57 °C). Frozen and exhausted, they reached their goal only to be stopped by a blizzard during which their tent was ripped away and carried off by the wind, leaving the men trapped in their sleeping bags for a day and a half under a thickening drift of snow. When the winds subsided, by great fortune they found their tent lodged about half a mile away in rocks. Having successfully collected three eggs, and desperately exhausted, they returned to Cape Evans on 1 August 1911, five weeks after setting off. Cherry-Garrard later described this expedition in his memoir, The Worst Journey in the World.

At the South Pole: Wilson (left), Scott, Oates (standing); Bowers and Evans (sitting)

On 1 November 1911, fourteen men set off from Cape Evans on the long trip to the South Pole. 79 days later, Wilson was one of the five-man Polar party that reached the Pole on 18 January 1912, only to find the pole had been claimed by Norwegian Roald Amundsen and his team just five weeks earlier.

The grave of Wilson, Bowers and Scott

Their return journey soon became a desperate affair due to the combination of exhaustion, lack of nutrients in their diet and exceptionally adverse weather. On 17 February, near the base of the Beardmore glacier, Petty Officer Edgar Evans died, suspected to be from a brain injury sustained after a fall into a crevasse two weeks earlier. Then, in a vain attempt to save his companions, Captain Lawrence Oates deliberately walked out of their tent to his death on 16 March after his frostbitten feet developed gangrene. Wilson, Scott and Bowers continued on for 3 more days, progressing 20 more miles, but were stopped by a blizzard on 20 March, 11 miles short of the 'One Ton' food depot that could have saved them. The blizzard continued for days, longer than they had fuel and food for. Too weak, cold and hungry to continue, they died in their tent on or soon after 29 March (Scott's last diary entry), still 148 miles from their base camp. Their bodies were found by a search party the following spring on 12 November 1912. Their tent was collapsed over them by the search party who then buried them where they lay, under a snow cairn, topped by a cross made from a pair of skis. When news of the tragedy reached Britain in February 1913, it created a national mourning.

Affectionately nicknamed 'Uncle Bill' by the men of the expedition, Wilson was the confidant of many, respected for his judgement, skills at mediation and dedication to others. By all accounts, Wilson was probably Scott's closest comrade of the expedition. Scott wrote "Words must always fail me when I talk of Bill Wilson. I believe he really is the finest character I ever met." When Scott's final camp was discovered by a search team in November 1912, Bowers and Wilson were found frozen in their sleeping bags. Scott's bag was open and his body partially out of his bag – his left arm was extended across Wilson.

In 1913 he was posthumously awarded the Patron's Medal by the Royal Geographical Society for his work in the Antarctic.[15] At Gonville and Caius College, the college's flag, which Wilson took to the South Pole, is preserved.

In media[edit]

In the film Scott of the Antarctic, Wilson was played by Harold Warrender. In the Central TV production 'The Last Place on Earth', Wilson was played by Stephen Moore. In the BBC Four production 'The Worst Journey in the World', Wilson was played by John Artur.

Museum Collections[edit]

Wilson's artwork and objects relating to him appear in several museum collections. The largest collection of his artwork is held at the Scott Polar Research Institute, part of the University of Cambridge, which cares for over 200 watercolours of British birds by Wilson, as well as a further 150 paintings made in Antarctica.[16] The Institute's Polar Museum displays a range of objects associated with Wilson, including:

  • A black flag from the Norwegian Antarctic Expedition 1910-12 (Fram) found near the South Pole and brought back by Dr Edward Adrian Wilson on the British Antarctic Expedition 1910-13 (Terra Nova).[17]
  • A Royal Geographical Society Patron's Medal (George V issue), in a dark blue case, awarded posthumously to Edward Adrian Wilson for the British Antarctic Expedition 1910-13 (Terra Nova) and presented to Mrs Wilson in 1913.[18]
  • A candlestick made by Edward Adrian Wilson out of a Huntley & Palmer's biscuit tin during the British Antarctic Expedition 1910-13 (Terra Nova).[19]

The journal kept by Wilson during the South Polar journey on the Terra Nova expedition is held in the British Library, along with Captain Scott's diary from the expedition.[20]

The Wilson art gallery and museum in Cheltenham, holds a collection of watercolours and drawings made by Wilson, as well as the family papers of Edward Adrian’s father, Edward Thomas Wilson, who was instrumental in founding the Camera Club, museum, library, a fever hospital, district nursing organisation, and clean water provision for the town.[21]

The RRS Discovery in Dundee, the ship Wilson first travelled to Antarctica on, is preserved as a heritage site, and accessible to visitors. The Dundee Heritage Trust collection also includes a small collection of material including a scrapbook and photographs from the Terra Nova expedition.[22]


Statue of Wilson in the Promenade, Cheltenham

The statue of Wilson on the Promenade in Cheltenham, modelled by Scott's widow Kathleen, was unveiled on 9 July 1914 by Arctic explorer Sir Clements Markham. In September 2013 the Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum was renamed 'The Wilson' in his honour.[23] There is a large block of flats named after him in Hesters Way, Cheltenham.

The Edward Wilson Primary School in Paddington, London is named after him. The students' café at St George's Hospital Medical School is named Eddie Wilson's. One of the houses at Cheltenham College is named Westal, after Wilson's family home on Montpellier Parade, Cheltenham.[24]

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. ^ Williams 2008, p. 17.
  2. ^ Williams 2008, pp. 23–25.
  3. ^ Williams 2008, pp. 25–26.
  4. ^ Williams 2008, pp. 22,26.
  5. ^ Williams 2008, p. 24.
  6. ^ Williams 2008, p. 26.
  7. ^ Williams 2008, pp. 28,30.
  8. ^ "Wilson, Edward Adrian (WL891EA)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
  9. ^ Williams 2008, pp. 34–35.
  10. ^ Williams 2008, pp. 41–48.
  11. ^ Williams 2008, pp. 50–51.
  12. ^ Williams 2008, pp. 52–56.
  13. ^ Williams 2008, pp. 31,58–64.
  14. ^ Williams 2008, pp. 69–70.
  15. ^ "List of Past Gold Medal Winners" (PDF). Royal Geographical Society. Archived from the original (PDF) on 27 September 2011. Retrieved 24 August 2015.
  16. ^ "Scott Polar Research Institute art collections". Retrieved 26 November 2018. Scott Polar Research Institute website
  17. ^ "Museum catalogue – Antarctic Collection – Black Flag". Scott Polar Research Institute. Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge. Retrieved 26 November 2018.
  18. ^ "Museum catalogue – Antarctic Collection – RGS Patron's Medal". Scott Polar Research Institute. Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge. Retrieved 26 November 2018.
  19. ^ "Museum catalogue – Antarctic Collection – Candlestick Holder". Scott Polar Research Institute. Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge. Retrieved 26 November 2018.
  20. ^ "Manuscript Catalogue – Wilson's Sledging Diary". British Library. British Library. Retrieved 26 November 2018.
  21. ^ "Antarctic and Wilson Family Collection". The Wilson. The Cheltenham Trust. Retrieved 26 November 2018.
  22. ^ "Dundee Heritage Trust Collection". Dundee Heritage Trust. Dundee Heritage Trust. Retrieved 26 November 2018.
  23. ^ "Cheltenham's Museum and Art Gallery renamed The Wilson". BBC News. 18 September 2013. Retrieved 18 September 2013.
  24. ^ "Biography - The British Birds: 1905-1910". Edward Wilson. Retrieved 5 September 2017.