January 1912 was the pinnacle of Captain Robert Scott’s South Pole expedition: he and four companions arrived at their destination by sled (although they soon discovered the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen had beaten them by a month). What few Canadians know is that one of the expedition members – Sir Charles Seymour Wright – was a Canadian and a U of T grad.
Wright earned a degree in math and physics from U of T in 1908. While doing postgrad work in physics at Cambridge University, he applied for a position on Scott’s ill-fated 1910–13 expedition. Hired as the glaciologist, Wright explored the McMurdo Sound Dry Valleys – snow- and glacier-free areas that are so unusual that NASA uses them to simulate conditions on Mars.
While mapping one region of the Dry Valleys (which in 1959 would be named Wright Valley), Wright named three surrounding mountains after U of T president Robert Falconer, Prof. A.P. Coleman of geology and Prof. John McLennan of physics.
When it became obvious that Scott had met with misfortune, Wright became the search party’s navigator. On Nov. 12, 1912, he located the frozen remains of the polar explorer and two of his companions on their return journey.
Wright went on to an eminent scientific career: Prior to the First World War, he outlined on paper a simple version of today’s Geiger counter, and, during the war, he developed wireless trench communications. In the 1930s Wright directed the team involved in the early development of radar. During the Second World War, he developed technology that detected anti-shipping mines – which led to his knighthood in 1946.
Watch a BBC clip about a collection of photographs and relics from the Robert Scott Antarctic expedition: