Did hypervitaminosis A have a role in Mawson’s ill-fated Antarctic exploration?

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Douglas Mawson is a national hero of Australia, having led the Australasian Antarctic expedition of 1911, and survived. His three-man sledging team was beset by a series of catastrophes. First, expert skier Belgrave Ninnis died after he fell into a deep crevasse taking with him half the dogs and a sledge of essential food and supplies. The remaining two explorers immediately turned back to base which was 315 miles away. With their rations diminished they resorted to eating their remaining six dogs over 23 days. Xavier Mertz became progressively ill with diarrhea, delirium, vocal outbursts in rages, and finally several seizures. He died after another seizure. Mawson, alone with negligible food and no dogs for transportation, through his own sheer grit made it back to base camp a month later and was saved. His journal records medical complications with skin desquamation, alopecia, and muscle pain. It has been proposed that these symptoms in both Mertz and Mawson were the manifestations of hypervitaminosis A. They likely consumed greater than a 1,200,000 IU of vitamin A each day from the dog liver they decided was essential to eat to survive. Mertz, a vegetarian, possibly consumed more of the liver than muscle meat, and consequently suffered the more severe encephalopathy and seizures associated with acute vitamin A poisoning.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1277-1281
Number of pages5
JournalClinical Toxicology
Issue number11
StatePublished - 2022


  • Antarctica
  • Hypervitaminosis
  • Liver < Organ/tissue specific < complications of poisoning
  • Mawson
  • Vitamin A

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Toxicology


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