A staff post from Jesper Ericsson, Curatorial Assistant at The Hunterian.
Whilst working on cataloguing Dr William Hunter’s collection of British historical medals last year, I came across an item in another tray that I had never handled before – a rare, silver Polar Medal. It immediately piqued my interest. Engraved on the rim was: ‘A Stevens Biologist Aurora’. Who was ‘A Stevens’? And why had he been awarded this medal? Little was I to know that my research would take me to the depths of an almost unknown chapter of a famous expedition undertaken during wartime, an extraordinary tale of survival against the odds, all centred on a man whose life was dedicated to the University of Glasgow.
Born in Kilmarnock and a graduate of the University, Alexander Stevens (1886 – 1965) was Chief Scientist and Biologist of the Ross Sea Party, part of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition 1914 – 17. Landing in Antarctica in January 1915, Stevens suffered from ill health from the start and found the heavy manual labour required of the men utterly exhausting. In May that year, the party’s support vessel, the Aurora, was swept away in a violent storm. Its rudder broken, the ship drifted away, its crew somehow managing to nurse it to New Zealand. But this left the men of the Ross Sea Party, including Stevens, stranded until their rescue on 10 January 1917. By that time, one member had died; two were missing. The joy of rescue was tempered by the party’s loss and news of the expedition’s overall failure. All were desperate to hear what had happened with the war that they had left behind in 1914. The terrible revelation that it was still ongoing shocked them. Most of the men resolved to join up when they returned home, and Stevens was no exception.
In November 1917, Stevens received a commission in the Royal Engineers and three months later was awarded this Polar Medal by King George V at Buckingham Palace. He saw active service on the Western Front in the final months of the war, after which he returned to the University of Glasgow. Stevens became the University’s first Professor of Geography in 1947, and retired in 1953 after a long and distinguished academic life.
To mark the centenary of the rescue of the Ross Sea Party, Stevens’ Polar Medal, donated by him to The Hunterian in 1953, is on display now for the very first time.