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‘Cocaine For Snowblindness’: What Polar Explorers Packed For First Aid

Filed by KOSU News in Health.
September 28, 2012

So you’re headed out to explore the frozen wilderness of the Antarctic, facing one of the most punishing climates on Earth. What kind of medical supplies do you strap onto your sledge in case of emergency, miles from any sign of civilization?

For the men of derring-do racing to reach the South Pole at the beginning of the 20th century, the medical must-have list read “more like a witch’s grimoire than the best medical advice of just a century ago,” Gavin Francis, a Scottish author and doctor, writes in the current issue of the literary magazine Granta.

Francis documents the curiosities that filled the medical kits of British explorer Ernest Shackleton and his men when they set off on their 1907-1909 Nimrod expedition. The trip brought them within 97 miles of the South Pole — a record at the time (and close enough to earn Shackleton a knighthood). Among the items they toted:

“[I]singlass, prepared from the swim bladders of Russian sturgeons. Coated with silk, it was used on open wounds. He had ‘gold-beater’s skin’, a parchment-like dressing only fractions of a millimetre thick. Prepared from the intestines of ox or sand sharks, it was used in the manufacturing of hammered gold foil but also to promote the healing of open sores. He had tonics of iron and strychnine and tonics of iron and arsenic; the wrong doses of either would cause a lingering death.”

Psychoactive drugs were also on hand, Francis writes. Cocaine was “dripped in the eye to cure snowblindness.” Diarrhea was treated with “chalk ground up with opium.” Colic called for “tincture of cannabis” mixed with “tincture of chilli pepper.” As our friends at the Two-Way have reported, they also had plenty of whisky on hand.

Others have noted that both Shackleton’s men and the doomed Robert F. Scott party carried pills called “Forced March,” a blend of cocaine and caffeine taken hourly to prolong endurance. What they didn’t have? Antibiotics.

“Perhaps the only medications that Shackleton carried that we would still use today,” Francis writes, “were aspirin and morphine.”

Francis himself knows what its like to minister in Antarctica’s no-man’s land: He spent 14 months as a base doctor at the British-run Halley Research Station, which sits on an ice shelf floating in the Weddell Sea, a few hundred miles from the South Pole. The medical kits he prepared for modern-day Antarctic researchers heading out deep into the ice fields included items such as laxatives, local anesthetics and “scalpels, catheters and a collar should anyone break his or her neck.” And because “the days of all-male Antarctica are over,” he writes, the kits also included items to deal with “the consequences of unprotected sex.”

During his South Pole sojourn, Francis decided to look up what his medical forebears packed for those early expeditions to the ends of the Earth. While their medicine was primitive, he notes, their scientific curiosity was anything but.

Shackleton’s chief surgeon, Eric Marshall, was also a cartographer and surveyor. Edward Wilson, the doctor on Scott’s ill-fated 1912 attempt to be the first to reach the South Pole, also “doubled up as a marine biologist and ornithologist.”

And no one should doubt the men’s bravery. Wilson was one of five men in Scott’s party who perished on the trek back from the South Pol. They arrived to discover that Norwegian Roald Amundsen had beaten them there by a little over a month. One man died at the foot of a glacier; another, lame from frostbite, walked out of a tent to his death rather than slow his team down.

Wilson, Scott and Lt. Henry Bowers spent their final days starving and freezing inside their tent, their progress blocked by raging storms. Wilson had packed enough morphine to let the men drift off to a painless death, but the men chose not to take that way out. As Scott wrote in one of his last, haunting journal entries, dated March 22-23, 1912:

“[M]ust be near the end. Have decided it shall be natural.” [Copyright 2012 National Public Radio]

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