The Life of Sir Raymond Priestley, Antarctic Explorer, Scientist, Soldier, Academician
McFarland, Jefferson, North Carolina, 2017, 208 pages
Book Review published on: June 22, 2018
Take a moment to imagine the challenges and dangers of traversing 850 miles from Ross Island, Antarctica, to the geographical South Pole over mountainous terrain with deep valleys in subzero temperatures and in a dog sled. Couple those conditions with wet clothing and a daily diet of seal and whale blubber. If able to reach the South Pole, you must then successfully return to Ross Island. At the turn of the twentieth century, only men of great courage and strength accepted the overwhelming challenges presented by Antarctica expeditions, and only a few survived to tell of their harrowing experiences.
While on active-duty military service at the U.S. Transportation Command, I had the once-in-a-lifetime experience of travelling to Antarctica and the South Pole, albeit by C-17 and C-130 aircraft. This exciting experience drew me to Mike Bullock’s Priestley’s Progress: The Life of Sir Raymond Priestley, Antarctic Explorer, Scientist, Soldier, Academician, the first-ever biography of Antarctic explorer Sir Raymond Priestley.
Priestley was invited to accompany English explorers Sir Ernest Shackleton and Robert Scott on their respective 1907 Nimrod and 1910 Terra Nova Antarctic expeditions. For the duration of his life, Priestley remained linked to British Antarctic exploration and research. Priestley’s extensive five years of experience on Antarctica led to his appointment as director of the British Antarctic Survey and his involvement in the establishment of Cambridge University’s Scott Polar Research Institute. He was also a founding member of the Antarctic Dining Club, described by Priestley as “restricted to those who had visited the continent while engaged on expedition work.”
As a result of his famed reputation, Prince Phillip, then Duke of Edinburgh, invited Priestley to tour the Antarctica coastline as the duke’s Antarctica expert on his 1956 voyage around the globe. In 1955, the United States began a series of Antarctica missions dubbed Operation Deep Freeze (ODF). In 1958, the United States invited Priestley to participate as a British observer/expert in ODF IV. Today, the U.S. Defense Department and the National Science Foundation partner to resupply science and research at Antarctica’s McMurdo Bay and Amundsen-Scott South Pole stations in support of the United States’ interests on Antarctica.
As the title suggests, Bullock does not limit Priestley’s life to Antarctica. To develop this biography, he researched special collections and archives from various universities, the Scott Polar Research Institute, and the Royal Geographical Society. Bullock interviewed distinguished historians and Priestley’s granddaughter and grandson, who provided him access to Priestley’s extensive personal diaries. Bullock makes effective use of Priestley’s first-hand observations covering sixteen chapters of his life beginning with the early developmental and university years (interrupted by World War I).
Bullock, in great detail, describes Priestley’s World War I experiences as an officer in the British Army Signal Service. Prior to his combat experiences, Priestley experimented with the army’s first portable wireless telegraphy set and was instrumental in establishing the army’s Wireless Training Corps. Deployed to the western front with the 46th North Midland Division, he commanded the 46th Divisional Signal Company and for gallantry, was awarded the Military Cross. After the Armistice was signed, the 46th Division commander tasked Priestley to write the “Official History of the British Army’s Signal Service.”
For reasons discussed earlier, I found Bullock’s three Antarctica chapters the most interesting. He uses Priestley’s diaries to detail the excruciating physical and mental demands presented by Antarctica’s harsh weather, inadequate supplies and food as a result of poor planning, and the combination of fear and personal isolation that naturally accompanies extended periods of fatigue, darkness, and cold. During the 1910-1913 Terra Nova expedition, Scott and five others perished in their pursuit to reach the South Pole. Priestley also came close to death himself as he and six companions became stranded for seven months in a hand-dug snow cave measuring “twelve feet by nine feet and five feet high.”
Completing his degree in 1920, Priestley embarked on a thirty-year career as a university administrator, first at Cambridge’s Scott Polar Research Institute, followed by vice-chancellor at Melbourne University in Australia, and later, as the vice-chancellor at Birmingham University in England. Bullock, again in exhausting detail, identifies Priestley as exceptionally gifted at campus reorganization, fundraising, and recruiting, which Priestley attributed to the fame he gained from the Antarctic expeditions.
Priestley remained engaged in Antarctica-related affairs and events until his death in 1974. By 1969, he was regarded as the “foremost living authority on the history of Antarctic exploration and science.” Bullock’s biography is brief, considering Priestley’s historic adventures and many accomplishments; however, his writing style is overly detailed at times. I selected this book because of my own Antarctica experience and enjoyed the extensive details Bullock applies to Priestley’s two Antarctic expeditions. Yet, the minutiae of Priestley’s World War I and post-Antarctic events were at times difficult to negotiate (unless your interests lie with the introduction of wireless communications in combat or with how to run a university).
If you are fond of details or early “historic age” Antarctic exploration, read Bullock’s Priestley’s Progress. If not, I might recommend Alfred Lansing’s Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage.
Book Review written by: James D. Sharpe, Fort Gordon, Georgia