Xavier Mertz bigraphy, stories - Antarctic explorer, mountaineer and skier

Xavier Mertz : biography

1883 - 8 January 1913

Xavier Mertz (6 October 1882 – 8 January 1913) was a Swiss explorer, mountaineer and skier, from Basel. He took part in the Far Eastern Party, a 1912–13 component of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition, which claimed his life. The Mertz Glacier is named after him.

The son of a textile machinery manufacturer, Mertz studied patent law at the University of Bern, and science at the University of Lausanne, specialising in glacier and mountain formations. While a student, Mertz became active as a skier, competing in national competitions, and as a mountaineer, climbing many of the highest peaks in the Alps. In early 1911, Mertz was hired by geologist and explorer Douglas Mawson for his Australasian Antarctic Expedition. He was initially employed as a ski instructor, but in Antarctica Mertz instead joined Belgrave Edward Sutton Ninnis in the care of the expedition's Greenland Huskies.

In the summer of 1912–13, Mertz and Ninnis were chosen by Mawson to accompany him on the Far Eastern Party, using the dogs to push rapidly from the expedition's base in Adélie Land towards Victoria Land. After Ninnis and a sledge carrying most of the food disappeared down a crevasse from the hut, Mertz and Mawson headed back west, gradually using the dogs to supplement their remaining food stocks. About from safety, Mertz died, leaving Mawson to carry on alone. The cause of Mertz's death has never been firmly established; the commonly accepted theory is hypervitaminosis A (an excessive intake of vitamin A) from consuming the livers of the Huskies. Counter-theories suggest he may have died from cold exposure, a change in diet, or psychological stresses.


In November 1913, a month before the Aurora returned for the final time, Mawson and the six men remaining at Cape Denison erected a memorial cross for Mertz and Ninnis on Azimuth Hill to the north-west of the main hut. The cross, constructed from pieces of a broken radio mast, was accompanied by a plaque cut from wood from Mertz's bunk.Bickel (2000), p. 254 The cross still stands, although the crossbar has required reattaching several times, and the plaque was replaced with a replica in 1986. The first glacier the Far Eastern Party crossed on the outward journey—previously unnamed—was named by Mawson after Mertz, becoming the Mertz Glacier. At a speaking engagement upon his return to Australia, Mawson praised his dead comrades: "The survivors might have an opportunity of doing something more, but these men had done their all." At another, Mawson said that "Dr. Mertz was a Swiss by birth, but he was a man every Englishman would have liked to have called an Englishman ... He was a man of great feelings, generous—one of Nature's gentlemen." A telegram was sent on behalf of the Australian people to Emile Mertz, condoling him on his "great loss, but congratulating you on your son's imperishable fame."

The cause of Mertz's death is not certain; at the time, it was believed Mertz may have died of colitis.Riffenburgh (2009), p. 136 A 1969 study by Sir John Cleland and R. V. Southcott of the University of Adelaide concluded that the symptoms Mawson described—hair, skin and weight loss, depression, dysentery and persistent skin infections—indicated the men had suffered hypervitaminosis A, an excessive intake of vitamin A. Vitamin A is found in unusually high quantities in the livers of Greenland Dogs, of which both Mertz and Mawson consumed large amounts; indeed, as Mertz's condition deteriorated, Mawson may have given him more of the liver to eat, believing it to be more easily digested.Bickel (2000), p. 260 This theory is the most widely accepted, but there have been counter-theories.Riffenburgh (2009), p. 137 Phillip Law, former director of Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions (ANARE), believed cold exposure could account for Mertz's symptoms.Ayres (1999), pp. 80–81 A 2005 article in The Medical Journal of Australia by Denise Carrington-Smith, noting that certain sources have claimed that Mertz was essentially a vegetarian, suggested that the sudden change to a predominantly meat diet could have triggered Mertz's illness. Combined with "the psychological stresses related to the death of a close friend [Ninnis] and the deaths of the dogs he had cared for, as well as the need to kill and eat his remaining dogs," this may have killed Mertz.Carrington-Smith (2005), p. 641 It should be noted, however, that there is no clear evidence for Mertz being a vegetarian, while his unpublished diary makes regular references to him eating and enjoying meat.

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