Edward Wilson: Polar Explorer

This post comes from Sam Webber and Rachel Lane.

Our project focuses on the life and legacy of Edward Wilson. Not many people know who Edward Wilson was, but they would have heard about the mission he was a participant in: the Terra Nova mission to reach the South Pole (1910-13). Not as famous as the mission’s captain, Robert Scott, Wilson was, nevertheless, an instrumental member of the team. He was the doctor and scientist of the group and was among the five to reach the pole. All five died on their return, after having been beaten to the pole by the Norwegians. Wilson is the main focus of our project because he was born and raised in Cheltenham, growing up in a house on the Promenade.

At The South Pole (L-R: Edward Wilson, Henry Bowers, Edgar Evans, Robert Scott, Lawrence Oates)  

We had only very limited knowledge of Wilson before we started this project, but we knew of the mission and so had some basic information to start from. Our first action was to go to the Wilson Museum in Cheltenham. The museum was renamed after Edward Wilson, and has objects that belonged to Wilson and his family. We wanted to see what information was already readily available and to give ourselves a starting point. An unexpected and prominent part of the museum was Wilson’s paintings and drawings. He was a prolific painter and considered a career in art before pursuing medicine. Following this visit, we decided to focus specifically on Wilson’s life in Cheltenham, the mission itself and, finally, his legacy. We think it is important for Wilson to be recognised for his life, not just as being someone who died alongside Scott of the Antarctic.

More specifically, we aim to highlight Wilson’s works and achievements as a physician here in Cheltenham, his extensive scientific work as a zoologist, his part in the Discovery and Terra Nova expeditions as the first explorers to reach the South Pole, and the life he left behind. We also aim to cover his legacy, the lessons we have learnt as a result of his work and how he is commemorated here in Cheltenham.

Statue of Wilson, taken on Cheltenham Promenade

Wilson worked as a surgeon at Cheltenham General Hospital alongside his work as an artist and natural historian. His paintings, alongside much of his equipment and personal effects, can be found in the Wilson Gallery in Cheltenham. The gallery was renamed after Wilson in 2013 and there are rooms dedicated to his memory. The holdings include items and information about his family, who also did a great amount of philanthropic work in the town. The project will highlight how much of Edward Wilson’s life was linked to Cheltenham, yet not many people know who he was. We aim to establish Wilson as a figurehead for Cheltenham.

The great ice barrier – looking east from Cape Crozier, 1911 watercolour by Wilson

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