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Wilkins, George Hubert (known as Hubert) 1888-1958

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Born: 31 October 1888 [Mount Bryan, South Australia]

Died: 30 November 1958 [Framingham, Massachusetts, US]

Aviator, explorer, photographer, climatologist

When drought devastated Wilkins' family's farm he became determined to study worldwide weather conditions to gain a better understanding of climatology. Wilkins studied engineering at South Australian School of Mines and Industries and photography and cinematography in Adelaide and Sydney. He went to England in 1908 and worked for the Gaumont Film Company and as a newspaper reporter, which allowed him to travel widely. Wilkins also learnt to fly and began experimenting with aerial photography.

In 1913 Wilkins joined Vilhjalmur Stefansson's Canadian Arctic expedition which gave him the opportunity to learn about survival skills in extreme conditions and to formulate his ideas about improving weather predictions. Being on the expedition, Wilkins was delayed in hearing about the outbreak of World War I. He returned to Australia in 1917 and enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force, serving with the 9th Regiment, Australian Flying Corps as an official photographer. On joining up he stated his trade/calling as 'explorer'. Wilkins was put in charge of the photographic sub-section of the Australian War Records Section in 1918. Wilkins was twice wounded in action and was awarded the Military Cross, an award for gallantry, in mid-1918 with a Bar added in 1919. In 1919 he accompanied CEW Bean, head of the Australian Historical Mission, on a trip to Gallipoli to document the battlefields there.

In 1920, Wilkins made his first trip to Antarctica as a member of the British Imperial Antarctic Expedition and was subsequently invited by the noted explorer Ernest Shackleton to join his Antarctic expedition in the Quest. During this trip, Wilkins became convinced that aeroplanes could be used for polar exploration and planned for a survey of meteorological conditions in the Polar Regions.

From 1923 Wilkins spent two years in the Australia's Tropical regions to study and collect floral and faunal specimens, fossils and Aboriginal artefacts for the British Museum.

In 1926 Wilkins conducted a series of flights over the Arctic searching for possible places to land and for a location for a permanent meteorological observatory. Wilkins and his pilot Carl Ben Eielson completed the first successful flight across the Arctic from Point Barrow, Alaska to Spitsbergen, Norway in April 1928.

In November 1928 Wilkins returned to the Antarctic on an aerial exploration sponsored by the American Geographical Society and throughout the 1930s he was involved in several more Antarctic expeditions. He also, in 1931, attempted to take a submarine under the North Pole. During World War II Wilkins consulted for the US Army on conditions of extreme cold.

Wilkins lived just long enough to hear that the USS Nautilus and USS Skate had completed under-ice voyages in the Arctic in August 1958, just as he had attempted in 1931.

Key achievements

1913: Canadian Arctic expedition

1917: Enlisted in Australian Imperial Force as official photographer

1918: Awarded Military Cross

1919: Bar added to Military Cross

1920: British Imperial Antarctic Expedition

1923: Became fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and the Royal Meteorological Society

April 1928: Completed the successful flight across the Arctic

June 1928: Received a knighthood

16 November 1928: Completed first flight ever made in the Antarctic

1928: Awarded the Patron's medal of the Royal Geographical Society of London

1928: Presented with Samuel Finley Breese Morse medal of the American Geographical Society

1955: Awarded honorary Doctorate of Science from the University of Alaska

Did you know?

Wilkins' ashes were scattered at the North Pole by the nuclear submarine USS Skate.

See also:

Taking it to the edge: South Australia's polar pioneers: Hubert Wilkins

Further reading

Grierson, John. Sir Hubert Wilkins, enigma of exploration, London : R. Hale, 1960

Nasht, Simon. The last explorer : Hubert Wilkins Australia's unknown hero, Sydney : Hodder Australia, 2005

Thomas, Lowell. Sir Hubert Wilkins: his world of adventure; a biography, New York, McGraw-Hill [1961]

Wilkins, GH. Flying the Arctic, New York, London, G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1928

Wilkins, GH. Undiscovered Australia : being an account of an expedition to tropical Australia to collect specimens of the rarer native fauna for the British Museum, 1923-1925, London : E. Benn, 1928


Australian Dictionary of Biography Online: Search for Hubert Wilkins

Australian War Memorial : See Fifty Australians: Hubert Wilkins

Encyclopedia of Australian Science : See Hubert Wilkins

Regional Council of Goyder : See: Sir Hubert Wilkins

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