His expeditions into the polar unknown earned him a legacy as one of the most heroic explorers of our time. But studies into the diaries of Ernest Shackleton have led doctors to believe he may have led three British voyages to the Antarctic while suffering health problems caused by a hole in his heart.
In a piece published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, retired anaesthetist Ian Calder and consultant cardiologist Jan Till said they consulted material held in the Scott Polar Research institute – including personal diaries of Shackleton’s doctor – to get to the bottom of the explorer’s ailments.
Shackleton was sent home from his first polar expedition in 1901 on health grounds and had several physical breakdowns during his life.
During later expeditions to the freezing south pole, he suffered repeated attacks of breathlessness and weakness. He was 47 when he died of a heart attack in 1922 after arriving in South Georgia to attempt his fourth Antarctic expedition.
“The evidence rests in diary entries made by Dr Eric Marshall, the medical officer of Shackleton’s second expedition to the Antarctic in 1907-9,” said Calder. “The detection and treatment of an atrial septal defect is now reasonably straightforward, but was not available to Shackleton.”
It was in 1907 that Shackleton and three companions set a new record for the farthest south latitude travelled by an expedition team. However, they never quite reached their target, turning back when they were 112 miles from the south pole. Shackleton later told his wife: “A live donkey is better than a dead lion.”
Calder and Till’s suspicions that Shackleton had an atrial septal defect – commonly known as a hole in the heart – were raised partly by the explorer’s avoidance of a medical examination before his second expedition to the Antarctic, possibly owing to his fear of being declared unfit.
“Some may feel that Sir Ernest was irresponsible in undertaking the leadership of Antarctic expeditions if he suspected a problem,” Calder said. “But to paraphrase Dr Johnson, there is seldom a shortage of prudent people, whilst the great things are done by those who are prepared to take a risk.”
The explorer returned to the Antarctic in 1914 aboard the shipEndurance, which became trapped in pack ice; a mission to rescue him from the uninhabited island of South Georgia had to be launched.
In 1921 Shackleton made his final attempt to reach the south pole but died of a heart attack as he disembarked. At his wife’s request he was buried in South Georgia.