Sir Douglas Mawson is one of Australia’s all-time greatest explorers. He’s best known for his trips to Antarctica and work in geology. From 1984–1996, his image was on the front of the $100 paper banknote. But how and why was he chosen for it?
Sir Douglas Mawson
Born on 5 May, 1882, Mawson and his family emigrated from the UK to Australia when he was two years old. He gained degrees in engineering and science in New South Wales before moving to South Australia to become a minerology and petrology lecturer at the University of Adelaide in 1905.
In 1907, Mawson joined Ernest Shackleton’s Nimrod expedition and set foot in Antarctica for the first time. He worked hard and became a highly respected member of the team. He was part of the groups that first reached the south magnetic pole and climbed Mount Erebus, the second highest volcano on the continent.
Mawson returned to Antarctica on two other occasions: the Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE) 1911–1914 and the British Australian and New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition (BANZARE) 1929–1931.
During the AAE, Mawson and his expedition party constructed wood cabins to be used as their headquarters in Commonwealth Bay, a location now known for its fierce blizzards and howling winds. Now known as Mawson’s Huts, they still stand today and were heritage listed in 2005.
In November 1912, Mawson, Lieutenant Belgrave Ninnis and Doctor Xavier Mertz embarked on a 500-kilometre trek from the main base. With dogs and sledges to increase their speed across the ice, they planned to venture into Antarctica’s unexplored far eastern coastline. While on the journey, Ninnis fell through a large crevasse, taking a sledge and several dogs with him. His body was never found.
On the return trip and with supplies depleted, Mawson and Mertz were forced to eat the weaker dogs that had succumbed to exhaustion. This along with the continued exposure to the frigid weather made Mertz very sick and he eventually died as well.
With the last dogs killed off for food, Mawson had to carry on alone for the last 160 kilometres. At one point, a crevasse collapsed under Mawson and, if it weren’t for the straps connecting him to the sledge he was pulling, he would’ve fallen to his death too.
Weak, shivering and fatigued from dragging a heavy sledge for days on end, Mawson managed to pull himself up and kept going.
He eventually made it back to headquarters only to discover that the ship, SY Aurora, had left a few hours earlier to return to Australia. Mawson and six other men had to stay in Antarctica for another winter before they could return home.
For BANZARE, Mawson and other expeditioners visited uncharted areas of Antarctica’s coastline conducting research and surveys. The territory claims they made in Australia’s name would add up to 41% of the continent’s landmass.
Mawson was appointed the University of Adelaide’s Professor of geology and minerology in 1912 and knighted in 1914. He continued his life’s goal of mapping prehistoric terrain in the Flinders Rangers and passed away on 14 October, 1958.
In 1954, Australia established its first permanent Antarctic research base and named it Mawson Station in his honour.
The “Mawson” $100 Banknote
On 14 February, 1966, the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) officially began to transition the country’s economy from pounds to dollars. This followed several years of preparation and development. The first paper banknotes released were the $1, $2, $10 and $20. A $5 followed a year later.
The 1970s saw a sharp jump in inflation and it wasn’t long before higher currency notes were needed. A $50 note was introduced in 1973 and a $100 wasn’t too far behind.
Harry Williamson was a young freelance designer in London and happened to stumble across an exhibition of Australian artists. He was impressed by what he saw and it featured work by well-known talent of the day, including Gordon Andrews who had created Australia’s first dollar banknotes in the mid-1960s.
Through a mutual connection, Williamson contacted Andrews and the two hit it off. Williamson was offered a job and moved to Australia.
Williamson learnt a lot but Andrews wasn’t the easiest person to get along with. What Andrews lacked in patience he made up for in opportunity. He spoke highly of Williamson and urged the RBA to try out the young artist for their next project: the $100 paper banknote.
The new note had a “discovery” theme to it and Mawson and John Tebbutt were selected because of their contributions to the history of Australian science.
Tebbutt was a nineteenth-century astronomer famous for comet hunting.
The RBA approved Williamson’s artwork and the $100 banknote was issued in 1984.
Williamson would also create the RBA’s bicentennial $10 note and would go on to have a successful artistic career working with big organisations like MLC, Sydney Airport and the High Court of Australia, among others. He still designs today and lives near Byron Bay, New South Wales.
The “Mawson” $100 paper note was discontinued in 1996 and was replaced by a Polymer version.
Photo Credit: Reserve Bank of Australia Museum (https://museum.rba.gov.au/exhibitions/pocket-guides/a-decimal-reformation/decimal-series-73-84.html)
100 Year Legacy of Polar Explorer (https://www.adelaide.edu.au/lumen/issues/54281/news54321.html)
Centenary Celebrations for $100 Man (https://museum.rba.gov.au/exhibitions/centenary-celebrations-100-man/)
Harry Williamson (1940-) (https://recollection.com.au/biographies/harry-wiiliamson)
Home of the Blizzard, The, by Sir Douglas Mawson (Book)
Reserve Bank and Reform of the Currency: 1960–1988, The (https://web.archive.org/web/20160427094349/http://museum.rba.gov.au/displays/rba-currency-reform/#inflation-and-the-note-issue)
Sir Douglas Mawson (https://sahistoryhub.history.sa.gov.au/people/sir-douglas-mawson)