April 24, 2018

Louis Bernacchi, scientist and explorer, died 24 April, 1942.

Born 1876 in Belgium, Bernacchi arrived in Tasmania with his parents in 1884 and they settled on Maria Island off the east coast. He received education and training at the Hutchins School, near Hobart, Tasmania, and was Assistant at the Melbourne Observatory 1895-97.


Bernacchi was chosen as physicist-astronomer as part of Carsten Egeberg Borchgrevink’s ‘Southern Cross’ Antarctic expedition 1898-1900. Following this expedition, Bernacchi published ‘To the South Polar Regions’, his account of his time and research with the expedition. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society in 1900.

For More on the ‘Southern Cross’ Expedition, see a previous blog post:


Bernacchi was appointed physicist with Captain Scott’s British National Antarctic Expedition 1901-04. As well as his magnetic and sea temperature research, Bernacchi’s work also included ‘electrometer, auroral, seismic, and gravity observations’. (R. F. Scott, The Voyage of the Discovery: Scott’s First Antarctic Expedition, 1901-1904 Vol. I, pp. 312-313.) He was known as an energetic and capable member of the expedition.

In 1906, Bernacchi was awarded the Royal Geographical Society Medal, the King’s Antarctic Medal and the French Cross of the Légion d’honneur.

Bernacchi at entrance to magnetic hut

Bernacchi travelled to Africa after his return from the Antarctic ice. At Preston parish church, Sussex, 10 February, 1906, he and Winifred Edith Harris were married. Robert F. Scott served as best man. Later in 1906, Bernacchi was off exploring again, this time in the upper Amazon Basin of Peru. Though Scott tried to recruit him for the ‘Terra Nova’ expedition, Bernacchi had family responsibilities to attend. In 1910, he unsuccessfully ran for election to the House of Commons as a Liberal Party candidate, standing in Widnes, Cheshire. From 1907 on, he invested in rubber plantations in Malaya, Java and Borneo.

During the years of World War I, Bernacchi served in various capacities in different services. He was Lieutenant-Commander in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, then was with the anti-submarine division of the Naval Staff of the Admiralty, and finally served with the United States Navy. In 1919, he was decorated on both sides of the Atlantic, receiving the Order of the British Empire and the United States Navy Cross.

Not specifically those awarded to Bernacchi

He returned to his rubber interests after the war. Over the next two decades, Bernacchi also remained active with Royal Geographical Society, the British Science Guild and the British Association for the Advancement of Science. There were plans afoot for Bernacchi to lead his own Antarctic expedition in 1925 but it didn’t come to fruition due to spiralling costs. However, Bernacchi organised the British Polar Exhibition, under the auspices of the Royal Geographical Society, which was held at the Central Hall, Westminster, 2-19 July, 1930. He published widely on polar topics, including a biography of Captain Oates and was then busy assisting in the organisation and preparations for the Second International Polar Year (1932-1933).

In his 1933 book, ‘Saga of the Discovery’, Bernacchi described the Golden Age of Antarctic exploration as ‘the era of man-hauled sledges, insufficient and improper food, the days when exploration meant isolation and suffering and sometimes death -the days when, at times, it was conducted ‘by guess and by God’.’

At the outbreak of war in 1939, Bernacchi returned to the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve in his previous rank as lieutenant-commander. He worked on the organisation of ‘Q’ ships, heavily armed merchant ships with concealed weaponry, 1939-42. His health, however, declined and he died at his London home 24 April, 1942.






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