On 11 September, 1882, Robert Selbie Clark, biologist aboard the Endurance, was born in Aberdeen, Scotland. Clark attended Aberdeen Grammar School and later attained two degrees—M.A. & B.Sc.—from Aberdeen University. He was Zoologist at the Scottish Oceanographical Laboratory in Edinburgh and was later naturalist at the Marine Biological Association at Plymouth. Clark was an austere young man who enjoyed and excelled at sports; he played golf, pursued fishing and was chosen to play for the Scottish national rugby team in 1913.
Clark joined Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition at Plymouth. After his last minute decision to go with Shackleton, Clark still seemed unsure of himself even when on board. He wrote in his diary,
I cannot think what I am doing here and shall certainly return from Buenos Aries.
However, he grew determined to stay. While aboard the Endurance, Clark worked hard collecting and classifying samples and specimens from water, ice or the dredging nets. Roland Huntford wrote that Clark and James Wordie were both ‘dour’ characters from Aberdeen. Clark was often the victim of jokes amongst the crew—for one particular practical joke the other crewmembers bottled some cooked spaghetti in one of Clark’s specimen jars which caused him ‘great excitement’ at the prospect of having found an undiscovered species.
Clark and Wordie sharing living quarters on Endurance, living opposite the ‘Billabong’ in a room called ‘Auld Reekie’.
Once the Endurance was abandoned and only necessary equipment and supplies was salvaged, Frank Worsley was aware of how it affected Clark:
I felt sorry for Clark, as I lay there that night and realised that he had been obliged to leave on the Endurance the whole of his valuable collection that he had been at such pains to classify and study.
During the boat journey to Elephant Island, Clark was in the James Caird and he was one of the twenty-two men who remained on Elephant Island. During their four-and-a-half-month period on the island, Dr James McIlroy took a poll of what the men would eat if they could have anything; Clark’s answer was Devonshire dumpling with cream.
Clark had meagre abilities as a cook/ chemist and so created an alcoholic concoction named ‘Gut Rot 1916’ which he made using methylated spirits, sugar, ginger and water. This was drunk on Saturdays to the toast to ‘wives and sweethearts – may they never meet!’
Following the successful Yelcho rescue, Clark returned to Scotland and married Christine Ferguson. He didn’t settle down and immediately and joined the war effort, like most of the men of Endurance. He served as a Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve Lieutenant on minesweepers in the North Sea for the remainder of the Great War and then returned to Plymouth in 1919 following the end of hostilities.
It appears that Shackleton consulted Clark during July and August, 1921, regarding the appointment of a biologist to accompany the Shackleton-Rowett Expedition aboard the Quest.
Clark returned to the Marine Biological Association at Plymouth, but moved to Torry, Aberdeen, in 1925 to be Director of the Fisheries Research Laboratory there, where he remained until 1948. He received a D.Sc. in 1925. He was appointed Superintendent of Scientific Investigations under the Fishery Board for Scotland and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, both in 1934.
As a batsman, Clark continued playing cricket after his Antarctic adventures. After the war, he played for Devon in the Minor Counties, where he topped the batting averages in 1921. He continued to split his appearances between Aberdeenshire and Carlton, despite their distance, and was a member of the unbeaten Carlton team of 1924. The Carlton chronicler, and Clark’s Carlton skipper, Dr N. L. Stevenson, writing of Clark in the early 1940s stated
On his day he gave the impression of being a super batsman, so effortless was his play, which even today is spoken of with admiration from Mannofield [Aberdeen] to the far off playing fields of Devon …In my time the club has had few better recruits than Dr RS Clark.
Clark, having retired in 1948, died two years later on 29 September, 1950, at his home where he and his wife had lived for many years, The Cottage, Murtle, Aberdeenshire.