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Who Was the First Person to Reach the South Pole?

Michael Anissimov
Updated May 23, 2024
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Since as far back as Aristotle, cartographers and explorers suspected the existence of a Terra Australis - a vast southern continent to "balance out" the land masses of the north. Maps as early as 1513 include a continent that looks like Antarctica, though it is known for certain that no one from that era could have made it there with the ship technology at the time. It was not until 1820 that three expeditions all sighted the Antarctic mainland for the first time, within days or weeks of each other. It would only be a matter of time before someone made it all the way to the South Pole.

The first person who set foot on Antarctica is said to be the American John Davis, a sealer, who landed there on 7 February 1821. In 1840, Charles Wilkes, leader of an American Navy expedition, was the first to cross a substantial swath of land and realize that the new island was a continent rather than just a large island. The southeast quadrant of Antarctica was named Wilkes land in his honor. At the turn of the century, Britain sent forth the National Antarctic Expedition (1901 - 1904), led by Robert Falcon Scott, which established a base at McMurdo sound, and came closest to the South Pole yet.

Ernest Shackleton, part of Scott's expedition, led the British Imperial Antarctic Expedition (1907 - 1909), in an effort to be the first to reach the South Pole, and was only 180 km (111 mi) away before they had to turn back. Parties from that expedition were the first to discover the Magnetic South Pole, however.

After the magnetic south was discovered, the competition really got intense. Robert Falcon Scott, the Brit, and Roald Amundsen, from Norway, sailed their ships Terra Nova and Fram in an effort to be the first to the South Pole. Their expeditions took place throughout the year 1911 and early 1912. Roald Amundsen's party was first, reaching the South Pole on 14 December 1911. Their strategy involved taking 52 dogs with them and feeding the dogs to the others as they died. They returned with only 11, as this is how these expeditions were done in those days. Robert Scott reached the South Pole only a month later, but his party of five perished on the return trip across the Ross Ice Shelf. Today the Scott-Admundsen South Pole Station is named in honor of the two men.

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Michael Anissimov
By Michael Anissimov , Writer
Michael Anissimov is a dedicated Historical Index contributor and brings his expertise in paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism to his articles. An avid blogger, Michael is deeply passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. His professional experience includes work with the Methuselah Foundation, Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and Lifeboat Foundation, further showcasing his commitment to scientific advancement.

Discussion Comments

By Catapult — On Jan 15, 2011

While I imagine going to the south pole of Antarctica would be a horribly difficult journey, I cannot imagine doing to the sled dogs what they did. I can only hope that people would not do that now; yes, the dogs are used for work and not for play, but it still seems a little too cruel to do that to them, and cannibalism is not really natural for any species.

By helene55 — On Jan 14, 2011

The south pole discovery really was something for its time, considering that, like the "New World" a few centuries earlier, the then-modern world had only speculated about it for a long time beforehand. I also find the South Pole to be more impressive in that people knew what they were looking for and knew when they got there, as opposed to Christopher Columbus, who insisted until his dying day that when he landed on Hispaniola he'd really reached India.

By anon83445 — On May 11, 2010

i want to know the first person who visited the first time in the south pole.

Michael Anissimov

Michael Anissimov


Michael Anissimov is a dedicated Historical Index contributor and brings his expertise in paleontology, physics, biology...
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