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Explorers on Ill-Fated 1910 Polar Expedition Died of Starvation

THURSDAY, July 5 (HealthDay News) -- A century after the tragic British Terra Nova expedition to the South Pole, new research shows that Robert Falcon Scott and his men died of starvation.

Though they were eating rations of biscuits, pemmican (dried meat and fat paste), butter, sugar, chocolate, cereals, raisin and some pony meat, the daily allotment did not contain enough calories to keep them alive given the extreme amount of physical exertion.

Using modern knowledge of nutrition and the body's response to extreme temperatures and high altitudes, Dr. Lewis Halsey, an environmental physiologist at the University of Roehampton, in London, and Dr. Mike Stroud, a physician and polar explorer, reexamined Scott's voyage. They determined that Scott and his crew did not consume enough calories to fuel their activities.

The study was presented July 1 at the Society for Experimental Biology meeting in Salzburg, Austria.

"There has been much speculation about what Scott died of. Almost certainly his death was due to chronic and extreme emaciation," said Halsey in a society news release.

The Terra Nova Expedition set out in 1910 with the goal of being the first to reach the South Pole. They reached their destination in 1912, only to find that they had been beaten to the pole by a Norwegian team. The Terra Nova team died on their way home.

The men consumed about 4,400 calories a day, but probably expended closer 7,000 calories daily as they hauled supplies on sledges across the ice and snow, researchers said. This daily activity level is higher than most Olympic athletes in training.

The calorie mix was also insufficient, with their ration containing too little fat, researchers said. Their daily diet contained 24 percent fat and 29 percent protein. To fulfill their daily requirements, the men would have had to consume closer to 57 percent fat and 8 percent protein, researchers said.

Although it's not known if the team developed scurvy, researchers believe the men probably did due to inadequate vitamin C. At the time of their expedition, the researchers noted, there was confusion over which foods would prevent the condition. (They did, however, have cocaine with them to boost energy when they ran out of food.)

Because this study was presented at a medical meeting, the data and conclusions should be viewed as preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.

More information

The Antarctic Heritage Trust has more about the Scott expedition.

-- Mary Elizabeth Dallas

SOURCE: Society for Experimental Biology, news release, June 28, 2012

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