Feeney describes food dramas of early polar journeys

May 31, 1998
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@dcn.davis.ca.us

Hollywood and history buffs are missing real life adventure stories when they overlook the drama of early polar expeditions.

Robert Feeney, protein chemist and emeritus professor at UC Davis, knows this. So does science fiction writer Stan Robinson. Both men recently published books about Antarctica. Robinson's novel, "Antarctica," is based on a trip he made there in 1995.

Feeney's book is non-fiction, based on several research trips to Antarctica and nearly a lifetime's work. Feeney, 84, estimates that he's spent roughly eight hours a day for the past 20 years researching and writing about polar expeditions and the human errors that led to tragedy.

His first book on the subject, "Professor on Ice," was published in 1974 and his new book "Polar Journeys: The Role of Food and Nutrition in Early Explorations" is available now, published jointly by the University of Alaska Press and the American Chemical Society.

Feeney and Robinson have traded copies of their books and Feeney, the scientist, says Robinson's science fiction novel is 90 percent accurate when it comes to describing Antarctica.

"I thought his book was great," said Feeney.

(Robinson will give a reading from "Antarctica" at Bogey's Books in downtown Davis at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, July 21. Feeney will sign copies of "Polar Journeys" at Bogey's at an undetermined date later this summer.)

Feeney's work, while suitable as a textbook, is fascinating too for the layman. It describes the problems and discoveries in food science over the years with an emphasis on polar expeditions but also touching on problems closer to home. He suggests, for example, that members of the ill-fated Donner party might have survived without resorting to cannibalism if they had only learned to ice-fish in the Sierra.

In terms of polar journeys, Feeney says the great explorer Roald Amundsen beat Capt. Robert Scott to the South Pole in 1911-12 because of Amundsen's superior knowledge of nutrition, because he knew what to eat and how to manage his food resources. Consider that no land animals were available once the shores of Antarctica were left behind en route to the South Pole. All foodstuffs had to be packed in.

"Amundsen had the distinct advantages of a Norwegian background and his northern polar experience," wrote Feeney. "He made sure his men consumed nearly raw seal meat for months before the trip to the pole to reduce the possibility of scurvy. On the trip he had them eat (sled) dogs as the dogs were killed, and his rations themselves were better suited, containing more milk powder.

"Scott's group not only did not but would not eat dogs. In fact they had very few dogs, having chosen to use ponies, which were an encumbrance. Not only did they perform very poorly, but they required hay to be hauled along and ponies wouldn't eat ponies - a double food problem," said Feeney.

On the final trip to the South Pole, Scott's group man-hauled their equipment and provisions (instead of using sled dogs) and many believe that expenditure of time and energy caused their deaths.

Scott and his men ate and drank tea, biscuits, cocoa, pemmican (dried meat in fat), butter and sugar in an amount equaling about 4,430 calories a day until they slowly ran out of food. The men were ignorant when it came to knowledge of vitamins, as this diet demonstrates, but nonetheless Scott made a fatal error in judgment by failing to provide enough food, a mistake that Amundsen's party did not make.

Feeney's book describes advances in food technology that accompanied expeditions to the North and South Poles. He also includes a chapter on the role food will play in space exploration and the problems associated therein.

"In surveying the long history of exploration, a reader finds few substantial advances on foods and nutrition, with just two exceptions, until the first part of the 20th century," says Feeney.

The two exceptions were James Lind's discovery of the value of lemons for the treatment of scurvy, a vitamin deficiency that was epidemic on long sea voyages, and Nicholas Appert's development of canning, both of which took place in the 1750s. Yet it took many years after the initial discoveries to put these developments into efficient practice.

For instance, while the British Admiralty thought canned food was the answer to its food supply problems, it ordered cans so large, some up to 50 pounds, that bacterial spoilage resulted.

More efficient canning techniques came along later. And it wasn't until between 1930 and 1940 that the knowledge of vitamins established the modern basis for understanding the relationship between food and nutrition.

"Many of the problems on polar explorations were caused by human judgment and management," said Feeney.

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