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Wordie, James Mann

Wordie, James Mann

Alias: Jock

Title: Sir

Rank: lieutenant (Royal Artillery)

Dates: 1889-1962

Nationality: British

Awards: Polar Medal (silver)

James Wordie was born in Partick, Glasgow, a scion of an old and wealthy Scottish family. He read geology at the University of Glasgow, then continued his studies at St John's College, Cambridge. Appointed a demonstrator in petrology, Wordie became acquainted with Frank Debenham, Charles Wright, and Raymond Priestley, all of whom had participated in Robert Falcon Scott's British Antarctic Expedition 1910-13 (Terra Nova). Priestley, who had also been a member of Shackleton's British Antarctic Expedition 1907-09 (Nimro), recommended Wordie to Shackleton when he was searching for a geologist for the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition.

Aboard Endurance, Wordie's research programme necessarily had to be modified, as it was originally intended to be conducted at a land-based station. Wordie struggled to secure his instruments on the constantly moving ice, but from December 1914 to October 1915 he took soundings of the sea bottom, collected water samples, studied the sea ice, and made temperature observations at different depths. To examine the sea floor, Wordie hung a lead can over the side of the ship, and scooped up samples with it. He also proved definitively the non-existence of Morrell's Land, which had initially been claimed by the American sea captain Benjamin Morrell in 1823.

Wordie, known as Jock, was a well-liked member of the expedition, able to talk about scholarly issues with the other scientists and to communicate with the crew with a dry humour. While stranded on Elephant Island, Wordie became even more popular, as, to help continue his research, he regularly exchanged his tobacco rations for unique rock specimens that the other men collected. All in all, Wordie's work contributed to a growth in the knowledge of the hydrography and oceanography of the Weddell Sea. For his contributions to the expedition, Wordie was later awarded the Polar Medal in silver.

During the First World War, Wordie joined the Royal Artillery and served as a lieutenant in France, where he was wounded in battle. After the war, he returned to Cambridge, and in 1919 and 1920 he was second-in-command on William Speirs Bruce's Scottish expeditions to Spitsbergen. He later led his own expedition to Jan Mayen and three more to Greenland.

Throughout the 1930s and 1940s Wordie was probably the most influential figure in British exploration. From 1937 to 1955 he was chairman of the committee of management of the Scott Polar Research Institute, overlapping the period that Debenham was the director of the Institute. After many years as honorary secretary of the Royal Geographical Society Council, he served president of the RGS from 1951 and 1954. And from 1933 to 1952 he was the senior tutor at St John's, also serving as master there from 1952 to 1959. Wordie was the chairman of the British arm of the International Geophysical Year in 1957–58, the same period in which he was knighted. He died in Cambridge in 1962 at the age of 72.

Wordie's contributions to Antarctic science were recognised by his name being given to a number of geographical features in the Antarctic, including the Wordie Ice Shelf (69°15'S, 67°45'W), which extended into Marguerite Bay along the west coast of the Antarctic Peninsula. Satellite imagery compiled in 2004 showed that the entire shelf had broken away, leaving floating ice. The area once covered by the Wordie Ice Shelf is now known as Wordie Bay. Other locations named in his honour are Wordie Nunatak (66°16'S, 51°31'E) and Wordie Point (56°44'S), 27°15'W), the southwest point of Visokoi Island in the South Sandwich Islands.


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