Reginald Koettlitz, scientist and polar explorer, was born in Ostend, Belgium, on 23 December 1860. Koettlitz served with two polar expeditions, one Arctic and one Antarctic—the Jackson-Harmsworth North Polar Expedition, 1894-1897, and R. F. Scott’s British National Antarctic Expedition, 1901-1904.
His father was a Prussian minister of the Reformed Lutheran Church and his mother was an English lady of a well-known family. He received his education at Dover College and Guy’s Hospital, London.
Koettlitz served as surgeon, botanist and bacteriologist to the Jackson-Harmsworth North Polar Expedition, 1894-1897. Although the expedition didn’t reach the Pole, Jackson’s style created a model for future polar expedition in organisation and execution. During the expedition, they made the significant discovery that Franz Josef Land was not a mass of land as previously thought but an archipelago. The maps created by the 1873 Austro-Hungarian North Pole expedition led by Julius von Payer were found to be erroneous in many places.
Koettlitz provided the geological report of Franz Josef Land for inclusion in Jackson’s book, A Thousand Days in the Arctic, and for the paper read at the Royal Geographical Society, 8 November, 1897 (then published in The Geographical Journal in February, 1898).
Following the end of the Arctic expedition it wasn’t long until Koettlitz was off again. He joined an expedition to Somaliland and Abyssinia in 1898 as physician, geologist, and anthropologist and in 1900 he travelled up the Amazon.
Koettlitz was appointed surgeon with R. F. Scott’s Antarctic expedition in 1901, and, although geology was his field, he was given the responsibility of botany and the study of the phytoplankton. He was discontented by the Royal Navy discipline which Scott imposed as it separated the officer and the seamen. He dedicated himself to his work, didn’t suffer fools lightly and was the butt of many pranks.
In his book Two Years in the Antarctic Albert Armitage, who had also been with the Franz Josef Land expedition, described him:
‘Koettlitz, over 6 feet in height, spare, and hardened by his previous Polar experience…’
Koettlitz wrote a report on 19 December, 1901, on the food taken for R. F. Scott’s Discovery expedition and what had been done to prevent scurvy during the time on the ice. It was published in The British Medical Journal in February, 1902, under the title ‘The British Antarctic Expedition: Precautions Against Scurvy in the Victualling of the Discovery’. Considering recent experimentations, the experience of Nansen and his own experience with the Jackson–Harmsworth expedition to Franz Josef Land, he concluded thusly:
‘That these precautions will be sufficient to relieve us of the danger of any of us becoming subject to so disastrous a disease as scurvy I have little or no doubt, and if, as is very probable, there will be a sufficiency of fresh game, in the shape of penguins and seals, we can take it as certain that no scurvy will be heard of in connexion with the expedition, however long it may remain in the High South.’
Before the early sledging voyages of the expedition, Scott thought it wise to have his men knowledgeable about the dangers of the cold. Koettlitz gave an address on the mess-deck of Discovery that informed the men about precautions to be taken against frost-bite and snow-blind, amongst other possible ailments, as well as remedies to assist in recovery.
Koettlitz successfully treated Charles Royds’s dental abscess with a tooth extraction and excised a large cyst from his cheek in the Hut Point Ward room. He can be credited with having performed the first elective surgery in the Antarctic. Although it is unknown what anaesthetic was used, H. R. Guly presumed that is was ethyl chloride spray.
Discovery Physicist Louis Bernacchi later wrote that the operation created ‘pleasurable interest rather than sympathy for the unfortunate victim’ from the other Discovery men. Royds had a small scar from the operation for the rest of his life, a record of the first surgical operation performed in Antarctica.
When preparing for his own polar expedition, Shackleton asked many of his Discovery mates to be part of it. He asked Koettlitz to join the Nimrod but needing a medical appointment to support his family, Koettlitz declined. He, like E. A. Wilson, had married not long before the departure of Discovery—he and Marie Louise Butez, were married on 2 March, 1901. The couple moved to South Africa where Koettlitz kept practice in various places.
Koettlitz died of dysentery in Sommerset East, in January, 1916, only two days after Marie Louise had died of heart disease.
Armitage, A. B. Two Years in the Antarctic: Being a Narrative of the British National Antarctic Expedition. London, 1905.
Douglas, M. The White North: With Nordenskiöld, De Long, and Nansen. London, 1899.
Jones, A. A. Scott’s Forgotten Surgeon: Dr. Reginald Koettlitz, Polar Explorer. Caithness, 2011.
Franklin, J. L. ‘Reginald Koettlitz: Geologist, Explorer, and “Scott’s Forgotten Surgeon”,’ Hektoen International Journal: A Journal of Medical Humanities.
Guly, H. R. ‘Dr Reginald Koettlitz (1860-1916): Arctic and Antarctic explorer’, Journal of Medical Biography Vol. 20, Iss. 4 (2012), pp. 141-147.
Guly, H. R. ‘Surgery and anaesthesia during the heroic age of Antarctic exploration (1895-1922)’, The British Medical Journal, Vol. 347, No. 7938 (21-28 December, 2013), pp. 28-29.
Jackson, Armitage, Koettlitz, Fisher, Bruce, ‘Three Years’ Exploration in Franz Josef Land’, The Geographical Journal Vol. 11, No. 2 (1898), pp. 113-138
Koettlitz, R., ‘The British Antarctic Expedition’, The British Medical Journal, Vol. 1, No. 2145 (8 February, 1902), pp. 342-343.
Obituary Dr. Reginald Koettlitz, The Geographical Journal Vol. 47, No. 2 (1916), pp. 150-151.
Savitt, R. and Cornelia Lüdecke, ‘Legacies of the Jackson-Harmsworth expedition, 1894–1897’, Polar Record Vol. 43 No. 224 (2007), pp. 55–66.
Reginald Koettlitz, Account of sledge journeys, 1903?, The Royal Society, MS/591/1/7.
Frederick George Jackson, Vanity Fair 16 December, 1897, via NPG.
Captain Scott and Dr. Koettlitz on ski, 6 January, 1902, The Royal Society, NAE/5/534.