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This blog post was first published on December 3 2011, and substantially revised and reposted on December 10 2015.

Famous Namesake
Yesterday marked one hundred years since the Australasian Antarctic Expedition set sail from Hobart in the SY Aurora on December 2, 1911. It arrived at an unexplored region of Antarctica on January 8, 1912, and set up base camp. The site proved to be unrelentingly windy, with constant blizzards that made things hellish for the intrepid explorers.

Douglas Mawson was one of the leaders on the expedition. A geologist and lecturer from the University of Adelaide, he had been asked to join Robert Scott’s British expedition to find the South Pole (Scott was famously beaten to the punch by Norwegian Roald Amundsen). Mawson turned him down, as he thought it would be better to take his own team, and lead an expedition to the unexplored bits of Antarctica, which was most of it.

Douglas was part of a three-man sledging team called the Far-Eastern Party, which included Belgrave Ninnis, the son of a British arctic explorer, and Swiss mountaineer Xavier Mertz.

The group was making excellent progress when Ninnis fell into a snow-covered crevasse that the other two men crossed without incident; he took with him six huskies, a tent, most of the food and other essential supplies, and was never seen again. The glacier they were traversing is now called Ninnis Glacier in his honour.

Mawson and Mertz continued their frozen nightmare, forced to eat their huskies to supplement their scant rations. Although both men were unwell, Mertz became seriously ill and died in less than a week. It is thought that he may have died of an overdose of Vitamin A from eating husky liver, which Mawson solicitously fed him, in the fond belief that he was giving Mertz the best of the provisions.

Other theories are that Mertz died from hypothermia, from the shock of eating meat after being a vegetarian, or from the psychological stresses of the journey – especially the death of Ninnis, as the two men had been exceptionally good friends.

In the days before he died, Mertz became weak, exhausted, dizzy and delirious, even biting off the tip of one of his own fingers. He had dysentery, nausea, and stomach pain; his skin peeled away and his hair fell out – not surprisingly, another of his symptoms was depression. Whatever he died from, his demise caused him terrible suffering.

Douglas Mawson sledged the last 100 miles alone, falling into a crevasse on the way and having to climb out using the harness, only to see the boat he was to have returned on disappearing over the horizon. He had to spend another year in Antarctica.

Douglas was knighted in 1914 and The American Geographical Society awarded him a medal in 1916. The work he did was ground-breaking, and led to Australia getting its own portion of Antarctica, from where we still do important research.

For decades Sir Douglas Mawson was regarded unquestioningly as a hero, and his image is on the snow-white Australian $100 note. More recently his part in the expedition has been scrutinised, and attracted criticism. However there is no doubting his strength, courage, and determination to survive against all odds. He is remembered as an enthusiastic and kind man who never boasted of his remarkable exploits.

Name Information
Douglas is an Anglicisation of Scottish surname Dubhghlas meaning “dark river”. It originally belonged to the Douglas Water, which is a river in South Lanarkshire in southern Scotland. On its shores is a village named Douglas after the river, and the Douglas family took the village’s name as their surname when they moved here in the 12th century.

The Clan Douglas was one of the most powerful families of Scotland in the Middle Ages, often holding the real power behind the throne. The heads of the House of Douglas held the titles of the Earl of Douglas and the Earl of Angus, sometimes known as the Black Douglas and the Red Douglas. Their family estate was Castle Douglas, which Sir Walter Scott fictionalised as Castle Dangerous in his novel of the same name.

The Douglases are said to be descended from a Flemish knight, and fought with William Wallace and Rober the Bruce in the Wars of Independence. Sir James Douglas was the first to be labelled the Black Douglas by the English for what they considered his dark deeds: it was a title taken up with pride. The Douglases intermarried with the House of Stuart, gaining a royal connection.

The Douglases became so powerful they were seen as a threat. In 1440 the teenaged William Douglas, the 16th Earl of Douglas, and his younger brother were invited to dine with the ten-year-old King James I of Scotland. While they ate, a black bull’s head – symbol of death – was placed before the young earl. The Douglas boys were then dragged outside, given a mock trial and beheaded, so Clan Douglas lay siege to Edinburgh Castle. Called the Black Dinner, it is the inspiration for the Red Wedding in Game of Thrones.

Douglas has been used as a personal name at least since the 16th century, and seemingly originates in England rather than Scotland. It was originally a unisex name, given equally to boys and girls, and by the 17th century was primarily a female name. A famous example is Douglas Sheffield, Baroness Sheffield, who had an affair with Robert Dudley, the favourite of Queen Elizabeth I, and had a son by him. In the 18th century Douglas became more common for males than females, so this is an example of a name that went from the girls to the boys.

The name is a traditional one in the Hamilton family, which married into the Douglases in the 17th century; although the Hamiltons’ surname is now Hamilton-Douglas, they are actually Douglases by descent. The head of Clan Douglas today is the Duke of Hamilton, Alexander Douglas Douglas-Hamilton.

Douglas was #59 in the 1900s, and peaked in the 1920s at #28, during the career peak of actor Douglas Fairbanks, known as The King of Hollywood in that era. It remained on the Top 100 until the 1970s, and disappeared from the charts in 2010, although returning the following year. It is apparently now in rare use.

In the US Douglas has always been on the Top 1000. It was on the Top 100 from the end of the 1920s to the end of the 1980s. It peaked in 1942 at #23 – two wartime namesakes are General Douglas Macarthur, and Douglas Fairbanks son, Douglas Fairbanks Jr, who became a highly decorated naval officer. It is currently #598 and falling.

In the UK, Douglas was on the Top 100 from the 1880s to the 1970s, peaking in the 1920s. Although it got as low as 508 in 2008, it has been climbing ever since, and is now #276. A current famous namesake is the handsome British actor Douglas Booth.

Douglas is a strong and rugged sounding classic name that is no longer in fashion, but still in use. British trends suggest that it is due for a comeback, and thanks to Douglas Booth, perhaps we can once again see Douglas as a romantic, dashing name, as it was in the 1920s because of Douglas Fairbanks. The nickname Doug seems very dated, but Dougie is cute, and even Gus seems possible.

Douglas received an approval rating of 49%. 22% of people thought it wasn’t ready for a comeback, and 15% saw it as dorky and nerdy, although 17% saw it as strong and rugged. In contrast, 10% of people thought it was ready for a comeback, and saw it as a hip choice most parents weren’t clued into yet.