b. 23/11/1881 St Vincent, West Indies. d. 20/02/1929 at sea.
DATE OF AM ACTION: 16/09/1918 Dover, Kent.
Atkinson was born on 23 November 1881 on Saint Vincent in the Windward Islands, where he spent much of his childhood. He was educated at the Forest School, Snaresbrook, and received his medical training at St Thomas’s Hospital, London, where he became the hospital’s light heavyweight boxing champion. He qualified in 1906 and two years later joined the Naval Medical Service as a surgeon, based at the Royal Naval Hospital, Haslar, in Gosport, Hampshire. He was primarily a researcher, and had published a paper on gonorrhoeal rheumatism when he was appointed physician and parasitologist to the Terra Nova expedition.
The Terra Nova departed from Cardiff on 15 June, 1910. Atkinson was, for the most part, a trusted member of the expedition. According to Harry Pennell, a fellow member of the Terra Nova Expedition, he considered Atkinson as “an out and out gentleman with the quiet self-assurance that makes a man without making him offensive”. However, Pennell also privately observed that Atkinson could also “take a dislike to someone on very short acquaintance on very insufficient grounds.” The Terra Nova departed from New Zealand on 29 November 1910 and would arrive in the territory of Ross Island in January 1911.
The march south began on 1 November 1911, and Atkinson departed south with Scott’s team, first as a pony leader and later as a man-hauler. The dogs with their dog-driver Meares turned back to base before the ascent of the Beardmore Glacier. By this time, it was becoming likely that Meares would leave the expedition, and Scott reminded Atkinson of the orders concerning the dogs: “with the depot (of dog food) that has been laid at One Ton, come as far as you can”. Atkinson and others accompanied Scott during the ascent of the Beardmore Glacier. On 22 December, at the glacier summit, lat. 85deg7’S, Atkinson returned to base with the First Support Party, reaching Cape Evans on 29 January 1912 after a generally straightforward journey.
On his return to Cape Evans, Atkinson took command He learned that the chief dog driver, Cecil Meares, had resigned from the expedition, was waiting for the ship to take him home and was “not available” for Barrier work. In any case, neither Meares nor anyone else replenished the dog food in the depots. At the beginning of February, the Terra Nova arrived, and Atkinson directed Polar team members to unload supplies, mules and fresh dogs from the Terra Nova, rather than set off with the dogs to meet Scott.
On 29 October 1912 Atkinson led a party, with dogs and mules to begin the search for traces of the polar party. On 12 November, 11 miles to the south of One Ton Depot, the tent containing the bodies of Scott, Wilson and Bowers was discovered. Atkinson found Scott’s diary and learned the story of the disaster; he then read to the assembled men the relevant sections including those recording the deaths of PO Evans and Captain Oates. A further march south, in search of Oates’s body, found only his sleeping bag. On their return to Hut Point on 25 November the search party learned of the safe return of the Northern Party, at which point Victor Campbell, as senior officer, assumed the leadership.
On his return to England Atkinson worked briefly at the London School of Tropical Medicine on parasitic research, before departing on a medical expedition to China, to investigate a parasitic flatworm that was causing schistosomiasis among British seamen. After the outbreak of World War I Atkinson returned to England and reported for active service. Before he left England for his deployment, he married Jessica Hamilton on 12 August 1915, at a registry office located in Essex. He was sent to Gallipoli to investigate fly-borne diseases, and contracted pleurisy which left him hospitalised. He spent some time recovering from the illness at a hospital in Malta and kept in touch with Cherry-Garrard during his convalescence.
In 1916 he served on the Western Front and fought at the Somme, receiving the Distinguished Service Order. After service in North Russia, on 16 September 1918, Surgeon Lieutenant-Commander Atkinson received horrific injuries from an explosion aboard HMS Glatton in Dover Harbour. Although rendered unconscious by the first explosion and burned and blinded, he was able to rescue several men before escaping, and was awarded the Albert Medal. It was also during the war that Atkinson was approached to be a part of the relief expedition to look for Ernest Shackleton and his crew on the Endurance, which was stranded somewhere in the Weddell Sea. Atkinson was initially reluctant to assist in the effort because of his commitment to the war effort, but upon news of the safe return of Shackleton and his crew back to civilization, he was able to carry on with his wartime duties.
After the war Atkinson was seconded to the Royal Hellenic Navy to undergo a British naval training mission. He also continued to receive treatments and surgeries for the burns and other wounds he suffered aboard the HMS Glatton explosion in 1918. It was around this time that he would begin to gather up materials on his war-time findings, as well as his Terra Nova Expedition reports. He would later reveal to Cherry-Garrard the results of research he had conducted on the nutritional value of Scott’s party’s Barrier and Plateau rations. He found that the Barrier rations were generating only 51% of the calories required to support a typical Barrier workload, the corresponding Plateau figure being 57%. These figures provided a substantial explanation (starvation) for the physical failure of the polar party. Thereafter Atkinson continued with his naval career. In 1928 his wife died and he suffered a nervous breakdown. He recovered, however, and within a few months had married again, been promoted Surgeon-Captain and retired from the Royal Navy. On board ship in the Mediterranean on 20 February 1929, on his way back to England, Atkinson died suddenly, at the age of 47, and was buried at sea.
On the 16th September 1918, a serious explosion occurred amidships on board H.M.S Glatton whilst lying in Dover Harbour. This was followed immediately by an outbreak of fire, the oil fuel burning furiously and spreading fore and aft. Efforts were made to extinguish the fire by means of salvage tugs. The foremost magazines were flooded, but it was found impossible to get to the after magazine flooding positions. The explosion and fire cut off the after part of the ship, killing or seriously injuring all the Officers who were on board with one exception. The ship might have blown up at any moment. At the time of the explosion Surgeon Lieut.-Commander Atkinson was at work in his cabin. The first explosion rendered him unconscious. Recovering shortly, he found the flat outside his cabin filled with dense smoke and fumes. He made his way to the quarter deck by means of the ladder in the Warrant Officers flat, the only one still intact. During this time he brought two unconscious men on to the upper deck, he himself being uninjured. He returned to the flat, and was bringing a third man up, when a smaller explosion occurred whilst he was on the ladder. This explosion blinded him, and, at the same time, a piece of metal was driven into his left leg in such a manner that he was unable to move until he had himself extracted it. Placing the third man on the upper deck, he proceeded forward through the shelter deck. By feel, being totally unable to see, he here found two more unconscious men, both of whom he brought out. He was found later on the upper deck in an almost unconscious condition, so wounded and burnt that his life was despaired of for some time.
BURIAL LOCATION: BURIED AT SEA.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: UNKNOWN.