Accompanying Admiral William Byrd’s second expedition to the Antarctic in 1934, Dr Guy Shirey reached the Bay of Whales and decided that he could not go on. Faced with this news, Byrd immediately sent out a flurry of telegrams seeking a replacement. He contacted his agent in Wellington and was told that few doctors were willing to come forward. Those who had expressed interest wanted higher salaries. There was, however, one applicant from Nelson. The telegram continued:
THOROUGHLY CAPABLE MAN HIGHLY RECOMMENDED STOP BUT HE IS ONE THIRD MAORI IN BLOOD WOULD THIS DISQUALIFY HIS FEE ALSO 350 POUNDS.
WILLING TO PAY THE MAORI 350 POUNDS STOP HE LOOKS LIKE THE BEST HAVE NO OBJECTIONS TO HIS BEING ONE THIRD MAORI STOP HE HAD BETTER BRING INSTRUMENTS HE HAS
So it was that Louis Hauiti Potaka, Ngati Hauiti, the fifth Māori medical graduate from New Zealand’s University of Otago (MBChB 1930), found himself in Dunedin, hurriedly acquiring his kit for the ice in mid-February 1934. When asked why he had offered himself for the position, he replied, “Well they wanted somebody and I happened to be free.” Experienced in practice in Murchison and Nelson, Potaka was apparently about to accept a position in Samoa when he took up Byrd’s offer which he found “more interesting.”
In Dunedin Potaka boarded the Royal Research Society’s Discovery II which had agreed take him to rendezvous with the Americans on the Bear of Oakland at the entrance to the Ross Sea. That vessel was to take him to join Byrd’s party at ‘Little America’. Soon after arriving, his skills were in demand. The New Zealand Herald reported how the “newly acquired” doctor had to perform an emergency appendectomy on Joseph Pelter, the expedition’s aerial photographer.
The excitement of the occasional emergency, including extracting teeth, was less common than the treatment of frostbite and the routine monthly medical examinations of the men. The doctor also attended to the birth of pups and oversaw the health of resident cows. Chess games, occasional lectures and movies, such as Forty Second Street, provided entertainment. Apparently Potaka would go shooting birds (unable to pursue his love of fishing), and did not wear sun glasses. By January 1935 one member of the team noted that the doctor was worried about his eyes, which were milky and bulging. Cocaine drops were the remedy employed for the snowblindness and Potaka wondered if he had damaged his eyes by overuse of the drops.
On his return to New Zealand in February 1935, Dr Potaka remarked that his medical position at ‘Little America’ was something of a sinecure since he was looking after healthy men and he did not ‘know of any self-respecting germ which could live down there.’ Admiral Byrd was effusive in his praise, saying ‘Dr Potaka was superb’. By June 1935, the doctor was acting as locum tenens for a Dr Bydder in Nelson, a situation which ended unhappily and led to Potaka starting his own practice in Takaka. By this time his eyes, his finances, and conflict with Bydder were giving him a great deal of trouble. All of these unfortunate circumstances heightened the depression that led to his death by an overdose of morphine. Dr Potaka left a note saying that the injury to his eyes sustained in the Antarctic had left him unable to sleep and that death would be a relief.
Two years after Louis Potaka’s death his mother received the award of the US Congressional Medal in appreciation of his work for the Byrd expedition. His memory lives on in the long inlet, Potaka, on the north side of Thurston Island, off Antarctica.
Barbara Brookes, Professor of History at the University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand, is co-editor of Corpus.
- Auckland Star, 15 February 1934, p. 11.
- New Zealand Herald, 19 March 1934, p.9.
- Press, 20 February 1935, p.12.
- Press, 5 October 1936, p.10.
- Bruce Young, Dr Louis Hauiti Potaka of New Zealand. A Biographical Essay (December2005)