Skip to main content


Driven mad by the White Continent

Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

In 1897, the Belgian ship Belgica was trapped by Antarctic pack ice for “70 days of darkness”, says Julian Sancton in GQ. The frozen waste proved “an inherently maddening place”. Jittery deckhand Jan Van Mirlo passed a crewmate a note saying: “I can’t hear, I can’t speak!” Then he began threatening to murder the crew. A Norwegian called Adam Tollefsen became convinced his companions wanted him dead (His fellow Norwegian crewman, Roald Amundsen, later led the first expedition to reach the South Pole.) He wrote fretful letters to his beloved “Agnes” and placed them “in a mound of snow that resembled a mailbox”.

“What is it about the southernmost continent that makes people go insane?” Scholars put “polar madness” down to the cold and the dark, which can disrupt circadian rhythms and hormonal balances, as well as isolation, confinement and monotony. Writers from Jules Verne to Edgar Allen Poe see “a correspondence between the highest latitudes of the earth and the deepest corners of the mind”.

Whatever the cause, solutions hardly abound. At the other end of the world, in northern Greenland, western doctors occasionally treated a mysterious Inuit “hysteria” with mustard water. (From the 1890s until the 1920s, dozens of Inuits, especially women, were recorded tearing off their clothes aboard vessels in -40C temperatures, screaming and running for miles along the ice.) A study of 313 men and women at Antarctica’s McMurdo Station in the 1990s revealed that 5.2% developed a psychiatric disorder: all were screened and declared sane before they arrived. As early as 1928, the “madness” that drove men to violence was deemed so likely that the polar explorer Richard Byrd packed two coffins and 12 straightjackets.

Madhouse at the End of the Earth is published by Penguin on 27 May. Read the full article here.