Amateur gentlemen, Everest, and the Science of Foie Gras.


Vanessa Heggie

In 1933 the rations for the British Expedition to Everest included, according to a recent history:

half a dozen kinds of breakfast food, bacon, ham, beef, mutton, chicken, lobster, crab, salmon, herrings, cod-roes, asparagus, caviar, foie gras, smoked salmon, sausages, many kinds of cheese, a dozen varieties of biscuit, jam, marmalade, honey, chocolates, sweets, toffee, tinned peas, beans, and spaghetti [p.135]

I often talk about provisioning in the seminars and lectures I give on exploration, and after this quote go on to say the 1953 Everest team, the first to put two men on the summit, debated whether or not to take foie gras. This nearly always raises a laugh from the audience, and it’s a laugh of familiarity, at least for British listeners, who almost seem to expect this sort of dietary quirk.

There’s a strong popular image of late nineteenth and early twentieth century explorers: they are male, white, usually fairly posh, and imbued with a (possibly unfounded) self-confidence – if we’re feeling generous we might call it ‘pluck’ – a deep conviction in the rightness of their actions, thoughts, words, the superiority of their moral and social codes. Men who genuinely think that their experience climbing Snowdon or Ben Nevis fits them for the icy, unmapped edges of the highest mountain on earth. Amateurs, in other words.

But the fois gras story is a cheap trick on my part; in 1952 the Everest team’s physiologist and doctor, the magnificently named Lewis Griffith Cresswell Evans Pugh, was determined to design the most efficient ration pack possible. One factor he considered was the fact that human bodies at high altitude tend to produce more haemoglobin in their blood, apparently in response to the reduction in available oxygen in the atmosphere.

When he wrote to experts on nutrition and blood function, they told him that some foods contained particularly high quantities of the iron and other nutrients essential in the production of haemoglobin: including offal, such as liver, kidney, and gizzard, as well as eggs and some fruit. Including caviar and foie gras – which were both available in conveniently portable tins – was a serious, scientifically informed suggestion. (Liver sausage and cod roe were a more affordable alternative).

Amateur is a dangerous word. Despite the romantic vision of gentlemanly-amateur climbers, the reality is that all the British Everest expeditions were expertly equipped, at least according to the standards of the day.

Participation was certainly not open to professionals, if by that we mean people paid to take part in (or train others in) sport; that was a class distinction – Everest expeditions were spaces for mostly upper middle class men, often Oxbridge graduates.People from other backgrounds were treated with suspicion, and even deliberately excluded. But the expeditions were supposed to take the best equipment possible, and expedition organisers sought opinions from a range of professional experts, and, most importantly, those who had experience of climbing at high-altitude.

A slightly battered, silver metal box marked with the words Mount Everest in red. The lid is opened up to reveal bottles, boxes and other medical supplies.

L0035747 Tabloid medicine chest used on 1933 Mount Everest Expedition Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images A Tabloid medicine chest, packed with Burroughs Wellcome Tabloid products, used on the 1933 Mount Everest Expedition Photograph c. 1933 Published: – Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

And yet it’s easy to find stories about the amateur attitude of early climbers, usually illustrated by a rejection of scientific or expert advice. The story most often told is one about oxygen; that the early attempts on Everest in the 1920s and ‘30s failed because the expeditions – and their supporters in the Royal Geographical Society and the Alpine Club – considered the use of oxygen unsporting; it just ‘wasn’t cricket’ to use technology to climb a mountain.

That argument is pretty thin: there were a few members of the teams who would have preferred an oxygenless ascent, or thought that at least an attempt should be made to climb the mountain without oxygen first, resorting to oxygen only if it was proved necessary. But by far the biggest barrier to oxygen use was the fact that the early systems didn’t work well: they were awkward, constricting, leaky, prone to freezing up at inopportune moments, and frequently did not release enough oxygen to compensate for their significant weight. There were also serious scientific and bio-medical concerns about the dangers of using fallible oxygen systems at altitude, and the physiological evidence about the need for oxygen was, at best, ambivalent.

So why do we tend to remember a scientific debate as one about sporting amateurism and gentlemanly values instead? Probably because that’s how it was described by the team who did get up Everest, and particularly by Pugh, in the 1950s. Looking back at the expeditions of the 1920s and 30s, he and the ’53 team doctor Mike Ward wrote that it was a ‘futile controversy over the ethics of using oxygen’ that had ‘handicapped for thirty years’ the introduction of functional respiration systems [p.276].

Pugh’s suggestion that the debate was about ethics in oxygen use, and not about the technology or science of oxygen, is probably a reflection of his own struggles to conduct and implement scientific work in the 1950s (and for much more on Pugh’s story I thoroughly recommend Everest – The First Ascent, an excellent biography). But his claim about the 1920s and ‘30s proved easy to believe precisely because it fed, and continues to feed, into a stereotype we find so familiar.

Amateur has been both a complement and an insult for twentieth century British men. While it might imply incompetence, inexperience, inadequacy, it can also suggest a purity of motive, and natural skill or talent, and has remained a word with some positive connotations in British sport (and British sports history). Often it is employed in a nostalgic way to indicate the Times Past when sports people behaved better, tried harder, were physically and emotionally hardier, and avoided drugs (this last point, of course, is nonsense).

These sorts of imagined identities, this slippage between rhetoric and reality, can make us spot-blind to some historical events; in this case the cross-over areas between sport, physical endeavour, exploration, and science.

To be a gentleman-amateur was clearly important to the self-identities of a cohort of British men in the twentieth century; but exactly what this meant in terms of attitudes and behaviours varied from man to man, from decade to decade. Personal identities are clearly deeply significant to historical figures, and to the historians who try to understand them, but they do not always work well as explanatory mechanisms – ways of explaining why this happened rather than that.

Gentleman-amateurs supported oxygen, and also opposed it, just as scientists supported oxygen and also opposed it. Awkwardly, historical figures also change their minds – the epitome of the gentleman climber, George Mallory, started as an oxygen-sceptic, was rapidly persuaded of the gas’s value, and climbed to his death in 1924 wearing a respiration system.

The technical, scientific debate might be much less fun than the romantic mythology, but it is also a better, more useful explanation. Foie gras can be scientific nutrition and a luxurious taste of home.

2 thoughts on “Amateur gentlemen, Everest, and the Science of Foie Gras.

  1. When one looks at organisations such as the Edwardian military (another space whose ethos was primarily set by a white, male, upper-middle-class coterie), we need to distinguish between amateurism and amateurishness. The latter, then as now, had negative connotations. The former, however, was viewed more positively. Those who were not wage-slaves to their chosen profession were seen as possessing a level of independence which allowed them to reason more clearly and to maintain greater objectivity. They were therefore more, rather than less, trustworthy.
    (This idea is not 100% dead: General Sir Richard Dannatt is a good example of an independently wealthy senior general who was – for a while – respected for using his independence to ‘speak truth to power’.)
    David Beatty is a good example from the earlier period, although his wealth was his wife’s. Andrew Gordon’s ‘The Rules of the Game’ is excellent on this.

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