Death at the South Pole

In May 2000, astrophysicist Dr. Rodney Marks fell ill and died at the geographic South Pole. His cause of death is known, but the reason for his death remains a mystery.

South Pole dome
Allan Timm, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The South Pole is one of the worst places in the world to get sick. When Dr. Jerri Nielsen developed breast cancer during the 1998 polar winter she couldn’t get out for months. Worse, she was the station doctor so she had to operate on herself until sunlight returned and she could be flown out.

Two winters later, Dr. Rodney Marks – an astrophysicist working at the observatory at the South Pole – was walking between the observatory and the geodesic dome that was (at the time) the main base of the Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station. He felt ill, and went to see the station doctor. He visited the doctor three times over the next day and a half – and then he died.

Nothing could be done for months after. The South Pole is cut off over the long dark Antarctic winter, the last flight out being marked by a very specific film festival, so the autopsy had to wait for six months. When his body was finally flown out to Christchurch, New Zealand, the cause of death was found to be methanol poisoning. But that just raised more questions.

Did he accidentally drink methanol? Did he deliberately drink methanol? The base was stocked with plenty of alcohol, and there was nothing to indicate that he was self-harming or suicidal. Legal jurisdiction in Antarctica is… complicated. The base is American, but it is partially built on land claimed by New Zealand, and flights from the base come from (and go to) New Zealand. A detective from New Zealand was assigned to the case, but did not get much cooperation. The mystery has never been solved.

2 Replies to “Death at the South Pole”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s