Rodney Marks: Was This The First Murder In Antarctica?

32 year old Dr Rodney Marks died on 12th May 2000

I was watching Youtube last night. I tend to drift off to sleep listening to strange and murderous tales. I have a feeling you might be similar. No amount of distanced mayhem disturbs a good night’s rest. I came across the story of Astrophysicist Rodney Marks.

Dr Marks was only 32 years old and was with colleagues at the Amundsen-Scott Research Base in Antarctica.

The image of the base is care of a Google Map contributor. Click the image to read his profile. Mat Lan

11th May he began to feel unwell. The base was in the grip of six months of darkness due to their geographical position. The area did six months day and six months night. Temperatures were at, a brass monkey challenging, -80 degree cold. Dr Marks was used to this. He went to bed early hoping to sleep it off.

That didn’t work. By the early morning he felt worse. His symptoms were: Struggling to breathe, weak vision, fatigue and vomiting blood. Later he would also complain of burning sensations in his joints and stomach. Over that day he visited the base doctor three times. Each time he was feeling more unwell.

In the end the doctor injected him with a sedative and at last it looked like Dr Marks might rest. Instead he died. At first the belief was he had a suffered a heart attack or stroke. A complication was that the one doctor, among the 50 strong staff, could not complete a post mortem ( autopsy) as he was not qualified. In addition, the air at that time of years is too brutal for aircraft. Dr Marks would have to stay there until warmer weather came around and that would mean months of waiting.

When an examination of Dr Marks corpse was carried out they discovered he had died from ingesting Ethanol. The Ethanol was used as a cleaning agent. Of course it is alcohol though drinking it is at your peril. It was determined that the level of toxicity indicated Dr Marks had drunk the equivalent of a wine glass full.

32 year old Dr Rodney Marks died on 12th May 2000. Credit for the image to NZ Herald. Click the image for their article

Dr Marks liked drinking. He is described as a binge drinker. However, he had access to plenty of none poisonous alcohol on the base. He was highly intelligent so the idea that he had no clue it could harm him is a bit out there. Even when in such discomfort he did not say he had drunk Ethanol. That suggests he had no idea he had the substance in his system.

An obvious possibility, despite the above, is suicide. On the one hand you have a young man in endless dark, in unfathomable cold stuck on an American research base with the same damn faces everyday. The Australian was far from home and surely anyone in that situation would consider it?

Except Dr Marks was on his second tour, he apparently loved it. His work enthralled him and he even had his future wife on the base with him. People who knew him well said there was no sign of deep depression that would lead to suicide. Also, only a thought, if his attempt had led to extreme suffering like he experienced would he not have done one of two things? He could have told the doctor and treatment could have been given or he could have ended it all faster. Dr Marks did neither.

So was it an accident? There is no theory I have seen that would explain him accidentally ingesting the Ethanol without knowing it had happened.

We are left with a last unknown. Did someone administer the colourless, sweet, yet nasty tasting, substance in order to harm Dr Marks? Maybe you know different, but reading a bit about Ethanol any poisoning would only be masked by another alcoholic drink. Dr Marks is described as a heavy drinker so the opportunity might have been easy to find.

Though it is a USA base the location is in an administrative part of Antarctica that falls under New Zealand’s responsibility. Their cops carried out the investigation. They accused the American’s of dragging their feet in co-operating. They denied this. In the report I read (below) it said that questionnaires were sent out after a delay to all 49 remaining staff. Only 13 responded. If true that is strange. The doctor was criticised for his actions and not recognising the specific type of poisoning, I have not got the expertise to support or oppose that.

In the final analysis it is a case of who knows? The coroner in New Zealand said that neither accident or murder could be ruled out without a full investigation. I believe an attempt at that was made, but the location and the multiple agencies involved made that hard and even impossible.

Was Dr Marks the first murder victim on Antarctica? I doubt it. There is mention of a Russian killing another in 1959 but that is unconfirmed. I think this case being a first is unlikely given the number of people over the centuries ( 21st, 20th, 19th) who have trudged around that hunk of ice. Then again maybe only the heavens know for sure.



Much of this has come from a rather excellent article in Mental Floss. Click here