Dr. James Archibald McIlroy, 1879-1968
Biographical notes

Surgeon Endurance 1914-17 - 35 at the start of the expedition
Surgeon Quest - Ernest Shackleton 1921 - 1922

The Endurance Expedition

James McIlroy was a life-long ship's surgeon and life-long bachelor.

    "McIlroy was suffering from malaria at the time contracted in the far east, and shook constantly through the interview with Shackleton who became suspicious and insisted that McIlroy had a medical examination. This was duly carried out by a doctor friend of McIlroys and he was declared fit. What he didn't know at the time is that he was the only applicant for the position of second doctor, and so was given the job."

Like Macklin, the first doctor, McIlroy also had the job of driving a team of sled dogs and caring for the expeditions dogs. Most surgeons and doctors on Antarctic expeditions had little of a medical nature to deal with most of the time, but once on Elephant Island, Macklin and McIlroy, had much to attend to. Rickinson had a heart condition, Blackborow had gangrene in his toes several of which were amputated (by McIlroy), Hudson was having a  nervous breakdown and suffered an infected boil. There were many other cases of frostbite, dysentery, boils, sores etc. that meant that both surgeons were best left on Elephant Island rather than accompanying Shackleton to South Georgia.

McIllroy had a particular party piece which helped raise the morale of the men in that he accompanied Hussey on his banjo by providing musical imitations, including trombone and bagpipes! He was regarded as a "man of the world" by many of the other crew and would entertain them with numerous tales of past conquests.



Born in Ulster, Ireland, his parents moved to England and settled at Kings Norton, Birmingham. His father was a shop keeper (also called James McIlroy) and sent the younger James to a nearby grammar school. After school James took an office job, but soon decided this was not what he wanted to continue to do and so enrolled at Birmingham University for a medical degree. On graduation, he took up position as House Surgeon at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Birmingham.

Again it seems that being settled didn't suit McIlroy and so he decided to put his medical qualification to use to get around and see other parts of the world, he practised for many years in the middle and far east, in Egypt and Japan and in and around the East Indies as a medical officer or ships surgeon. In 1914, he was back in England and heard about Shackleton's expedition from a friend at his London club, Shackleton already had Macklin as one surgeon and was looking for another.

Back in England and during the First World War, McIlroy served in France and was invalided out of the army after being badly wounded at Ypres. After the war, he joined the P&O shipping line as Chief Surgeon.

Like many of the Endurance crew, he was asked again by Shackleton to join the Quest expedition, which he did originally intending only to stay as far as Madeira, though he remained with the ship and carried on South.

With Leonard Hussey, McIlroy contributed an appendix on meteorology to Frank Wild's account of the Quest expedition, "Shackleton's Last Voyage".

On return from the south he rejoined P&O until he had to retire due to his age at which point he joined another cruise company the Clan Line. As late as 1957 at the age of 78, McIlroy was still working as a ships surgeon, he never married and died at the age of 88 in Surrey on the 30th of July 1968.

In World War Two he almost lost his life when his ship, S.S. Oronsay was torpedoed and sunk off West Africa. Most of the crew were picked up quickly, but McIlroy and others drifted for five days in an open boat before being picked up and landed at Dakar, Senegal.

Just a small correction to the biography of Dr. James McIlroy who was my great-uncle. Between the end of the First World War and the "Quest" expedition, my great-uncle farmed with his friend Frank Wild - Shackleton's second-in-command - , and for a short time another Antarctic explorer by the name of Bickerton, in British Nyasaland in the neighbourhood of Lake Nyasa. They cleared the then virgin forest and planted cotton. They both loved the life though suffering intermittently from bouts of malaria. According to Frank Wild, in a letter written in 1920 to his cousin Margaret, they "would have been there still if Shackleton had not called for us to come on this expedition". They had the full intention to return to their farm in Africa after the expedition; whether they did or not, I do not know.

Yours sincerely, Rhona Schmitz

Thanks for your mail re Dr. James McIlroy.  I think the best thing to do is send you a copy of the letter from Frank Wild to his cousin Margaret.  This is a copy of the part of the original letter which was in the possession of my late aunt, Mrs. Sheila Birks.  It was sent to her many years ago by a lady named Maureen (surname unknown), who at that time was working for the Shackleton Society?, Antarctic Society?, and had been in touch with my aunt for some time.

After retirement from his post as Chief Surgeon of the P&O Line, Dr. McIlroy went to live for some time in Aberystwyth with my aunt and her mother, Ruby (my grandmother), Dr. McIlroy's twin sister.  As stated in his biography, life ashore was not for him, and some time later (after giving a false date of birth) he went to sea again with the Clan Line - a merchant shipping company.  It must have been rather boring as they used to sit outside Mombasa for weeks on end, waiting to unload.  By the way, my aunt had to bully him to go to the Endurance re-union (1960's?).  He did not want to go at all, but thoroughly enjoyed it once having got there.

I am almost certain that Uncle Jim only joined the P&O Line after the Quest Expedition, but whether immediately after or not, I do not know.  It surprises me to learn that he only intended to go as far as Madeira with the Quest: why ever would he leave the farm in Africa just for that?  Your details about the torpedoing of the Oronsay are correct, and subsequently he was a prisoner-of-war in Timbuktu (which always made us laugh, as it was a funny name in those days).

Uncle Jim also sailed round the world with Prince Louis of Battenberg, as his personal doctor.  My great-aunt Effie (his sister Euphemia), who lived with us for many years, possessed a gold watch which had been presented to him in remembrance by Prince Louis (who was married to a daughter of Queen Victoria, and later anglicized his name to Mountbatten).

As you say, he never married, but he was a great ladies' man, and was well-known in the family for having a "wife in every port".  The portrayal of him in the Kenneth Branagh film was very true to life - it is exactly how I remember him to have been.

I hope you have fun reading the enclosure, but it makes one blush nowadays to read the colonialist's view of things.  Wild's estimates of the costs are amazing.  It all sounds like a Boys' Book of Adventure Stories: which well sums up the life of my great-uncle.

Yours sincerely, Rhona Schmitz

References to James McIlroy by Orde-Lees in "Elephant Island and Beyond" buy USA   buy UK

  • The training of dogs has commenced - soon their services will relieve us of a great deal of not unpleasant work in bringing in distant seals. Wild, Marston, Crean, Macklin, McIlroy and Hurley are the dog men: none of them has any preliminary experience to speak of, but this does not seem at all essential.

  • We are fortunate in having two doctors. McIlroy and Macklin, co-equal colleagues. They seem to take cases indiscriminately but whichever one one happens to see, that one attends one until one is better. During my recent indisposition it was Dr. McIlroy, and I must say I feel genuinely indebted to him for his unfailing and skillful attention.

    He is about 35 and has had a very varied career, it seems. Having a penchant for travel he has never settled down in practice for long in any one place, having practiced in Japan, the Malay States, one or two other places and I think as a ship's doctor on more than one East India passenger steamer. He is an Irishman by birth, though on account of his dark hair and complexion, slightly Semitic in appearance as he himself laughingly asserts. He is unquestionably good looking, perhaps the handsomest amongst us (present company excepted).

  • Blackborow is to be congratulated on having been able to avail himself of such skilled men as McIlroy and Macklin. McIlroy performed the operation and Macklin acted as anesthetist. All five toes on the left foot were amputated and I believe the operation was as successful as could be anticipated under such unfavourable conditions.

References to James McIlroy in Shackleton's book "South!" buy USA   buy UK

  • The quarters in the 'tween decks were completed by the 10th, and the men took possession of the cubicles that had been built. The largest cubicle contained Macklin, McIlroy, Hurley, and Hussey and it was named "The Billabong."

  • The dogs had been divided into six teams of nine dogs each. Wild, Crean, Macklin, McIlroy, Marston, and Hurley each had charge of a team, and were fully responsible for the exercising, training, and feeding of their own dogs.

  • Rivalries arose, as might have been expected, and on the 15th of the month a great race, the "Antarctic Derby," took place. It was a notable event. The betting had been heavy, and every man aboard the ship stood to win or lose on the result of the contest. Some money had been staked, but the wagers that thrilled were those involving stores of chocolate and cigarettes. The course had been laid off from Khyber Pass, at the eastern end of the old lead ahead of the ship, to a point clear of the jib-boom, a distance of about 700 yds. Five teams went out in the dim noon twilight, with a zero temperature and an aurora flickering faintly to the southward. The starting signal was to be given by the flashing of a light on the meteorological station. I was appointed starter, Worsley was judge, and James was timekeeper. The bos'n, with a straw hat added to his usual Antarctic attire, stood on a box near the winning-post, and was assisted by a couple of shady characters to shout the odds, which were displayed on a board hung around his neck 6 to 4 on Wild, "evens" on Crean, 2 to 1 against Hurley, 6 to 1 against Macklin, and 8 to 1 against McIlroy. Canvas handkerchiefs fluttered from an improvised grand stand, and the pups, which had never seen such strange happenings before, sat round and howled with excitement. The spectators could not see far in the dim light, but they heard the shouts of the drivers as the teams approached and greeted the victory of the favourite with a roar of cheering that must have sounded strange indeed to any seals or penguins that happened to be in our neighbourhood. Wild's time was 2 min. 16 sec., or at the rate of 10 and a half miles per hour for the course.

  • Two seals were killed to-day. Wild and McIlroy, who went out to secure them, had rather an exciting time on some very loose, rotten ice, three killer-whales in a lead a few yards away poking up their ugly heads as if in anticipation of a feast.

  • The Stancomb Wills came up and McIlroy reported that Blackborow's feet were very badly frost-bitten. This was unfortunate, but nothing could be done. Most of the people were frost-bitten to some extent, and it was interesting to notice that the "oldtimers," Wild, Crean, Hurley, and I, were all right. Apparently we were acclimatized to ordinary Antarctic temperature, though we learned later that we were not immune.

  • We were labouring at the boats when I noticed Rickenson turn white and stagger in the surf. I pulled him out of reach of the water and sent him up to the stove, which had been placed in the shelter of some rocks. McIlroy went to him and found that his heart had been temporarily unequal to the strain placed upon it. He was in a bad way and needed prompt medical attention. There are some men who will do more than their share of work and who will attempt more than they are physically able to accomplish. Rickenson was one of these eager souls. He was suffering, like many other members of the Expedition, from bad salt-water boils. Our wrists, arms, and legs were attacked. Apparently this infliction was due to constant soaking with sea-water, the chafing of wet clothes, and exposure.

  • I called the men together, explained my plan, and asked for volunteers. Many came forward at once. Some were not fit enough for the work that would have to be done, and others would not have been much use in the boat since they were not seasoned sailors, though the experiences of recent months entitled them to some consideration as seafaring men. McIlroy and Macklin were both anxious to go but realized that their duty lay on the island with the sick men.

  • On the following day Wild, Hurley, Macklin, and McIlroy took their teams to the Stained Berg, about seven miles west of the ship, and on their way back got a female crab-eater, which they killed, skinned, and left to be picked up later. They ascended to the top of the berg, which lay in about lat. 69°S., long. 51° W., and from an elevation of 110 ft. could see no land.

  • Another fierce gale was blowing on April 22, interfering with our preparations for the voyage. The cooker from No. 5 tent came adrift in a gust, and, although it was chased to the water's edge, it disappeared for good. Blackborow's feet were giving him much pain, and McIlroy and Macklin thought it would be necessary for them to operate soon. They were under the impression then that they had no chloroform, but they found some subsequently in the medicine-chest after we had left.

  • "The centre of the hut is filled with the cases which do duty for the cook's bed, the meat and blubber boxes, and a mummified-looking object, which is Lees in his sleeping-bag. The near end of the floor space is taken up with the stove, with Wild and McIlroy on one side, and Hurley and James on the other. Marston occupies a hammock most of the night which is slung across the entrance. As he is large and the entrance very small, he invariably gets bumped by those passing in and out. His vocabulary at such times is interesting.

  • A census was taken, each man being asked to state just what he would like to eat at that moment if he were allowed to have anything that he wanted. All, with but one exception, desired a suet pudding of some sort the "duff" beloved of sailors. Macklin asked for many returns of scrambled eggs on hot buttered toast. Several voted for "a prodigious Devonshire dumpling," while Wild wished for "any old dumpling so long as it was a large one." The craving for carbohydrates, such as flour and sugar, and for fats was very real. Marston had with him a small penny cookery book. From this he would read out one recipe each night, so as to make them last. This would be discussed very seriously, and alterations and improvements suggested, and then they would turn into their bags to dream of wonderful meals that they could never reach. The following conversation was recorded in one diary:

    "WILD: Do you like doughnuts?'
    "McILROY: Rather!'
    "WILD: Very easily made, too. I like them cold with a little jam.'
    "McILROY: Not bad; but how about a huge omelette?'
    "WILD: Fine!' (with a deep sigh).


Landmarks named after James McIlroy

Feature Name: McIlroy Peak
Feature Type: summit
Elevation: 745
Latitude: 54°11'S
Longitude: 036°46'W
Description:  A peak rising to 745 m W of Husvik Harbor and 0.8 mi S of Mount Barren, South Georgia. Named by the UK-APC in 1990.


Other Crew of the Endurance Expedition

Bakewell, William - Able Seaman
Blackborow, Percy - Stowaway (later steward)
Cheetham, Alfred - Third Officer
Clark, Robert S. - Biologist
Crean, Thomas - Second Officer
Green, Charles J. - Cook
Greenstreet, Lionel - First Officer
Holness, Ernest - Fireman/stoker
How, Walter E. - Able Seaman
Hudson, Hubert T. - Navigator
Hurley, James Francis (Frank) - Official Photographer
Hussey, Leonard D. A. - Meteorologist
James, Reginald W. - Physicist
Kerr, Alexander. J. - Second Engineer

Macklin, Dr. Alexander H. - Surgeon
Marston, George E. - Official Artist
McCarthy, Timothy - Able Seaman
McIlroy, Dr. James A. - Surgeon
McLeod, Thomas - Able Seaman
McNish, Henry - Carpenter
Orde-Lees, Thomas  - Motor Expert and Storekeeper
Rickinson, Lewis - First Engineer
Shackleton, Ernest H. - Expedition Leader
Stephenson, William - Fireman/stoker
Vincent, John - Able Seaman
Wild, Frank - Second in Command
Wordie, James M. - Geologist
Worsley, Frank - Captain

Biographical information - I am concentrating on the Polar experiences of the men involved. Any further information or pictures visitors may have will be gratefully received. Please email  - Paul Ward, webmaster.

What are the chances that my ancestor was an unsung part of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration?

  Ernest Shackleton Books and Video

South - Ernest Shackleton and the Endurance Expedition
South - Ernest Shackleton and the Endurance Expedition (1919)
original footage - DVD

Shackleton - The Greatest Survival Story of All Time (3-Disc Collector's Edition)
Kenneth Branagh (2002) - DVD

Shackleton's Antarctic Adventure (Large Format)
Shackleton's Antarctic Adventure (2001)
IMAX dramatization - DVD

The Endurance - Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition
The Endurance - Shackleton's Legendary Expedition (2000)
PBS NOVA, dramatization with original footage - DVD
Endurance, The Greatest Adventure Story Ever Told, book
Endurance : Shackleton's Incredible Voyage
Alfred Lansing (Preface) - Book

South with Endurance:
Frank Hurley - official photographer

South: The Story of Shackleton's Last Expedition, 1914-17
South! Ernest Shackleton
Shackleton's own words

 Shackleton's Way: Leadership Lessons from the Great Antarctic Explorer
Shackleton's Way: Leadership Lessons from the Great Antarctic Explorer

Shackleton's Boat Journey: The narrative of Frank Worsley


biography by Roland

The Quest for Frank Wild, biography by Angie Butler

The Endurance : Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition
by Caroline Alexander

Mrs. Chippy's Last Expedition:
The Remarkable Journal of Shackleton's Polar-Bound Cat

Shackleton's Forgotten Men
Lennard Bickel

Elephant Island and Beyond: The Life and Diaries of Thomas Orde Lees Book
Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World, The True Story of the Endurance Expedition
Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World -
Jennifer Armstrong
for ages 12 and up