Scholars today associate “polar madness,” generally speaking, with a combination of environmental factors like the cold and the dark—which can disrupt circadian rhythms and hormonal balances—and psychosocial factors, such as isolation, confinement, monotony, and the interpersonal conflicts that inevitably arise among small groups forced to spend a lot of time together. It has been observed on both ends of the earth. But a distinction must be made between winter-over syndrome, a sense of brain-fog and disorientation that amounts to a particularly acute form of cabin fever, and the rarer cases of actual psychosis, including Van Mirlo’s and Tollefsen’s. Whereas those suffering from winter-over syndrome tend to be listless and gloomy, the truly psychotic are typically frantic, paranoid, seeing enemies and danger around every corner. In many ways, their crises resemble a phenomenon observed in the Arctic not within overwintering expeditions but rather among the men and women who lived in those forbidding regions year-round.
From the 1890s until the 1920s, explorers documented dozens of cases of manic, delusional, sometimes violent behavior among the Inuhuit, the indigenous population of Northern Greenland. The Inuhuit supposedly had a word to describe such episodes: pibloktoq.2 “The manifestations of this disorder are somewhat startling,” wrote the American Arctic explorer Robert Peary, among the first Western explorers to describe it.
2The word first appears in the writing of Josephine Diebitsch-Peary, Robert Peary’s wife. She likely took liberties with the transliteration since it resembles no known term or phrase in the modern Inuhuit dialect of Northern Greenland.
The patient, usually a woman, begins to scream and tear off and destroy her clothing. If on the ship, she will walk up and down the deck, screaming and gesticulating, and generally in a state of nudity, though the thermometer may be in the minus forties. As the intensity of the attack increases, she will sometimes leap over the rail upon the ice, running perhaps half a mile. The attack may last a few minutes, an hour, or even more, and some sufferers become so wild that they would continue running about on the ice perfectly naked until they froze to death, if they were not forcibly brought back. When an Eskimo is attacked with piblokto indoors, nobody pays much attention, unless the sufferer should reach for a knife or attempt to injure some one.”
Early on, explorers and anthropologists tended to consider pibloktoq as integral to the identity of the Inuhuit, like an exotic version of the “hysteria” then thought primarily to afflict women. (Western doctors occasionally treated it with injections of mustard water.) Over the years, social scientists have proposed more plausible theories to explain it, none of which are fully satisfactory. Some believed it could be a form of shamanic trance, while others have attributed it to nutritional deficiency, and others still to “brooding over absent relatives or fear of the future.” Perhaps the most common explanation has been that pibloktoq was related—like winter-over syndrome—to seasonal environmental factors, particularly to the cold and darkness of the Arctic winter.
Both Van Mirlo and Tollefsen were also known to flee into the cold, woefully underdressed. Could the two men have experienced an antipodal variant of pibloktoq, one that lasted not hours but weeks, months? A current theory among social scientists suggests that pibloktoq was not a congenital malady peculiar to the Inuhuit but rather a severe stress reaction arising from early contact with Western outsiders. While that circumstance does not apply to the men of the Belgica—if anything, the source of their anxiety was the lack of contact with the outside—the theory suggests that polar psychosis might be less a physiological phenomenon than a function of emotional distress, exacerbated by a bleak and unforgiving landscape.
If isolation, confinement, and fear are the primary stressors in polar environments, they were especially potent on the Belgica expedition. Since no man had experienced a winter in the Antarctic pack ice before, nobody knew what lay in store. Drifting on the fringes of a desolate continent, at the mercy of the ice’s pressures, without the possibility of rescue or communication with the rest of the world, the men of the Belgica were among the most isolated human beings on earth.
Adapted from MADHOUSE AT THE END OF THE EARTH by Julian Sancton. Copyright © 2021 by Julian Sancton. Published by Crown, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.