Episode 360:

Inner Mother

The Mysterious Death of Scientist Rodney Marks




Episode 360: Inner Mother

On this week's episode, Georgia tells Karen about the mysterious death of scientist Rodney Marks in Antarctica.

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The Mysterious Death of Scientist Rodney Marks

The Mysterious Death of Scientist Rodney Marks Notes:

Header Image Source: Photo by Cassie Matias on Unsplash 

Other Photos:

1. United States Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, Antarctica, where Rodney Marks worked


"On the last day of his life, Rodney Marks woke up vomiting blood. The 32-year-old postdoc was wintering over at the U.S. Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, where he was operating AST/RO (Antarctic Submillimeter Telescope and Remote Observatory) for the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Over the next 10 hours, Marks made three trips to see Robert Thompson, the station’s doctor, becoming increasingly anxious, disoriented, short of breath, and pained. Then he went into cardiac arrest. After attempting to resuscitate Marks, Thompson pronounced him dead at 6:45 p.m. on Friday, 12 May 2000.


Outside, the temperature was –62°C. The station would remain in the throes of the brutal Antarctic winter and its 24-hour nights for another 51 ∕2 months. Addressing the 48 scientists, construction workers, and service personnel at a hastily called meeting, Thompson explained that Marks had died of unknown but natural causes. With no way out until November and with plenty to do, each of the winterovers mourned the sudden loss of someone who had enriched the tightknit community with his keen intellect, bohemian ways, and outgoing personality. Then they went back to work, leaving their fallen comrade to be preserved in storage by the inhuman cold.


On 30 October, after flights resumed between Antarctica and New Zealand, Marks’s body was taken out of storage and flown to Christchurch, New Zealand, on its way to burial in his native Australia. In midDecember, Martin Sage, a forensic pathologist in Christchurch, delivered another shocker: Marks, in apparent good health, had died of methanol poisoning. In dispassionate prose, Sage described how Marks had consumed approximately 150 milliliters of a colorless and slightly sweet-tasting liquid, commonly known as wood alcohol, under unknown circumstances. By the time Marks visited the base’s rudimentary medical center, his system had converted the methanol— used routinely at the pole to clean scientific equipment—into formic acid, leading to the acute acidosis that caused his symptoms. The source of the methanol, Sage reported, “is not apparent from the accounts given to date,” adding that “there is a distinct possibility” Marks may not have known that he was drinking methanol.


The new information in the autopsy was a revelation to colleagues, who had assumed his death was caused by a massive stroke or heart attack. It spawned a fresh set of troubling questions. Had Marks drunk the methanol intentionally? If so, why would he have wanted to kill himself? If the ingestion was an accident, how had it happened? If deliberate, had someone spiked his drink or switched glasses without his knowledge?


“I can’t imagine how he could have drunk it,” says Antony Stark, an astronomer at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and principal investigator for AST/RO, which is funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF). “I cannot believe he committed suicide. He had friends. He had a fiancée; the work was going well; the instrument was doing fine.”


It would be nearly 8 years before the New Zealand government, in the person of coroner Richard McElrea, would deliver an official statement about what had happened. However, the coroner’s report, published in September 2008, answered none of those questions—and raised several troubling new ones. “I formally record that Rodney David Marks … died as a result of acute methanol poisoning, the methanol overdose being undiagnosed and probably occurring 1 to 2 days earlier, …” McElrea begins the last paragraph of his 50-page report, echoing Sage’s autopsy. Then the coroner jammed all the outstanding issues, still unresolved, into the last half of that grammatically challenged sentence. “[Marks] being either unaware of the overdose or not understanding the possible complications of it, the medical assistance to him being compromised by an Echtachem [sic] blood analyzer being inoperable, death being unintended...”


- Source: “A Death in Antarctica” by Jeffrey Mervis (Science Mag)

Georgia's Episode Sources

  1. Scientist Dies At South Pole Research Site” by James Glanz (New York Times)
  2. “Cold Cases: Crime and Punishment in Antarctica” by Bryant Rousseau (New York Times)
  3. “A Death in Antarctica” by Jeffrey Mervis (Science Mag)
  4. “Tragedy Strikes South Pole Station” by Erik Stokstad (Science Mag)
  5. “Death 'may be first South Pole murder’” by Paul Chapman (Telegraph)
  6. “Rodney Marks” Center for Astrophysical Research in Antarctica
  7. “Circumstances of Aust scientist's South Pole death still unclear” (ABC News)
  8. “NZ probe into death hits icy wall” by Jarrod Booker (NZ Herald)
  9. “New twist in case of Antarctica poisoning death” by David Fisher (NZ Herald)
  10. “Death on the ice” by David Fisher (NZ Herald)
  11. “Death at the South Pole: The Mystery of Antarctica's Unsolved Poisoning Case” by Michele Debczak (Mental Floss)
  12. “Mystery of poisoning in Antarctic deepens as suicide is ruled out” by Robin McKie (The Guardian)
  13. “A Mysterious Death at the South Pole” by Will Cockrell (Men's Journal)
  14. “Cold case coming off the ice” by Carmel Egan (The Age)
  15. “South Pole death a mystery: NZ coroner” (Sydney Morning Herald)
  16. “Murder at the South Pole” by Robert Neff (OhMyNews)
  17. “Rodney Marks” (Center for Astrophysical Research in Antarctica)
  18. “Rodney Marks” (Center for Astrophysical Research in Antarctica)
  19. “Rodney Marks” (Center for Astrophysical Research in Antarctica)
  20. “Rodney Marks” (Center for Astrophysical Research in Antarctica)
  21. “Who's in Charge of Investigating Deaths in Antarctica?” by Dave Roos (How Stuff Works)