Bottom of the World: The Dome at the Amundsen-Scott base, where Aussie scientist Rodney Marks died in 2000.
Credit: Brien Barnett / National Science Foundation

During the 24 hours that Rodney Marks's life was slipping away from him, he had plenty of time to contemplate his predicament. He knew he was trapped, cut off from adequate medical attention, about as far from civilization as one can get on this planet. He knew that during the long, dark winters at the South Pole – where for eight months of the year it's too cold to land a plane – small problems become big ones very fast.

RELATED: A Voyage to the South Pole

As the 32-year-old Australian astrophysicist lay on the old navy gurney in the biomed facility of the Amundsen-Scott base, Marks may have been thinking about the Russian doctor who had to give himself an appendectomy during a South Pole "winterover" in 1961, or of Dr. Jerri Nielsen, who in 1999 diagnosed and treated her own breast cancer with supplies dropped in by parachute. But unlike them, neither Marks nor the base's lone physician had any idea what was wrong with him. He had woken up at 5:30 that morning vomiting blood, and the burn that had started in the pit of his stomach was now radiating throughout his body.

It was already Marks's second visit to the makeshift hospital that day, and he arrived scared, anxious, and wearing sunglasses to protect his unbearably sensitive eyes. There was no one medical condition that the base physician, Dr. Robert Thompson, could think of that would explain what was happening to Marks. The doctor's only link to the outside world was an Internet connection and a satellite phone, and both were down at the time – the base's position at the bottom of the planet meant it lost its signal for much of each day. The doctor spent hours clutching for a diagnosis, at one point grabbing hold of alcohol withdrawal and even anxiety as possibilities.

Thompson injected Marks with a sedative, which calmed him enough that he decided to return to his own bed and rest for a while. He lay beside his girlfriend, Sonja, sleepless and afraid, listening to the shifting ice groan beneath him. Then he retched again. More blood. His breathing was now uncontrollably fast. Pain throbbed in his joints, and he began to panic. He made his way back to Biomed, this time stumbling through the dimly lit tunnels, disoriented, as if in fast motion.

By the time he arrived, he was hyperventilating and combative. Thompson gave him another injection – this time Haldol, a powerful antipsychotic – just to regain control of him. As it took effect, Marks lay down again, but this time he began to lose consciousness. He moaned quietly with each exhale and squeezed Sonja's hand lightly. Then his heart stopped.

A stationwide alarm summoned the trauma team, a few trained volunteers whose real jobs could be anything from scientist to mechanic. Darryn Schneider, a fellow physicist and the only other Australian at the base, was the first to arrive. He took over for Sonja, holding the ventilator mask over his good friend's nose and mouth, desperately pumping air into Marks's lungs.

Then, just before six in the evening, as the trauma team scrambled to save him and the rest of the 50-member crew were sitting down to dinner, Marks took a deep, sighing breath into his chest – it was his last. It was May 12, 2000, a full five months before a plane would be able to retrieve his body.

Once it was finally flown to Christchurch, New Zealand, that October, a startling discovery would be made, one that would set off an eight-year investigation and a bitter tug-of-war between a New Zealand detective and the National Science Foundation, which administers all U.S.-based research at the South Pole. The search for answers as to what killed Rodney Marks would also open a window into the highly peculiar, sometimes dysfunctional, community of people that operates in isolation there for eight months at a time. Ultimately, the NSF would make sweeping changes in how things are run at the South Pole and who it sends there.

At the time of Marks's death, though, there was little reason to anticipate such far-reaching ramifications. The rest of the crew assumed he had suffered a heart attack or aneurysm. The NSF itself even issued a statement within hours, saying he "apparently died of natural causes." But there was nothing natural about the way Rodney Marks died.