Discovery was built by the Dundee Shipbuilders' Company as the expedition ship for the British National Antarctic Expedition, 1901-1904 (leader Robert Falcon Scott). The work was undertaken at a cost of 34,050, plus 10,322 for the engines. After her launch on the River Tay on 21 March 1901, Discovery sailed to London before continuing to Cowes, Isle of Wight, from where she departed for New Zealand on 6 August 1901 under Scott's command.
Crossing the Antarctic Circle on 3 January 1902, she reached her winter quarters at Hut Point, Ross Island, where she remained ice-bound until February 1904.
After the expedition, Discovery was sold to the Hudson's Bay Company, operating as a merchant vessel until 1913, when the company agreed to sell her to J. Foster Stackhouse, who was planning to lead an Antarctic expedition. Due to insufficient funds and Stackhouse's death, Discovery remained in the ownership of the Hudson's Bay Company and, in 1915, under the direction of a subsidiary company, the Bay Steamship Company, she was chartered to the French government, undertaking merchant voyages to New York and to Archangel in northern Russia.
In 1916, the Hudson's Bay Company lent Discovery to assist in the rescue of the party stranded on Elephant Island during the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, 1914-1916 (leader Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton). Setting sail from Plymouth on 10 August 1916 under the command of Captain James Fairweather, Discovery arrived in Montevideo to discover that the Elephant Island party had been rescued by the Chilean naval tug Yelcho.
On her return to Britain, Discovery operated as a merchant vessel under the management of the Bay Steamship Company between 1916 and 1919. In 1919, she was chartered to the Merchant Trading Company of London, carrying supplies via the Black Sea to Russia during the Russian Revolution. On her return from South Russia in 1920, Discovery was laid up in London in the South West India Dock, and two years later, was lent by the Hudson's Bay Company to the 16th Stepney Sea Scout Troop as their temporary headquarters.
Discovery was sold to the Crown Agents as an expedition ship for the Discovery Investigations, 1925-1951, organized to conduct scientific research in the Southern Ocean in order to preserve the whaling industry. Refitted for Hydrographic cruising and designated a Royal Research Ship, Discovery sailed from Dartmouth, arriving in South Georgia on 20 February 1926, where she started a programme of plankton and water sampling around the island. Departing for the Falkland Islands and South Africa, where she was joined by the steam trawler RRS William Scoresby, she returned to South Georgia in November 1926, from where both ships made extensive surveys of the whaling grounds. The work was extended to the South Orkney and South Shetland Islands and Antarctic Peninsula the following year. Discovery arrived back in Falmouth in September 1927, returning to the Antarctic two years later when she was lent by the British government to the British, Australian and New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition, 1929-1931 (leader Douglas Mawson).
After the expedition, Discovery was again laid up in London and, in 1936, was given to the Boy Scout Association as a training ship for Sea Scouts and as a memorial to Captain Scott.
Due to the high cost of maintenance, in 1953 the Boy Scout Association offered her unconditionally to the Admiralty for use by the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. In 1979, Discovery was transferred to the Maritime Trust, undergoing essential repairs in Sheerness before returning to St. Katharine's Dock in London. In 1986, Discovery returned to Dundee, where an extensive restoration programme was conducted, and in 1995, her ownership was transferred to the Dundee Heritage Trust.