National Geographic : 1990 Jan
IGHTY YEARS AGO a committee of the Board of Managers of the National Geographic Society examined Comdr. Robert E. Peary's claim to have reached the North Pole on April 6, 1909, and found no reason to doubt him. This judgment was confirmed by a committee of the U. S. House of Representatives in 1911. Nevertheless, as Rear Adm. Thomas D. Davies remarks in the following article, Peary's claim was "engulfed in controversy." This was largely due to the competing claim of Dr. Frederick Cook, who told the world he had reached the Pole a full year earlier. Over the decades Peary was given the laurel, but critics persisted in raising questions about his navigation and the distances he claimed. The question still continues to grip the popular imagination. By and large, controversy is good for exploration, because it generates new effort to find the truth and stimulates young explorers to find new answers to old questions. The world needs young explorers in every field. But beyond healthy contro versy lies darker and more dubious ground. The Soci ety felt that a "docudrama" broadcast on national tele vision six years ago reached that ground with the portrayal of an innocent Cook being victimized and deprived of his rightful claim by a malevolent Peary. For many years the Peary polar diary had been sequestered in the National Archives, with access to it restricted. Now the Peary family agreed to release it. The Geographic commissioned Arctic explorer and au thor Wally Herbert to examine the diary; he concluded EDWARDSTAFFORD COLLECTION in the September 1988 issue that Peary had missed the Pole in part because wind-driven ice carried him west. Saying that is one thing, but calling Peary a fraud is another. That is what the Washing ton Post reported in front-page headlines a year ago. The charge was made by Baltimore astronomer Dennis Rawlins, based on his analysis of an undated document found in the archives that he presumed to be observations Peary made at the Pole in 1909. Rawlins con cludedthat Peary was 105 nautical miles from the Pole and knew it. We asked the Navigation Foundation, a Maryland-based group devoted to preserving the art of navigation, to examine the Rawlins analysis; it quickly discovered that what Rawlins took to be calculations for compass variation were in fact the serial numbers on Peary's chronometer watches! It seemed time to try to put an end to a controversy that was clearly moving away from fruitful debate. We asked the Foundation to undertake a comprehensive study of all the evidence regarding the Peary claim and draw a warranted conclusion, let the chips fall where they may. This the Foundation has done. Its work seems to me unimpeachable. Unless something better comes along, I consider this the end of a historic controversy and the confirmation of due justice to a great explorer. 44 PRESIDENT, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC SOCIETY f I w x_ .