Book Review:
Frank Wild:  An Explorer's Biography

by Leif Mills

Caedmon Whitby, 1999, 341 pages, paperback

ISBN 0905355482 ($25.50)

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The Forgotten Man

Who Filled the Shoes of Shackleton


This reviewer began a traditional overseas correspondence with Leif Mills more than four decades ago (dating both of us!) on a mutual interest, long before the Cook papers and archives had been dispersed, and indeed in the prime research period of Cook's daughter Helene, who was quick to offer suggestions about the biography that our new English friend was then writing.

Helene offered critical commentary in the meticulous and objective style that characterized her work (an excerpt of one of her letters is found elsewhere in this issue). She always referred to "Cook" or "Dr. Cook" but not "my father." She brought new insights to the Mills study.

Unfortunately for those who sought objectivity in those years, that manuscript was not published but a copy was deposited at the Byrd Polar/Cook Collection papers at Ohio State. All the loss for Polar history, especially with the publication of Mills' next undertaking, a biography which was published in Great Britain last year, a 341-page book of a virtually unknown British explorer Frank Wild who spent more time in the Antarctic in the first quarter of the last century than anyone else. In his assessment of Wild, Leif Mills offers the following:

"Of the leaders of Antarctic exploration then, Roald Amundsen made only one expedition but was the first to reach the South Pole in 1911; Captain Scott led two expeditions, and died tragically on the second on the return from the South Pole in 1912; Douglas Mawson was in two expeditions, first with Shackleton 190709 and then with his own expedition from 191114; Shackleton was on three expeditions, first with Scott on the Discovery (but only for one season), and then two he led himself the Nimrod and Endurance expeditions. Wild was on five expeditions and served throughout the period of all of them."

It is perhaps the fate of those last participants of the "heroic age" of Polar exploration that their later lives were virtually consigned to obscurity, much like the authentic heroes of both World Wars who returned and were sometimes cruelly ignored by society. He quotes Raymond Priestly in an obituary on Wild:

"he had lost much of the faith in himself that had carried him so far. Wild was an outstanding example of the truth that, the world being fashioned as it is, Polar exploration can only be safely indulged in as an interlude in a life that is mainly directed to other ends, or by men who have other resources both material and moral to take the strain when the prime of life is past."

This biography is full of the detail and the patient research findings that come from combining the diaries and correspondence of other explorers and contemporaries of Frank Wild. That is why from special interest, this reviewer would have wished that Mills had published on Cook when it was needed. Yet no two personages whose lives spanned essentially the same period (Cook 1865 to 1940, Wild 1873 to 1939) and who were involved in Polar exploration could have been more in contrast. Wild was essentially the unassuming "Number Two" man who saw service under the giants Scott, Shackelton and Mawson though Farley Mowat's description of Cook as "forever volunteering to assist in other men's expeditions, usually without pay and sometimes at his own expense" comes to mind. Quoting explorer Ranulph Fiennes as saying that:

"Wild was a very good Number Two. People who are very good Number Two's don't often make good Number One's, but that's not a hard and fast rule. When a man who is a natural leader finds himself as a Number Two he usually gets abrasive (i.e. Shackleton under Scott). Wild did not."

Let Mills have the last word:

"In the early part of the twentieth century one of the particular factors was that all the expeditions were effectively cut off from the outside world once they had been landed in Antarctica. When enormous difficulties were encountered, it was to the expedition's leader that the men looked for a solution. It was this factor, perhaps above all others, that make Shackleton stand out as a leader. And in Frank Wild he had the ideal second in command."

Russell W. Gibbons


Copyright 2005 - The Frederick A. Cook Society