Review of Polar Literature

Book Review:

Exploring Polar Frontiers: A Historical Encyclopedia

by William James Mills

ABC-Clio Inc., $149.98

ISBN 1576074226 900 p

Exploring Polar Frontiers:
Mills’ long awaited historical encyclopedia of the Arctic

William J. Mills had been the ultimate resource person for anyone who was probing into the depths of Polar exploration. The librarian at the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge, he oversaw what was probably the largest and most inclusive collection of printed matter on the subject.

It was inevitable that this knowledge would find its way under hard covers, and it has as Exploring Polar Frontiers: A Historical Encyclopedia, perhaps the most comprehensive volume in print that deals exclusively with the history of Arctic and Antarctic exploration. Sadly, William Mills died earlier this year, and this encyclopedia serves as an appropriate memorial to his work.
There are more than 500 entries covering people, places, expeditions, ships, countries, and subjects from 325 B.C.E. to the present, with the majority of coverage in the twentieth century. Examples of subject entries include Inuit contributions to polar exploration, Magnetic poles, Sledges and sleds, Surveying and mapping, Whaling and Antarctic exploration, and Women explorers. Entries range in length from a single paragraph to eight pages.

The entries are accompanied by more than 160 illustrations, 20 maps, and 22 tables. Each entry has references and suggestions for further reading. There is a chronological polar time line that lists polar expeditions by region, a 135-word glossary of technical terms (such as the different forms of ice and types of vessels), abbreviations and acronyms, an extensive bibliography, and an index. Unfortunately, the index is structured so that the entries for explorers and ships are not where many readers will look for them.

For example, Roald Amundsen (the first man to reach the South Pole) is listed under N (Norwegian explorers) but not under A (Amundsen). There is, however, an alphabetical listing of all entries in the front matter, as well as, lists of entries in chronological order and by broad category.

Mills devotes more than a dozen pages to biographical sketches of Peary and Cook and casts a critical eye toward the career achievements of both. He offers what many would consider a mainstream assessment of Peary, whose Polar claims of 1909 are now only defended by a narrow fringe of hard-core believers. Says Mills:

(Peary) claimed to have reached the North Pole on 6 April 1909…his obsession…not all, however are prepared to believe Peary’s claim; and some believe that in any case he was anticipated by his erstwhile colleague, Dr. Frederick Cook. (P. 510)
In discussing the exploration years preceding Peary’s 1909 trip, noting that in 1894 his location of the “iron mountain” resulted in his carving a large “P” on one of them to mark his priority and later to remove them for showing and eventual sale to the American Museum of Natural History for $40,000 (a princly sum for that year). Mills does not comment on the ethical issue of Peary’s removal (theft, according to Kenn Harper) of the meteorites.

He does observe that Peary’s 1905-06 expedition was overshadowed by the exploits of Cagini (“they were outdistanced by the Italians, a nation not previously noted for polar expertise”) and Sverdrup’s Norwegians. After discussing Herbert’s critical 1989 report, Mills concludes that Peary’s thoughts on reaching his ‘life’s goal’ were recorded on a detached page (of his diary), which could have been written at any time. Fortunately for Peary, he had friends whose influence and mastery of the media eventually ensured the hounding of Cook as an imposter and recognition of Peary’s claim… (but he) was never able to silence his doubters.
In his separate entry for Cook (less than one-half the size for his adversary), Mills believes that Cook’s supporters “…can certainly demonstrate that a powerful conspiracy was against him” by those backing Peary.

Mills is generous in his acknowledgment of Cook’s role in the Antarctic, not only in his medical prowess which may have actually saved the Belgian expedition, but in his cooperative role with Amundson in perfecting better means of Polar travel, including the sledges made by hickory Cook brought with him, the effective silk tent which Cook designed and the sun goggles he created. “When Amundson skied to the South Pole, his sun goggles were made to Cook’s design”, he recalls.

While he doubts the McKinley ascent, Mills does not cite the 1994 expedition that followed his Ruth Glacier route, but he does credit his 1903 circumnavigation of the mountain. The extensive literature which Mills refers to in discussing the Cook-Peary controversy, which he calls “a sordid affair” is not cited in his bibliography, which would inform the reader that the argument has relegated Cook to a serious contender position in the past half century.

- RWG and books

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Copyright 2005 - The Frederick A. Cook Society