Robert Edwin Peary: King of expeditions to the Arctic and the North Pole
Born to Charles N. and Mary P. Peary on May 6, 1856 in Cresson, Pennsylvania, Robert Peary lost his father when he was just three. Thereafter, his family shifted base to Portland, Maine, where he attended the Bowdoin College in 1873. After graduating in 1877 in civil engineering, he became a draftsman with the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey in Washington, D.C. Later he joined the United States Navy as a civil engineer.
Expeditions and explorations
In 1885, Peary received his first taste of exploration as chief assistant on an expedition to Nicaragua. It was there that the seeds of his inclination towards exploring the North Pole were sown. In 1886, Peary, with Danish official, Christian Maigaard, he made the first expedition to the Arctic from Godhvan in Greenland. After travelling nearly 160 km due east, they had to turn back because of the shortage of food. He then resumed duty in Nicaragua.
Five years later, Peary undertook his second expedition in order to learn if Greenland extended till the North Pole. This expedition was financed by the American Geographic Society, the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences and the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences. After covering 2,100 km on the sledge, the expedition acknowledged Greenland’s status as an island. During the 1898-1902 expedition, he was credited for discovering Cape Jesup, the northernmost tip of Greenland.
He made his third and final attempt to reach the North Pole in 1908. For that expedition, he studied the lifestyle of Inuits as well as how to build igloos and to operate dog sledges. He went on the expedition with five people and claimed to have attained success on April 6, 1909. Peary became a Naval Captain in 1910, after which he was the U.S. Congress formally placed on record its thanks to him in 1911 through a special act. Following year he retired as a Rear Admiral of the Naval Civil Engineer, the position he was promoted to by the Congress.
Peary married Josephine Diebitsch, a business school graduate, in 1888. They had two children. His daughter wrote several books, including a children’s book about the Arctic adventures. He shared his experiences through published works titled Northward over the Great Ice (1898), The North Pole (1910), and Secrets of Polar Travel (1917).
Death and legacy
He passed away on February 20, 1920 in Washington, D.C. aged 63. Several United States Navy ships have been named USS Robert E. Peary. The Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum at Bowdoin College is named after Peary and fellow Arctic explorer Donald B. MacMillan.
Awards and recognition
Peary received the Cullum Geographical Medal (1896), Charles P. Daly Medal (1902) by the American Geographical Society, the Hubbard Medal in 1906, the special great gold medal by Royal Geographical Society of London and National Geographic Society of Washington, the Grand Officer of the Legion of Honor in 1913, a Congressional medal in 1944. He received a degree of doctor of laws from the Bowdoin College and the Edinburgh University. He was elected as the President of the Explorers Club twice (1909-1911 and 1913- 1916) and thereafter was elected chairman of the National Aerial Coast Patrol Commission, a private set up that proposed aircraft for detecting warships and submarines along the US Coast.
1. Robert Peary went to many lengths for his expeditions. During the 1898 North Pole expedition, he lost eight of his toes to adverse weather. He arranged funds for the expeditions by delivering lectures.
2. He received many accolades. A 22 cent postage stamp was issued by the United States Postal Service in Robert Peary’s honour. His life has been depicted in primetime Emmy winning Glory & Honor.
3. While claims by Peary and ex- colleague Frederick Cook that they discovered North Pole were disputed, a team that included Roald Amudsen on May 12, 1926 made the first verified flight over North Pole.
4. In 1916, Peary became chairman of the National Aerial Coast Patrol Commission, a private organisation created by the Aero Club of America. Peary used his celebrity to promote the use of military and naval aviation, which led to the formation of Naval Reserve aerial coastal patrol units. At the close of World War I, Peary proposed a system of eight airmail routes,which became integral to the U.S. airmail system.
Sources: Wikipedia, britannica.com, thefamouspeople.com