Frederick author tackles polar exploration question Publishing: Robert M. Bryce of Monrovia has entered the great polar exploration debate with his new book, 'Cook & Peary: The Polar Controversy, Resolved.'

March 16, 1997|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- It has been a question debated in the annals of exploration for almost 90 years. Who was the first man to reach the North Pole, Adm. Robert E. Peary or Dr. Frederick A. Cook?

The answer may be neither of the above.

Robert M. Bryce, a historical researcher who spent 20 years studying the great polar controversy, says evidence gleaned from the journals and diaries of the explorers themselves, as well as unpublished papers and accounts of companions and others involved in the Arctic expeditions, prove that neither man actually stood at the top of the world, though each man claimed he had.

The expedition papers of both men show that they made genuine attempts to reach the pole by dogsled in 1908 and 1909, he said, but were thwarted by harsh Arctic conditions and the limitations of the navigational instruments of the time.

"Perhaps no one could have reached the true pole at that time, with the massive amounts of supplies that would have been needed, the instruments of the day and the conditions they encountered," Bryce said. "But neither man was willing to admit failure. So much was at stake."

In his book, "Cook & Peary: The Polar Controversy, Resolved," published in February by Stackpole Books, Bryce contends that neither explorer made his claim based upon an honest mistake or misconception. "The evidence points to both claims as frauds, and knowing fraud," Bryce said, "not self-deception, but purposeful."

In the history of exploration, conquering the polar regions was considered one of the last great prizes because of their inaccessibility. Those who dared became instant heroes.

The controversy over the North Pole began in September 1909, when Peary and Cook emerged from the Arctic within five days of one another and each man cabled backers that he had reached the pole. Peary said he, accompanied by two Eskimos and his assistant, Matthew Henson, attained the pole on April 6, 1909. Cook, whose message got out to the world days before his rival's, claimed he had reached the goal with two Eskimo companions almost a year earlier, on April 21, 1908.

Each of the explorers immediately attacked the credibility of the other's claim, a battle that included assaults on the character and veracity of the opponent. Peary's financial and professional backers, including the National Geographic Society and the New York Times, supported his claim based on little more than his word and a cursory investigation of his records. Cook's advocates, including the New York Herald, weighed in on his behalf even though there were inconsistencies and gaps in his expedition logs. The debate has continued since, with generally more credence given to Peary's claim.

Bryce, a 50-year-old librarian and document preservation expert at Montgomery College in Germantown, said his long interest in the controversy led him to begin work eight years ago on a Cook biography, which grew into the current work. Several years ago, the Frederick A. Cook Society in Hurleyville, N.Y., asked Bryce to evaluate its document collection and report on its preservation. The author was given access to Cook's personal papers and the unrestricted right to publish excerpts from unpublished diaries and papers, he said.

In examining the explorer's journals and letters, as well as documents from other members of his polar expedition, Bryce found evidence that Cook had erased and doctored entries. Four of Cook's surviving notebooks, preserved in the Library of Congress, contained cross-referenced entries that refer to two missing notebooks. In making inquiries for his book, Bryce discovered that a photographic copy of one of these logs exists in the Danish National Archives.

Cook submitted a notebook to support his claim to the University of Copenhagen in January 1910, and it was returned to him a year later. But unknown to him, Bryce said, the Danes made a photographic copy of it that ended up forgotten in the Royal Astronomical Observation Library. The notebook ` full of erasures and crossovers ` which Cook sent to Denmark with 17 of its 176 pages missing, contains no "smoking gun" proving fraud, Bryce said.

Bryce said missing and renumbered pages appear to coincide with reports by Cook's colleagues that he departed his Greenland base for his run to the pole a week later than he later said he left. All dates in Cook's official account of his trip are based upon the earlier departure, Bryce said, which was necessary to support the explorer's claim that he returned from the pole before the winter ice broke and made travel impossible.

Cook apparently was adjusting dates to match purported observations, Bryce said, including the claimed sightings of Arctic land masses that do not exist.

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