Elisha Kent Kane Historical Society
Admiral Donald B. Mac Millan
I would like to go into the Arctic for the adventure that it promises, my
greatest desire would be to bring back to scholars of all kinds bits of useful
knowledge about this little-known domain."
these words, written just after the turn of the century, Donald Baxter Mac
Millan expressed an ambition that he largely achieved in 30 expeditions to the
Far North between 1908 and 1954. He
was 34 years old on his first trip and a few days short of 80 when he
completed his final journey.
anthropologist, ethnologist, geographer and skilled naturalist, he made
fundamental contributions to Arctic geology, botany, zoology and geography as
well as to the understanding of Eskimo culture.
He introduced the airplane to the Arctic, pioneered in the use of
short-wave radio there and was the first to use snowmobiles in the region.
And in thousands of illustrated lectures across the United States, he
made his knowledge available to the public and to generations of school and
the explorer, who became a rear admiral in 1954, never set foot on the North
Pole; but he did fly over it in 1957 -with three other Arctic veterans- Sir
Hubert Wilkins, Peter Fruechen and Colonel Bert Balchen.
His initiation into the North came through Admiral Robert E. Peary,
whose son had attended, in 1900, a summer camp run by Admiral Mac Millan, then
a teacher. The two men
corresponded, and Admiral Peary invited him to join the Peary expedition of
1908-1909 as an assistant.
the 85th Parallel, the neophyte nearly perished when he fell through the ice
("Peary held my freezing feet against his warm body to save them")
and had to forgo the final stages of the trip, on which Peary insisted he had
reached the Pole. Instead, Admiral Mac Millan hobbled back along the trail to
set up supply caches for Peary's return trip.
by the hazards of polar life, Admiral Mac Millan participated in the Cabot
Labrador expedition of 1910, in the course of which, in a sixteen foot canoe,
he almost reached Hudson Straits under sail and paddle.
It was "a marvelous trip," he said later, recalling how he
had relied on his shotgun and fishing tackle for food and how he had found
shelther beneath the canoe, hauled out on shore, or among the Eskimos.
white men were held in such esteem and affection by the Eskimos as Admiral Mac
Millan, whose Eskimo name was Nagelak, or Leader, for he strove to improve
their health and living conditions and to create an understanding of their
problems. Among other things, he
compiled a dictionary of conversational Eskimo and established a school for
Eskimo children at Nairn, Labrador, which he kept supplied with food and
equipment for many years. He held
Eskimo brainpower in high regard, saying, "If they were not intelligent,
they couldn't survive in that country."
Mac Millan's attachment to the Far North began in childhood.
He was born in Provincetown, Mass., on November 10, 1874, the son of a
hardy Scotch fisherman. His
father, Captain Neil Mac Millan, was drowned off Greenland while fishing for
halibut when Donny Baxter, as the boy was called in the Scots tradition, was
9. His mother died shortly thereafter, and he was brought up in Freeport,
Maine, by an older sister.
working his way through Bowdoin College in the class of'98, he became a
teacher- and it was while he was at the Worcester (Mass.) Academy in 1908 that
he received Peary's invitation to join his polar expedition.
Although he never taught formally thereafter, save for anthropology
lectures at Bowdoin, he stocked his Arctic crews with scientists and students
to whom he passed along his accumulated scientific knowledge.
Mac Millan's first polar trip in which he was the Commander was the Crocker
Land Expedition in 1913. Starting
out with 19 men and 165 dogs, he expected to remain in the north for two years
and had to stay for four years until a relief ship made it to the west coast
of Greenland. In this time, he
and his sledges crisscrossed 10,500 miles of the Arctic, travelling the
Greenland coast, Ellesmere Island, Axel Heiberg Island and the Polar Sea.
The fare was often dog biscuit, birds' eggs and seal and walrus meat.
addition to making basic geographical findings and to collecting 200 boxes of
scientific specimens, Admiral Mac Millan disproved Peary's discovery of
Crocker Land by showing that it had been a mirage.
He told about his feats in a book, "Four years in the White
North," published in 1918.
World War I, Admiral Mac Millan served in the Navy Air Arm, and later in the
Reserve; but in 1920, he was back in the North, this time in Hudson's Bay.
The following year he was again in the Arctic on the first of a series
of voyages in the celebrated schooner Bowdoin, a vessel of his own design that
was double-ribbed and sheathed in ironwood and had a spoon bow able to lift up
and crack down through an opening in an ice field.
The 88 foot long ship, graceful as a seabird, made 26 Arctic trips
before being laid up. Her last
voyage was in 1954.
his voyages in the Bowdoin, Admiral Mac Millan mapped the coast of Baffin
Island; studied the great ice cap, Meta Incognita- found coal on Ellesmere
Island; gathered biological specimens in Labrador; and offered evidence to
show that the world was nearing the end of an ice age.
World War 11, the explorer was commissioned a Reserve commander in the Navy
and was dispatched to the Arctic with a ship and four planes.
He made 10,000 aerial photographs of the Labrador, Greenland and Baffin
Island coasts, and then worked with the War Department in establishing a
Northern radar network and served on the Secret Defense Board.
Nevertheless, some of his last years were passed in official neglect on
a small pension.
Mac Millan's final voyage, in 1954, was one of the hardest he had ever
undertaken. The Bowdoin took a
terrific beating from the 120-mile-an-hour winds and shifting ice packs.
Moreover, an Eskimo pilot, guiding the ship along the coast near
Holsteinborg, Greenland, ran her onto a ledge and rocks ripped off part of her
iron keel and ironwood sheathing. For
five hours, the vessel lay keeled over, with waves crashing into her hull.
Then a high tide refloated her, and the admiral was able to take her
into port, where she was beached and repaired.
his exploits Admiral Mac Millan received many awards, including the Medal of
Honor, the Elisha Kent Kane Gold Medal, the Explorers' Club Medal and the
Hubbard Gold Medal of the National Geographic Society.
Mac Millan lived the last years of his life in Provincetown with his wife,
Miriam, whom he married when he was 60. His
deck was the porch of a shipshape home facing the Atlantic.
Erect as a stanchion on a schooner's fo'c'sle even into his 90's, and
with a New England twang in his still-strong voice, he liked to chat with
visitors about the Arctic and his "boys"- the men who had sailed
with him on the frozen seas.
admiral did not like to think of himself as retired.
"I am just not that kind," he said.
And when he was 94, he was asked by Capt. Alan B. Shepard Jr., the
nation's first astronaut, if he were available for a moon trip.
With scarcely a twinkle in his blue eyes, he replied: "Damned
Whitman (for The New York Times )
), Tuesday, November 8, 1970