Cook Frederick

Frederick Cook, the American polar explorer, volunteered for Robert Peary's North Greenland Arctic expedition shortly after passing his medical exams in1889. Peary offered Cook a position as expedition surgeon and the expedition sailed in June 1891, establishing a base on the western coast of Greenland near Whale Sound. Cook impressed Peary with his stamina, calm temperament, and positive attitude. Confident of Cook's abilities as a leader and explorer, Peary placed Cook in charge of his base camp while he trekked across the interior ice of Greenland to Independence Bay (82° N latitude).

Cook's experiences in the Arctic with Peary whetted his appetite for further polar voyaging. When the expedition returned home in 1892, Cook worked to return to the polar regions as soon as possible. In 1893, he joined the Zeta expedition which sailed up the northwest coast of Greenland. In 1894, he organized the Miranda expedition which reached Greenland only to be aborted when Miranda struck a reef off Sukkertoppen (now called Maniitsoq). From 1897 to 1899, Cook sailed with the Belgian Antarctic Expedition aboard the Belgica. There he met and became friends with Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen. When the Beligica became the captive of Antarctic pack ice, scurvy soon broke out among the crew. Cook ordered them to eat raw penguin meat, an action that helped keep the deadly disease at bay. Cook's actions and cheerful spirit earned him the respect of fellow expedition members. "Cook was the most popular man of the expedition," Amundsen declared, "and he deserved it."

After his return from the Antarctic, Cook increasingly treated exploration as a professional rather than a vocational interest. He published a book on his Antarctic expedition, went on an extensive lecture tour, and toured England meeting with other polar explorers such as Robert Scott and Ernest Shackleton. Although Cook attempted a less itinerant life, he dropped everything when presented with the opportunity to return to the Arctic. In 1902, he joined a relief expedition organized by the Peary Arctic Club. In 1903, he attempted to climb Mt McKinley (Denali) in Alaska. Although unsuccessful, it raised interest in his second bid for the summit in 1906. Cook returned from this trip claiming to have reached the summit of McKinley, a feat for which he was honored by the press and the National Geographic Society.

In 1907, Cook embarked on the most significant and controversial voyage of his career, an expedition to reach the North Pole. When he left for the Arctic, Cook made no announcement of his goal, sailing instead as the guest of the wealthy big-game hunter, John Bradley. Thus, press and public were taken by surprise when, in September 1909, Cook emerged from Northern Greenland claiming to have reached the polar axis. He reported that he and two Inuit Greenlanders, Etukishuk (or Ittukusuk) and Ahwelah (or Apilak), had crossed Ellesmere Land in 1908, and sledged up the coast of Axel Heiberg Land. From there, he claimed that they crossed the Polar Sea and reached the polar axis on April 22, 1908. Although many reporters and explorers praised Cook's achievement, others waited for more proof. Demands for evidence grew louder when Robert Peary, returning from his own North Pole expedition, claimed discovery of the North Pole and dismissed Cook as a fraud.

The controversy which ensued cast doubt on the claims of both explorers. At first, the American press and public generally supported Cook's account, viewing Peary's attack to be the result of his frustration at losing the North Pole race to Cook. Peary supporters did not help his case by criticizing Cook's extraordinary rate of travel or his failure to bring qualified witnesses to the North Pole, charges that applied equally well to Peary's expedition. Nevertheless, even Cook's supporters became increasingly frustrated with his failure to provide convincing evidence that would refute Peary's charges. The tide of popular support turned against Cook in October 1909 when a member of his 1906 McKinley expedition, Edward Barrill, reported that he had collaborated with Cook to fake his ascent of the mountain. In December 1909, Cook attempted to bolster his case by presenting a set of records to Danish officials in the hope that they would verify his North Pole claim. The Danes concluded, however, that Cook's records did not contain "any proof whatsoever of Dr. Cook having reached the North Pole." Although Peary's records also contained significant errors and omissions, they were quickly accepted by a National Geographic Society committee sympathetic to Peary, an action which solidified his public standing as the rightful discoverer of the North Pole.

Most exploration scholars today dismiss Cook's claim to be the discoverer of the North Pole. To be sure, Cook demonstrated great skill as an explorer, possessed extraordinary physical stamina, and cultivated close relationships with fellow Inuit explorers. Yet even if such qualities offered sufficient means for Cook to reach the North Pole, he lacked the navigational skills necessary to find his goal. As Robert Bryce has convincingly argued, Cook's writings show that he had precious little knowledge of navigational equipment. Moreover, his writings suggest that he did not understand how to calculate his geographical position from his astronomical observations. The absence of such observations and calculations proved critical in the rejection of his claim by the 1909 Copenhagen

Committee. Even when Cook published tables of his "original" observations two years later in his narrative My Attainment of the Pole (1911), they were in error.

In 1915, Cook sought to reestablish his credibility as an explorer by ascending Mt Everest. The outbreak of World War I prevented him from reaching the Himalayas, however, and he spent most of his time traveling through Borneo. Cook then pursued interests closer to home, entering the oil business, where he used his name to raise capital for petroleum exploration. In 1923, Federal authorities indicted Cook for mail fraud, charging that he had made numerous false claims about his business in promotions sent to investors. Cook was sentenced to 14 years in prison, but was paroled in March 1930 after serving six years in Leavenworth Penitentiary. After his release, Cook continued to defend his claim to discovery of the North Pole.

Biography

Frederick Cook was born on June 10, 1865 in Hortonville, New York, the son of German immigrants Theodor Albrecht Koch and Magdalena Long. Cook was only four years old when his father died, an event that forced Cook's mother and older brothers find work to support their family. They moved to Port Jervis in 1878 and soon afterwards to New York City. There Cook found work delivering milk, eventually building his delivery service into a full-scale business with his brothers.

In 1887, Cook enrolled in medical school at the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University. He married Libby Forbes in 1889, but she died in childbirth the following year. In 1902, he married Marie Hunt. They had two children, Ruth and Helen. He died in New Rochelle, New York on August 5, 1940.

Michael F. Robinson

Further Reading

Frederick Cook Papers, Washington, District of Columbia:

Library of Congress Robert Peary Papers, Peary Family Collection, Maryland:

National Archives Bryce, Robert, Cook and Peary: The Polar Controversy,

Resolved, Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1997 Cook, Frederick To the Top of the Continent, New York:

Doubleday, Page, and Co., 1908 Cook, Frederick, My Attainment of the Pole, New York:

Mitchell Kennerley, 1911 Herbert, Wally The Noose of Laurels: Robert Peary and the

Race to the North Pole, New York: Atheneum, 1989 Peary, Robert, North Pole: Its Discovery in 1909 Under the Auspices of the Peary Arctic Club, New York: Frederick Stokes Company, 1910

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