Cook & Peary
The Polar Controversy, Resolved
by Robert M. Bryce

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Stackpole Books
Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania; 1997
many photos, maps, illustrations
1133 pages

April 2006

Cold efforts & still-smoldering controversy

Few controversies are still contested fiercely after a century. Who was first to the North Pole is one of them. Frederick Cook (1865-1940) and Robert E. Peary (1856-1920), both Americans, still have their partisans.

Cook & Peary: The Polar Controversy, Resolved, by Robert M. Bryce, is a major entry in this historical controversy, of whether Cook reached the North Pole in 1908, Peary in 1909, or both, or neither.

Into high latitudes

Even before the North Pole attempts, there's a lot in Cook & Peary. This is Bryce about the Belgian Antarctic Expedition in 1898, after Belgica is frozen in the ice pack:

For diversion, Arctowski, Amundsen, and Cook decided to try out the pack for traveling — something they might be forced to do should the Belgica be crushed. The floes were small and in constant motion, and the risk of jumping between them without falling into the water made the trial an adventure. Arctowski considered the experience "a very agreeable day [that] gave us confidence in ourselves and hope that we should not lack means of amusement."

The men themselves provided amusement to other denizens of the pack. Penguins would often promenade near the ship, eyeing the strange beings from the north with evident curiosity. One sailor practiced the trumpet, and whenever he gave a concert, penguins came from great distances to stand and listen to his efforts. They showed no interest, however, in the sounds made by the ship's clattering mechanical barrel organ, which was often exercised with punched cards containing national melodies and operatic airs.

On the same Antarctic expedition, here is Cook deciding to sleep out on the ice, away from the ship:

At midnight I took my bag and, leaving the warmth and comfort of the cabin, I struggled out over the icy walls of the bark's embankment, and upon a floe three hundred yards east I spread out the bag. The temperature of the cabin was the ordinary temperature of a comfortable room; the temperature of the outside air was -4F.

After undressing quickly, as one is apt to do in such temperatures, I slid into the fur bag and rolled over the ice until I found a depression suitable to my ideas of comfort. At first my teeth chattered and every muscle of my body quivered, but in a few minutes this passed off and there came a reaction similar to that after a cold bath. With this warm glow I turned from side to side and peeped past the fringe of accumulating frost, around my blow-hole through the bag, at the cold glitter of the stars.

As I lay there alone, away from the noise of the ship, the silence and the solitude were curiously oppressive. There was not a breath of air stirring the glassy atmosphere, and not a sound from the ice-decked sea or its life to indicate movement or commotion. ... Every move which I made in my bag was followed by a crackling complaint from the snow crust. ...

My hair, my face, and the under garments about my neck were frozen to the hood. ... but aside from this little discomfort I was perfectly at ease ...

The aurora, as the blue twilight announced the dawn, had settled into an arc of steady brilliancy which hung low on the southern sky, while directly under the zenith there quivered a few streamers; overhead was the southern cross, and all around the blue dome there were sparking spots which stood out like huge gems. ...

I remained quiet, and presently I heard a loud chatter. It was uttered by a group of penguins who had come to interview their new companion. ...

There's more about Antarctica; about Cook's Mount McKinley expedition in Alaska; about Peary and Cook's working together and falling out; about exploring Greenland and the Arctic.

Friends & polar partisans

Both Cook and Peary had many contemporary friends and partisans. On Bryce's account, Cook was more likeable, but Peary had powerful friends, including the New York Times and the National Geographic Society. One of the interesting threads is Bryce's account of the contemporary publicity, lectures, and showmanship; and the international public as well as scientific fascination with these expeditions.

It's kind of sad that priority drives so much exploratory energy, and occasionally so much recrimination afterward. There are no patent rights involved, but fame pulls strongly, helped by promises of wealth, national pride, and so on. The history of powered flight, for instance, from the Wright Brothers to Apollo journeys to the Moon, still has controversies, although less personally vitriolic than the North Polar priority.

First to the North Pole? I don't believe I have a bet on a dog in this race. From what I've read in this considerable and growing literature, it appears that neither Cook nor Peary have a substantiated claim.

Men against the cold

Bryce provides a lot of adventure, in evocative detail. If you've read or watched a lot about Polar exploration and still hunger for heroic stories of men against the cold, Cook & Peary has multiple expeditions to offer, including the North Pole detective story and the controversy. But to get your feet cold first, I recommend first reading of Nansen, Amundsen, Shackleton, and Mawson.


© 2006 Robert Wilfred Franson

Cold at Troynovant
cold weather and winter environments,
survival, exploration

The crowd dispersed, the North Pole was such a compromised matter that no one wanted to have anything to do with it anymore, not even the President of the United States [Theodore Roosevelt], and many people began to turn their attention to the South Pole. ...

Science will make one last attempt and send out its arbiters. It is hoped they will establish that there really is a North Pole, because they know it from hearsay, and the Pole will be pleased if it comes out of this affair without a scratch, this self-satisfied spot "from which everywhere is south" and everywhere meanness — a desolate area since it came into contact with things human.

Karl Kraus
"Die Entdeckung des Nordpols"
Die Fackel ((The Torch), # 287, 16 September 1909

"The Discovery of the North Pole"
In These Great Times
A Karl Kraus Reader  (1976, 1984)
edited & translated by Harry Zohn


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