Biographies

Miriam Look MacMillan

Miriam and dog

Miriam Norton Look was born on June 13, 1905 to an engineer father, who came from a long line of sea captains, and a mother who was a classical musician. Miriam had a sister and brother, but she was the only one of the three who was fiercely passionate about the sea. She also had a great fascination with the Arctic, which undoubtedly came from the fact that it was the special interest of her childhood hero, explorer Donald MacMillan. Captain Dan, as he was called, was an old friend of her parents and would always visit when he returned from his voyages. Miriam loved to hear him recount his adventures and would later act them out with her friends--but only if she could play the hero Donald MacMillan.

Miriam on a ship

As a teenager, Miriam had a 25-foot motor boat named the Sea Pup that was her pride and joy. Starting the engine caused her quite a bit of trouble, though, and in her book, Green Seas and White Ice, she fondly recalls the outbursts of "unladylike language" she directed at that engine. After she graduated from school, Miriam worked as a fundraiser for the public relations firm Tamblyn and Brown until she married Donald MacMillan on March 18, 1935.

Inuit canoeing

From 1938 on, Miriam was an important member of the crew of the Bowdoin. She proved her ability to withstand the hardships of the Arctic and demonstrated her competence in organizing all the supplies needed for the expeditions and the MacMillan-Moravian School, founded by MacMillan in 1929. MacMillan had at first refused to let her go along, since no woman had ever done so. But with the support of the crew, she finally convinced him. Miriam was the first woman to steer a ship through heavy ice to within 660 miles of the North Pole. As a parcticipant in nine voyages on the Bowdoin, Miriam recorded traditional Inuit songs and took motion pictures of Inuit and ship life. These records, along with her books, preserve valuable observations about the Arctic. She also helped chart the northern waters and was an "amazing speaker" on MacMillan's lecture tours.

Miriam steering a ship

After MacMillan's death in 1970, Miriam devoted herself to arranging and cataloguing the thousands of photographs, slides, and artifacts that she and MacMillan brought back from the Arctic. She served as honorary curator of the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum, and worked to promote and raise money for the restoration of the schooner Bowdoin in the early 1980s. In 1980, in recognition of her contributions, Miriam MacMillan received the honorary degree of Sc.D. from Bowdoin College. In 1981, she was accepted into the Explorer's Club, one of only a few women accepted at that time. Miriam died on August 18, 1987 and is buried in Provincetown.

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More Information and Links

Miriam MacMillan wrote Green Seas and White Ice in 1948. It is an autobiographical narrative of the early years of her marriage to Donald MacMillan and her first two voyages on the Bowdoin. Etuk, the Eskimo Hunter (1950) and Kudla and his Polar Bear (1953) are fictional accounts of Inuit life.
Miriam MacMillan's papers are housed at Bowdoin College.