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Library Exhibit Traces Peary and Arctic Exploration Histories

Story posted March 04, 2009

Robert E. Peary.

Three decades before his historic attainment of the North Pole in 1909, Robert E. Peary (Class of 1877) navigated the Bowdoin College campus as a gifted engineering student—sketching buildings, measuring heights, and surveying land.

And let's not forget rebelling against the hero of Little Round Top.

Peary was among a group of Bowdoin students who refused to do mandatory military drills imposed by then-President Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. This "drill rebellion" led to Peary's dismissal from Bowdoin, a scolding form letter to his mother from Chamberlain, and a forced compliance in exchange for his being allowed to return to school.

Peary ultimately found his way back into the good graces of President Chamberlain who, in recognition of Peary's superb academic record, bestowed upon him the honor of delivering the 1880 commencement valedictory oration.

John Ross's A Voyage of Discovery..., 1819.

Glimpsing such exploits of Peary the Bowdoin student alongside chronicles of Peary the renowned Arctic explorer is just one of the enjoyments to be had by visiting "Reaching for the Pole: An Exhibition Celebrating the Centennial of Peary's North Pole Expedition," currently on view on the second floor of Hawthorne-Longfellow Library.

The exhibition features rare books, manuscripts, and photographs, and features early published accounts of Arctic exploration, as well as documents from the Robert Edwin Peary and Donald Baxter MacMillan collections and the Bowdoin College Archives. The exhibition is being presented as a complement to the programming and exhibitions celebrating the Peary centennial at the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum and Arctic Studies Center.

Part of the exhibition documents five centuries of publishing history relating to Arctic discovery and exploration. All of the displayed items come from the Library's Arctic Studies Collection, which comprises more than 2,800 volumes of rare books acquired by the College over time, many donated by Arctic explorer Donald B. MacMillan (Class of 1898).

Among the treasures on display are the two oldest items in the exhibition: La Geografia di Claudio Tolomeo Allessandrino (1574) by Ptolemy, who greatly influenced Renaissance understanding of geography; and Historia Mundi, or Mercator's Atlas (1635), which draws from medieval accounts of the North Pole.

P. Holmes's The Story of Exploration and Adventure in the Frozen Seas, 1896.

More recent publications include maps and books devoted to the 18th-century search for the Northwest Passage (some featuring drawings of such exotic animals as "sea unicorns" and, of course, "the white bear"); and 19th- and early 20th-century works reflecting the growing appetite among the reading public for books about the Arctic.

Another part of the exhibition is devoted to Bowdoin's long Arctic tradition, featuring items from the Library's George J. Mitchell Department of Special Collections & Archives, and facsimiles from The Farnsworth Museum, Rockland, Maine.

Illustrating Bowdoin as "The Explorer's College," the displays include materials from 19th-century faculty-led expeditions to the "Far North," beginning with Prof. Paul A. Chadbourne's 1860 voyage from Labrador to Greenland with 18 students; newspaper accounts of Peary's success, including a reprint of the September 7, 1909, New York Times front page touting stories such as "Peary Discovers the North Pole after Eight Trials in 23 Years"; and histories from the many 20th-century expeditions led by Donald B. MacMillan, including the Crocker Land Expedition.

This section also includes the aforementioned Peary sketches of Bowdoin buildings, records of the curriculum assigned to engineering students, and the letter from Chamberlain suspending Peary for the drill rebellion.

Morrisey moored by glacier, Robert Abram Bartlett Papers, 1938.

Other items include MacMillan's diary, in which he recounts reluctantly turning back during Peary's 1908–1909 expedition due to frozen heels (and his distress at having to leave behind his fellow Bowdoin alumnus Peary, with whom he had a close relationship); and a handwritten letter MacMillan placed in a bottle and threw from the deck of the SS Roosevelt in order to determine the rate of current along Labrador—ten years later, the bottle washed up in Ireland, and MacMillan received a letter reporting its discovery from the man who found it.

"Reaching for the Pole: An Exhibition Celebrating the Centennial of Peary's North Pole Expedition" will be on view on the second floor of Hawthorne-Longfellow Library on the Bowdoin College campus through June 1, 2009. Admission is free, and the exhibition is open to the public daily during the Library's posted hours. For more information call 725-3288.

More about the Peary Centennial:

Peary and the Pole: Approaching Centennial, How College Celebrated Expedition's 50th
Northward Over the Great Ice: Robert E. Peary and the Quest for the North Pole
North Pole Bound: Robert E. Peary's Christmas Feast
MacMillan's Book about Peary's 1908-1909 North Pole Expedition Re-issued
Celebrating the Centennial: Peary Packs for the Pole
Northward Blog: Follow Expedition Members' Daily Activities

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