Donald Baxter MacMillan

Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum & Arctic Studies Center Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum & Arctic Studies Center

Donald Baxter MacMillan

Donald Baxter MacMillan, explorer, sailor, teacher, philanthropist, researcher, and lecturer, made over 30 expeditions to the Arctic in his 46-year career. He traveled over 300,000 miles charting new territory, training students, performing scientific research and studying and aiding the native people of Labrador and Greenland. He pioneered the use of radios, airplanes, and electricity in the Arctic, brought back films and thousands of photographs of Arctic scenes, and put together a dictionary of the Inuktikut language. He was considered by young and old "the most interesting of all speakers on Arctic or Antarctic subjects." Through it all, the crushing ice, fierce storms, endless traveling, and novice sailors, Donald MacMillan remained calm, patient, and disciplined, steadied by a life-long love of the sea and the knowledge that he was exactly where he wanted to be.

Donald MacMillan was born in Provincetown, Massachusetts, on November 10, 1874. His father, lost at sea when MacMillan was nine, instilled in the future explorer a lasting affinity for sailing. When his mother died three years later, MacMillan lived with the family of Captain Murdick McDonald in Provincetown for two years before going to live with his sister Letitia and her husband Winthrop C. Fogg in Freeport, Maine. He was a serious student at the high school there, and worked hard to earn the money to attend nearby Bowdoin College. In 1898 he graduated from Bowdoin with a degree in geology, and spent the next ten years teaching Latin, Physical Education, and Mathematics at schools in Maine and Massachusetts.

MacMillan established a summer camp for boys to teach seamanship and navigation. One summer, he saved the lives of nine people from wrecked boats in the course of two nights. This feat caught the attention of explorer Robert E. Peary and later prompted him to ask MacMillan to join his 1905 attempt to reach the North Pole. That year, MacMillan was unwilling to break his teaching commitment, but he was able to accompany Peary on his successful journey to the Pole in 1908. Unfortunately, MacMillan himself had to turn back at 84°29' on March 14 because of frozen heels. Peary reached the Pole 26 days later.

The next few years MacMillan spent traveling in Labrador, carrying out ethnological studies among the Innu and Inuit. He organized and commanded his own expedition to northern Greenland, the Crocker Land Expedition, in 1913, but was stranded until 1917, when Robert A. Bartlett in command of the Neptune finally made it through the dangerous, icy waters. While he was waiting for rescue, MacMillan formulated the idea of a strong, easily maneuverable, ship specifically designed for Arctic travel to handle the dangers of the northern waters.

When he returned to the United States, however, the country had entered World War I, and MacMillan joined the Navy. When the war ended, MacMillan thought again of the north, and began raising money to build a ship for further Arctic exploration and research. In 1921 the schooner Bowdoin was launched from the Hodgdon Brother's Shipyard in East Boothbay, Maine. That summer MacMillan sailed her to Baffin Island, where he and his crew over-wintered, the first of many expeditions that would make Bowdoin a familiar name in Arctic communities.

On March 18, 1935, MacMillan married Miriam Norton Look, the daughter of his long-time friends Jerome and Amy Look. Though MacMillan at first refused to let her accompany him north, Miriam soon convinced him of her willingness and ability to participate in his Arctic travels. World War II saw MacMillan again in the Navy, serving in the Hydrographic Office in Washington, D.C. He transferred the Bowdoin to the Navy for the duration of the war, where she continued to work in Greenland waters.

After the war, MacMillan continued his trips to the Arctic, taking researchers north and carrying supplies for the MacMillan-Moravian School he established in 1929. In 1954, he voyaged North for the last time. That year he was also awarded the Bowdoin Prize, given "once in each five years to the graduate or former member of the College, or member of its Faculty at the time of the award, who shall have made during the period the most distinctive contribution in any field of human endeavor." He was then eighty years old, and though retired, he remained influential in Arctic exploration. Donald MacMillan died on September 7, 1970 and is buried in Provincetown.

The Donald B. MacMillan Collection, 1884-1975 can be found in the Bowdoin College Library Special Collections.