Foundation Backs Peary's Polar Exploration Claim


American hero Robert E. Peary was not a fraud but reached the North Pole on April 6, 1909, just as he claimed he did, the Navigation Foundation reported Monday after a yearlong study designed to quell the long-simmering controversy.

"We sincerely hope," said the small but well-respected foundation, "that this report will help to set the record straight and perhaps put an end to the long process of vilification of a courageous American explorer."

The foundation's report of more than 200 pages was sponsored and eagerly accepted by the National Geographic Society, one of the early champions of Peary. But it did not satisfy the most persistent critics of Peary's claim.

"This is a sad day for science," said Dennis Rawlins, a Baltimore astronomer. "The most successful hoax in the history of science in the 20th Century has been backed again by the largest scientific organization in the world."

Thomas D. Davies, the 75-year-old retired admiral who heads the Navigation Foundation, also acknowledged that a second well-known critic, British explorer Wally Herbert, had informed the foundation that he disagreed with the conclusions of the report.

Davies and his foundation analyzed Peary's navigation techniques, the drift of the ice, the speed of the team's sledges, Peary's soundings of ocean depths and, using modern scientific techniques, the length of the shadows on Peary's photographs.

"Our analysis of the data . . . has convinced us that their final camp, named Camp Jessup, was no more than five miles from the Pole, allowing for some inaccuracy in their instruments," the foundation said.

"We should also like to say that after perusing hundreds of boxes of Peary's private papers, his correspondence and his journals, we are convinced of the man's integrity."

Davies founded the Navigation Foundation and operates it out of his home in Rockville, Md., under the supervision of a board of seven navigation experts, several of them former Navy officers.

The thoroughness of the report and the reputation of Davies, a former assistant director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, could go a long way in reversing a trend in recent years toward gnawing doubt about Peary's achievements.

"We dare say that today, as a result of one-sided negative publicity unsupported by any new or conclusive evidence whatsoever," the foundation report said, "the majority of the American people . . . disbelieve Robert E. Peary."

At issue is one of the most heroic feats in worldwide exploration. Accompanied by Matthew Henson, his black assistant, and four Eskimos--Ooqueah, Ootha, Egingwah and Seegloo--Peary claimed to rush across the ice on dog sledges, covering the final 133 miles in five days. When he returned, Peary telegraphed American news services: "Stars and Stripes nailed to the Pole."

Peary's image about nailing the flag always confused the public, for the North Pole is not a stationary object but an imaginary point over constantly moving ice. Davies revived the image when he told a news conference at the headquarters of the National Geographic Society: "We simply concluded that Peary did nail the Stars and Stripes to the Pole as he said he did."

In its most spectacular piece of evidence, the foundation examined the photographs Peary took in and around Camp Jessup and, using a technique developed in World War II, calculated the elevation of the sun from the length of the shadows in the pictures.

"We were able to analyze several pictures taken in the vicinity of Camp Jessup and concluded that they place Peary within four or five miles of his reported position and certainly no more than 15 miles away," the report said.

In a less scientific vein, the foundation defended the fact that the page in Peary's diary describing the conquest of the Pole had been torn from another notebook. It was that page that recorded Peary's famous words: "The Pole at last!!! The prize of 3 centuries, my dream and ambition for 23 years. Mine at last."

The foundation theorized that Peary either wrote these words on a separate page because another notebook happened to be closer at hand or that he intentionally scrawled them on a separate page because "the dramatic entry . . . unlike the rest of the diary, was intended to be published."

Critics have insisted that Peary, using inadequate navigational techniques, allowed drifting ice to take him many miles from the Pole--Herbert said 30 to 50 miles, Rawlins, perhaps 100 miles. The Navigation Foundation's report amounted to a step-by-step refutation of these arguments.

The critics long criticized Peary for failing to take longitudinal readings en route to the Pole. But the foundation said that "the explorer's method of navigation, which he described . . . as 'dead reckoning' corrected by noon observations of the sun, was entirely adequate for polar latitudes."

Davies said that, since all lines of longitude converge at the Pole, there was no need for taking longitudinal readings. Demonstrating with the sextant actually used by the explorer, Davies said Peary relied on his occasional latitude readings and his knowledge that the sun is almost due south at what is known as "local apparent noon," when the sun reaches its highest altitude above the horizon.

Peary could easily have corrected his course at noon, zigzagging to take account of drifting on the ice, and headed directly north, Davies said.

The foundation rejected Herbert's theory that the movement of the ice carried Peary continually west of his intended route. While the ice was slowly moving Peary westward, winds were pushing him eastward.

"From our study of ice drifts caused by winds and currents," the report said, "we think that the net effect of ice movements within the time span of Peary's polar journey was negligible."

As for the possibility that Peary faked his celestial readings at the Pole, the foundation found the readings so realistic--including even the kind of small errors that a navigator might make in the field--that they could not have been created "by any but the most sophisticated faker."

Although his critics have derided Peary's reported sledding speeds, which averaged 2.8 m.p.h. on the return from the Pole, the foundation said: "It is clear that skilled drivers of dogs and sledges have often maintained or exceeded the claimed speeds of Peary's polar party; thus we do not consider them incredible."

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