Dr. Frederick A. Cook
Drawn by William Oberhardt
    In September 1909, the name of Frederick Albert Cook was on the lips of whole civilized world.  Some were saying he was the greatest of heroes; others said he was the greatest of scoundrels.  To this day he remains the most controversial figure in the history of exploration.
    The fourth of six children of German immigrants, Cook was born on June 10, 1865, in the upstate New York hamlet of Hortonville.  His father, a country doctor, died when the boy was nearly five.  For financial reasons, the family moved first to Port Jervis, settling finally in Brooklyn in 1878, where young Fred Cook showed great enterprise, working as a job printer, rent collector and vegetable vendor. After graduation from public school he entered Columbia, supporting himself through a milk route, then transferred to New York University, where he received his medical degree in 1890.  That same year, the death of his young wife in childbirth drove him to look for an escape.  He found it in a newspaper ad placed by Robert E. Peary, Civil Engineer, USN, seeking a surgeon for his first full-scale arctic expedition.
    Cook was chosen by Peary and earned praise for his medical ability, coolness in any circumstance, and for amassing an anthropological record of the “Arctic Highlanders” of North Greenland.  From that point on, Cook pursued the life of an explorer in his own right.  He led or accompanied seven more expeditions between the years 1893 and 1907, culminating in the so-called “Polar Controversy” with Peary, when both simultaneously returned from the Arctic in 1909 claiming to have been the first man to reach the North Pole.
    Despite a vigorous four-month press campaign by Peary’s backers that attacked Cook’s veracity, especially his 1906 claim to have climbed Mount McKinley, Cook only fell from popular favor in December 1909, when a committee of scientists ruled his evidence insufficient to prove he had attained the Pole.  After a year abroad, starting in 1910, Cook traveled the lecture circuits portraying himself as a wronged man whose glory had been stolen from him by Peary’s rich and powerful friends, whom he called “The Arctic Trust.”  The dispute continued until 1916, including a popular appeal on Cook’s part to gain official recognition of his claim in the US Congress.  By then, with the entry of the United States into the European World War looming, public interest in the question of polar priority waned, and Cook turned his attention to oil speculation.
    Cook was ultimately convicted of fraud in connection with his oil promotions and served five years in federal prison.  After his release in 1930 he made an attempt to reassert his claim to the North Pole, but he was no longer treated by the geographical establishment as one having a serious claim.
    Cook died at New Rochelle, NY, on August 5, 1940, as a result of pulmonary edema following a cerebral hemorrhage.  He received a deathbed pardon from President Franklin D. Roosevelt.  After his death there was a period when Cook and his claim seemed forgotten, but the advocacy of his daughter, Helene Vetter, in the 1950s and the publication of a posthumous book revived the dispute.  Recent years have seen a televised pro-Cook film, which sparked interest in Cook, and the collapse of Peary’s own case, which many had come to believe was as false as Cook’s.   The opening of Peary’s papers in 1984 provided no substantiation for his claim to have reached the North Pole on April 6, 1909, and, on the contrary, raised many doubts about other Peary achievements as well.
     Nevertheless, the dispute continues to be fueled today by a significant trust fund devoted to vindicating Cook’s claims that was established by the will of his last lineal descendent, Janet Vetter.  But like Peary, scholarly examination of Cook’s papers since they were opened in 1990 has solidified the previous general consensus that Cook’s climb of Mount McKinley in 1906 and attainment of the North Pole on April 21, 1908, were both fakes.  As a result of being overshadowed by these two spectacular exploration hoaxes, Cook’s genuine accomplishments as a pioneer polar explorer, insightful physician, outstanding photographer, and a writer of great descriptive power have not been given the credit due them.
     Cook remains a controversial figure, largely on the basis that his seemingly open, charming, and progressive outward personality has been seen by many today to be incompatible with the perpetration of the greatest circumstantial scientific fraud every attempted.