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
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.