This book is about one of the most enduring and vitriolic fuels in the history of exploration, one that would cause a bitter divide in the international scientific community and, eventually, lead to the ruin of one of the claimants and the discrediting of the other. The irony is that the men had started out as friends and shipmates, with Frederick Cook, a physician, accompanying Robert Peary, a civil engineer with a U.S. Navy commission, on an expedition to northern Greenland in 1891. Peary’s leg was shattered in a shipboard accident on the trip north, and without Cook’s care he might never have walked again. But by the summer of 1909, all the goodwill had evaporated. In September 1909, Peary reported that he had reached the Pole five months earlier. But Cook, who reappeared seemingly back from the dead after a lengthy journey in the Arctic wastes with two native companions, presented persuasive testimony that he had been the first to attain the Pole, a year earlier, in April 1908.
The feud became the preoccupation of both men for the rest of their lives. Cook was something of a loner, but Peary was a man with friends in very high places, and he wielded this influence brutally. On one occasion he refused to take aboard his ship Cook’s crates of scientific instruments and polar records, thereby helping to ensure their loss. Years after both Cook and Peary were dead, a long-suppressed diary was released, providing proof that one of the claimants missed the Pole entirely and perpetrated a knowing fraud.
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