VOICES Ideas and Insight From Explorers
Category archives for National Geographic Founders
National Geographic founder William B. Powell may not have had the colorful exuberance of his famous brother, John Wesley, but he was not by any means a timid man. On the contrary, he was a passionate and fierce critic of public and secondary school education. His reformist zeal prompted him to make sweeping changes in outmoded teaching methods and curricula garnered him both acclaim and disapproval. But his legacy to the Society was an early and insistent emphasis on the importance of education, including geography education, in America’s classrooms
Almon Thompson didn’t set out to become an explorer. When he began his career in 1864, after a brief stint as a soldier in the Civil War, it was as a school superintendent in Illinois. It wasn’t until his famous brother-in-law, John Wesley Powell, began inviting him along on his expeditions to the Rocky Mountains that Thompson found his true calling. Diligent and imperturbable, Thompson eventually became a cartographer who was not deterred by gold rushes, Indian scares, and other distractions. He was, as one historian put it, “a man who liked to get things done.”
He wrote engagingly of his many expeditions to the American West–from the otherworldly realm of California’s Mono Lake with its strange tufa formations to the majesty of Alaska’s Mt. St. Elias. But apart from the scientific writings he left behind, the rest of his life remained somewhat hidden from view. Although he was a National Geographic Society founder, he was not prominent in its early activities–with one very important exception. Israel Russell led the first scientific field expedition in National Geographic history.
Biology was a passion of National Geographic founder Clinton Hart Merriam from an early age. One of his early taxidermy specimens was, unfortunately, his sister Florence’s pet cat. But the rifle-toting, teenage naturalist grew up into a well-respected scientist who carried out fieldwork well into his eighties. His colleagues considered him “a splendid fellow” to camp with despite his tendency for serving questionable meals consisting of eagle (his favorite), wildcat, and skunk.
Asked once where he was educated, George Kennan supposedly replied, “Russia.” That one word sufficed, for he was not quite 20 years old when he decided to make his first journey there, a journey that resulted in his first book, in a series of difficult assignments in dangerous places, and in his being a founder of the National Geographic Society. From the horrors of the Russian prison system to the volcanic destruction of Martinique, Kennan was one of the pre-eminent globetrotting journalists of his day–one who wrote with such authority that his words have had far-reaching impact.
Grove Karl Gilbert was considered by his own and future generations to be the greatest of all American geologists, and “a captain bold,” according to Australian geologist E.C. Andrews. But his contributions went beyond field geology. He was the first scientist to hypothesize that the moon’s craters were caused by meteor strikes. (History proved him right.) And in 1888, he helped found the National Geographic Society…
Clarence Dutton was chairman of the now-historic meeting on January 13, 1888, when 33 men agreed to found a geographical society. He was also chairman the following week, when an even larger crowd voted to formalize it as the National Geographic Society. But as the years have passed, Captain Clarence Dutton has slipped from memory. He deserves better. Dutton was a complex mixture — a soldier, geologist, and poet — and his mind and character reflects the judgment he himself passed on the Grand Canyon: that it “first bewilders, and at length overpowers.”
George Brown Goode seemed destined for scientific greatness — either as Secretary of the Smithsonian or as president of the National Geographic Society. An untimely death at the age of 45 kept him from fulfilling these expectations. Nevertheless, the National Geographic founder had a list of accomplishments that would have been impressive for a man twice his age, and he played a crucial role in helping the nation’s capital to become a magnet for scientists and intellectuals in the years leading up to the 20th century.
National Geographic founder John Russell Bartlett began his lifelong career as a naval officer when he was ordered into service at the beginning of the Civil War. But his legacy ended up being less military and more scientific. Accurate high-density soundings taken by his ship lead to the first modern bathymetric map, and the Bartlett Deep was named in his honor, a tribute to the man who had sounded its deepest depths.
For being related to such a famous character as John Wesley Powell, National Geographic founder Arthur Powell Davis has proven somewhat of an elusive figure. A dedicated scientist, Davis made his career where hydrography and civil engineering meet, and his ability and expertise carried him to many different countries around the globe.
When National Geographic founder Gilbert Thompson enlisted in the Union Army, a clerical error identified him as a painter instead of a printer. The typo proved to be serendipitous, leading to his work as an engineer, then a cartographer, and then on to a lifetime of adventures as he explored and surveyed the western United States.
Robert Muldrow II, a geologist, was the youngest man among the National Geographic Society’s founders. He won long-lasting fame (of a sort) by having a glacier named after him. In the 1890s, he was one of the earliest explorers of Mt. McKinley–now Denali–in Alaska.
In 1871, James Clarke Welling was offered the presidency of a small academy on the northern outskirts of Washington, D.C. The college later became known as George Washington University, and Welling would become not just a champion of education in the nation’s capital, but one of the founders of the National Geographic Society.
At one point on their June 1875 expedition, National Geographic founder Rogers Birnie and his men rode 38 miles without a drop of water for themselves or a blade of grass for their animals. They barely got their animals across. One of them died, and others had been without water for 48 hours. One lesson Birnie always remembered about Death Valley: Don’t bring animals. There was never enough water for both animals and men.
In 1881 National Geographic founder Frank Baker was one of the numerous scientific men involved in the treatment of President James A. Garfield, who had been shot in July by a would-be assassin. No one knew for certain where the bullet had finally lodged. For over two months Garfield lingered on his deathbed while doctors sought some means of finding and removing the slug. Dr. Baker drew up a diagram that proved to be remarkably accurate. However, Dr. D. Willard Bliss, the physician in charge, was adamantly opposed to second opinions, and Baker did not press to have his theory presented. At the same time, Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, tried to locate the projectile using a magnet, while George Kennan, a young journalist, was in charge of all the telegraphic reports describing the President’s condition that were sent out to the world . But it was all to no avail, and President Garfield died in September.