Sullivan County Historical Society History Maker Award 1994
Frederick Albert Cook (1865-1940)
Frederick Albert Cook was born in Hortonville, Sullivan County on June 10, 1865, the son of Theodore Cook, a German immigrant physician and Magdalene Long Cook. His father died when he was five and later Frederick became the breadwinner for his four brothers and sisters after the family had left the county. Despite family responsibilities, he graduated from the New York University College of Medicine in 1890. The death of his wife and infant son the same year prompted him to respond to an advertisement placed by a young naval civil engineer, Robert E. Peary, who needed a surgeon for his North Greenland Expedition in 1891. This exploration was the first of eight expeditions “Poleward” with which Cook was associated over the next twenty years.
Cook soon impressed his companions with his “coolness in an emergency.” During one expedition when an iceberg struck a ship on which he was sailing, he navigated an open boat across ninety miles of polar sea to obtain rescue. Roald Amundsen, who in 1911 became the first man to reach the South Pole, called Cook, “the most honest and most dependable man I have ever known.” In 1902 Cook remarried and alternated life as an explorer with periods as a stateside physician.
His eighth polar trip which lasted two years, 1907-1909, was the most controversial. He sailed north on the schooner John R. Bradley, advanced across northern Greenland, reached Cape Stallworthy and went over the sea due north. With two Eskimo companions he fought pressure ridges and ice floes and finally reached what he determined to be the geographical North Pole on April 21, 1908. “We were the only pulsating creatures in a dead world of ice,” he wrote in his diary.
The return journey south from the Pole was equally demanding and Cook spent the polar night of 1908-1909 in an ancient Eskimo cave located on Devon Island. Finally, he reached a human settlement and on September 1, 1901 was able to send a wire that he had reached the North Pole. Peary’s announcement followed five days later—thus beginning a controversy that has still not been resolved.
Since Cook spent the later years of his life surrounded by arguments as to the validity of his claims, the real significance of his field work has been largely overlooked. Neglected are his achievements in Antarctica, his first circumnavigation of Mount McKinley and the 1907-1909 expedition which for a half century would not be equaled for its duration, extent and physical demands. His physical description of conditions at the Pole and his narrative of then unknown island formations weigh heavily in favor of his claim to have been the first man to reach the North Pole.
Cook’s troubled later years included imprisonment for promoting Texas oil lands in 1923. He was paroled in 1930, pardoned by President Franklin Roosevelt a decade later and died in New Rochelle, New York in 1940.
In 1938 Cook wrote of himself, “Few men . . . have ever been made to suffer so bitterly and so inexpressibly as I because of the assertion of my achievement.” In 1993 an International Symposium on Cook was held at the Byrd Polar Research Center at Ohio State University with polar explorers and scholars from six nations participating. Though controversy continues a half century after his death, the man some termed the “American Dreyfus of the North” now has advocates in science as well as in polar history.