More than a hundred years ago, the world experienced a sensation: the American naval engineer Robert Edwin Peary announced that he had conquered the North Pole on April 6, 1909, as the first person ever. The icy desert of the North finally was conquered – a triumph! The National Geographic Society, which had co-financed Peary’s expedition, cheered. But, unfortunately, only two weeks later, the American physician Frederick Albert Cook emerged in Copenhagen from the unknown and announced to the world succinctly: “Reached the North Pole on 21.4.1908.” – that is, a whole year earlier than Peary.
What had happened? Frederick Cook started in the summer of 1907 as the expedition leader of a hunting trip to Northern Greenland and, according to his diary, left the ship on February 19, 1908, to sledge with two Inuits to the North Pole. He reached it 61 days later on April 21, 1908. But fate was not gracious to him: on the way back, the three adventurers hit a storm, drifted on the ice for days and could not return to the ship. The odyssey on the brink of death lasted a full 14 months until the three heroes again reached populated territory. And it was at this time that Robert Peary had also conquered the North Pole and solemnly proclaimed his victory. Now the two had a serious problem: for decades, adventurers and researchers had tried unsuccessfully to reach the North Pole. Whoever would make it first would win eternal fame. And because both Peary and Cook claimed this success, the two became bitter enemies. But they used to be friends: When Robert Peary set out on his first Greenland expedition in 1890, he took Frederick Cook, a newly trained physician, as a ship’s physician. Peary broke his lower leg and Cook had to treat him. Later, the two tried independently time and again to reach the North Pole.
The race was open. The winner, as it turned out, was unclear. To date, science has not been able to choose a clear winner. Both explorers failed to provide definitive evidence. Cook lost all records on his 14-month odyssey home. Peary brought home a picture that showed men in the ice, but could have been taken anywhere. Based on recalculations, it can now be assumed that Robert Peary missed the North Pole by about 150 kilometers. Suspiciously not only that he had left his navigator behind on the last stage. Frederick Cook, on the other hand, described in his diary ice and watercourses, as they occur only in the North Pole area. However, this is not a final proof.
What is certain is that a bitter war of defamation broke out between the two competitors. Peary launched large-scale campaigns with the help of the wealthy National Geographic Society, denouncing Cook as a denier, a fraud and a swindler. Cook, meanwhile, re-energised his discovery of the North Pole in the photo studio to give the world an impression of his conquest. Which, in turn, led Peary to publish long swearings against Cook in the New York Times.
Eventually, the richer and better-connected Peary had called out his own name into the world until Cook gradually fell into oblivion and in the end only the name Peary as a North Pole explorer remained. In March 1911, then-President William Taft thanked Navy Engineer Robert Peary for conquering the North Pole. Thus, Frederick Cook definitely had lost the war. He died on August 5, 1940, completely impoverished, embittered and forgotten in his hometown of New York. In one of his last official pronouncements, he wrote: “I declare emphatically that I, Frederick A. Cook, discovered the North Pole.”
Author: Greta Paulsdottir