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Donald Baxter MacMillan

Donald Baxter MacMillan

The American explorer and scientist Donald Baxter MacMillan (1874-1970) surveyed and mapped unknown land and water in the Arctic.

Donald MacMillan was born in Provincetown, Mass., on Nov. 10, 1874, the son of a ship captain. He was orphaned at an early age. He attended Bowdoin College in Maine, graduating in 1898. For the next few years he taught school and conducted a summer camp at Casco Bay, Maine, where he met explorer Robert Peary. MacMillan signed on for the expedition that became Peary's first, after 2 decades of effort, to reach the North Pole (April 6, 1909). The intrepid explorer's eventual success was dependent upon capable support parties, one of which MacMillan led.

MacMillan's initial Arctic experience inspired him to make northern exploration his life's work. After exploring the interior of Labrador in 1910, he began postgraduate work in anthropology at Harvard University. In 1911 and again in 1912 MacMillan returned to northern Labrador to conduct ethnological studies of the Eskimos and Indians there. The following year MacMillan left on an extended 4-year expedition into the Arctic, seeking to find final evidence as to the existence of a large landmass north of Greenland that Peary believed he had seen. Establishing its base at Etah, northwestern Greenland, the MacMillan party's exploration of thousands of square miles proved that Crocker Land did not exist. The party did, however, confirm the existence of coal in Ellesmere Land, discover two islands, and obtain valuable museum specimens and other items before returning to the United States in 1917.

After brief wartime service MacMillan taught anthropology at Bowdoin College, but he made trips north in 1920, 1921-1922, and 1923-1924, sailing in a small, specially designed and constructed vessel which he christened the Bowdoin.

During the next 15 years MacMillan made repeated trips northward, surveying and mapping unknown land and water, collecting zoological and geological specimens, studying Eskimo life and language, and establishing a school for Eskimo children in Labrador. He interspersed his trips with fund-raising articles and lecture tours throughout the country. In 1935 MacMillan married Miriam Look, who subsequently accompanied him on voyages. During World War II, MacMillan lent his expertise to the U.S. Navy, consulting on Arctic work and compiling an Eskimo-English conversational dictionary for the military. Following the war, the aged explorer reacquired and refitted the Bowdoin and resumed his northward sailings. MacMillan was highly honored in his later years for his Arctic service. He died in Provincetown, Mass., on Sept. 7, 1970.

Further Reading

MacMillan's writings include Four Years in the White North (1918); Etah and Beyond (1928); Kah-da (1930); and How Peary Reached the Pole (1934), an account of the 1908-1909 expedition and an outspoken defense of Peary. Everett S. Allen, Arctic Odyssey: The Life of Rear Admiral Donald B. MacMillan (1962), is the only biography of the explorer; but see also the account by MacMillan's wife, Miriam MacMillan, Green Seas and White Ice (1948). □

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MacMillan, Donald Baxter

Donald Baxter MacMillan, 1874–1970, American arctic explorer, b. Provincetown, Mass., grad. Bowdoin College, 1898, and studied at Harvard. After a decade of teaching, he went on the expedition (1908–9) of Robert E. Peary to the North Pole. Later (1911, 1912) he made ethnological studies among the Labrador Eskimos. Leader of the Crocker Land expedition (1913–17), MacMillan established a base at Etah, Greenland, from which he explored the Greenland coast and Ellesmere and Axel Heiberg islands. By a notable march over the frozen ocean NW of Ellesmere Island he proved the nonexistence of Peary's supposed Crocker Land. His experiences are told in Four Years in the White North (1918, new ed. 1933). He subsequently commanded a number of arctic expeditions and brought back much valuable scientific information. In his polar expedition of 1925 he was accompanied by Richard E. Byrd, who commanded a naval air unit of exploration. For the Field Museum (now the Chicago Natural History Museum) he led expeditions to Greenland, Baffin Island, and Labrador in 1926 and 1927–28. In 1938 he brought back over 40,000 plants from the Arctic. As a member of the U.S. naval reserve, he was recalled to the navy in 1941, made a commander in 1942, and assigned to the hydrographic office in Washington. Later he was placed in command of arctic expeditions in 1944, 1946, and 1947. In the 1944 voyage to Greenland, Baffin Island, and Labrador he made extensive air surveys and brought back some 10,000 photographs. He received the Congressional Medal of Honor that year. Sponsored by Bowdoin College (after which he named his noted exploration ship, the Bowdoin), MacMillan conducted expeditions to Ellesmere Island in 1948 and to Baffin Island in 1949, returning with rare bird specimens and other material. The expedition of 1949 was his 28th voyage of arctic exploration. On a polar trip in 1954, MacMillan and his party barely escaped having their ship destroyed. His other writings include Etah and Beyond (1927) and How Peary Reached the Pole (1934).

See E. S. Allen, Arctic Odyssey (1962).

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