Boyd, Louise Arner (1887–1972)

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Boyd, Louise Arner (1887–1972)

American explorer and geographer who was the first woman to make a successful flight over the North Pole. Born on September 16, 1887, in San Rafael, California; died on September 14, 1972; only daughter and one of three children of John Franklin (a mining operator) and Louise Cook (Arner) Boyd; attended Miss Stewart's School, San Rafael; Miss Murison's School, San Francisco.

Louise Boyd has been described as a woman of paradoxes: a rugged adventurer who sloshed about on ship's deck in oil skins and hip boots and trekked across a mountain of icy rocks, while clinging to accepted expressions of femininity and claiming no use for masculine women. "At sea, I didn't bother with my hands, except to keep them from being frozen," she said. "But I powdered my nose before going on deck no matter how rough the sea was. There is no reason why a woman can't rough it and still remain feminine." The first woman to gain status in polar expedition, Boyd set her own standard.

Boyd grew up the daughter of a mining magnate in an opulent mansion in San Mateo, California, and enjoyed the privileges of wealth,

including private schools, riding and shooting lessons, and an extravagant social debut. Clouding her young life, however, were the deaths of all her immediate family. Her invalid brothers were both born with rheumatic hearts and bedridden until their deaths in their teens. By the time Boyd was 32, both her parents had also died, leaving her the sole heir of Boyd Investment Company. As pointed out by Elizabeth Olds in Women of the Four Winds, freed of family responsibilities and with plenty of money, Boyd could have chosen "anything from a morbid retreat to an unbridled plunge into the reckless self-indulgence and profligacy of the 1920s." Boyd opted for the middle ground of travel, making two relatively conventional European tours with her friend Sadie Pratt , the socialite widow of General Conger Pratt.

With no apparent motivation other than to indulge a girlhood interest in the Arctic, Boyd planned her first cruise to Iceland, Greenland, and Lapland in 1924. Aboard a small tourist ship, she wrote of her extraordinary experience. "Far north, hidden behind grim barriers of pack ice, are lands that hold one spellbound. Gigantic imaginary gates … seem to guard these lands. The gates swing open, and one enters another world where men are insignificant amid the awesome immensity of lovely mountains, fiords, and glaciers." This trip was a turning point for Boyd and became the impetus for the seven expeditions to the Arctic that were to follow.

Boyd returned to Greenland in 1926 to organize her own expedition. Aboard the chartered Norwegian motorship Hobby, she led several friends on what was primarily a hunting expedition to Franz Josef Land (the northernmost land in the Eastern Hemisphere), but which included the beginning of the extensive photography of the Arctic that would ultimately become Boyd's legacy. (Olds describes her pictorial documentation: "every aspect of landscape from distant perspectives to close-up studies of cliffs, glaciers, inlets, ice in every form, animals, plants—an archive that would become of immense usefulness to her country during World War II.") The expedition returned with a number of polar bears; some reports cite as many as 29. Years later, when hunting safaris became less admired, Boyd said the number was exaggerated and denied shooting the animals for anything but food.

When Boyd, while preparing another trip to the Arctic in 1928, learned of the disappearance of polar explorer and Norwegian hero Roald Amundsen, she immediately joined in the search. Donating her ship Hobby and other resources to the efforts of the French and Norwegian governments, Louise undertook her own three-month, 10,000-mile search, making extensive photographic records of her journey, including 20,000 feet of motion-picture film and thousands of still photographs. Although Amundsen was never found, Norway acknowledged Boyd's efforts by awarding her the decoration of the Order of St. Olaf, first class, and naming her a Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor.

Louise Boyd made four additional expeditions from Norway aboard the Veslekari—in 1931, 1933, 1937, and 1938—and included the regions in and around Franz Josef Land, Spitsbergen, Greenland, Jan Mayen Island, and eastern arctic Canada. She was the first to sail to the inner ends of Ice Fjord, Greenland. The Danish government would name the territory, in the vicinity of the de Geer glacier, Louise A. Boyd Land. During her 1938 expedition, she traveled further north along the Greenland coast than any other American had ever traveled by sea.

Most of Boyd's expeditions were carried out under the auspices of the American Geographical Society, to which she reported her scientific findings. This association enabled Boyd to incorporate an interdisciplinary approach to her geographic studies which added to the scientific integrity of her expeditions. The society also published her books on the Arctic (The Fiord Region of East Greenland in 1935 and Coast of Northeast Greenland in 1949) as well as articles which appeared in its quarterly Geographical Review. (Boyd also wrote a non-Arctic book, Polish Countrysides, which was published by the society.) In 1960, to honor her long association with the society, Boyd would be elected to its council, the chief policy-making body, thus becoming the first woman councilor in the association's 108-year history.

In 1941, she was employed as a technical expert for the National Bureau of Standards, and in 1942 and 1943 she worked for the War Department, providing thousands of maps, photographs, and scientific reports on the strategic Arctic areas she had visited. For her contribution, the Department of the Army awarded her its Certificate of Appreciation for outstanding patriotic service.

When at home on her suburban estate, Maple Lawn, with a staff of nine (including a personal maid who accompanied her on her expeditions), Boyd was the grande dame of San Francisco society. Between her expeditions, she maintained a highly visible civic role in the Bay area. For years, she was a member of the board of the San Francisco Symphony, and she served as an officer of the San Francisco Garden Club and the California Botanical Society, among others. Boyd also attended every important social event and was described by society reporters as "strikingly handsome." Always impeccably dressed, with a trademark camellia—from her prize-winning greenhouse—pinned on her shoulder, she once remarked, "I don't feel dressed unless I'm wearing flowers. Even in Greenland I'd find something and wear it with a safety pin."

At age 67, Boyd fulfilled her childhood dream of going to the North Pole. On June 16, 1955, she chartered a plane in Norway and, with an American crew, made a successful flight over and around the North Pole, taking photographs of the area. In an article for Parade magazine, she described the moment of encounter: "For directly below us, 9,000 feet down, lay the North Pole. No cloud in the brilliant blue sky hid our view of this glorious field of shining ice. Suddenly I felt we had an invisible passenger—the Almighty." Although this marked her final expedition, she continued to spend four or five months out of the year in travel. In 1967, at age 80, she was honored at the annual Explorers Club Dinner in Manhattan as "one of the world's greatest woman explorers."

Toward the close of her life, Boyd's health deteriorated, and her finances mysteriously evaporated, leaving her in the support of a few generous friends. She died in a nursing home on September 14, 1972, days before her 85th birthday. Her dying wish had been to have her ashes scattered over the polar region in Greenland that had been named in her honor. However, problems and costs connected with reaching the site were insurmountable and the ashes were alternatively scattered in the last polar region Boyd had visited in Alaska, over the ice of the Arctic Ocean.


Current Biography 1960. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1960.

Olds, Elizabeth. Women of the Four Winds. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1985.

suggested reading:

Waldman, Carl, and Alan Wexler. Who Was Who in World Exploration. NY: Facts on File, 1992.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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