Harvard Notes By Jeff Benitz
It is not likely you have heard of Bradford Washburn but you have seen his
work. He is the essence of a New England Yankee. Professionally, he was a
cartographer, mountaineer, founder of the Boston Museum of Science,
photographer, and author. Privately, he was a gentleman, modest, lean,
short on talk, big on adventure--- a Boston Brahmin.
Born in 1910 in Cambridge, Massachusetts he would go on to be the first to
summit 15 of the world’s greatest mountains, making him the foremost
American mountain climber of the mid-20th century. Many were in the
uncharted Alaskan/Yukon territories. He was the first person to climb Mt.
McKinley (Denali) twice (four times total). He pioneered aerial photography
as a method of map building, and many of his meticulous maps are the
It began at age 11 when he climbed Mt. Washington (6,289’) in New
Hampshire, the tallest peak in New England. By the time he was 16 he had
published a guidebook on mountain climbing and that same summer went to
Europe to climb the Alps. He ascended the Matterhorn, Monte Rosa, and
Mont Blanc. Returning to Boston he found the Boston publisher George P.
Putnam wanted to contract him to write books on climbing the Alps. By age
19 Washburn had returned to the Alps, and with guides, made the first
ascent on the north face of Aiguille Verte (13,523’). At age 20 he had
published three books and was rapidly becoming famous.
His upbringing was typical for a Blue-Blood. He attended the private schools
Buckingham School and then the Groton School, before entering Harvard
College. The family name of Washburn was old New England. There had
been congressman and a Governor, sea captains, merchants, early
industrialists and lots of streets named “Washburn” in towns over 300 years
old. Ichabod Washburn of Worcester, Massachusetts owned the world’s
largest wire factory and was a co-founder of Worcester Technical Institute
(now Worcester Polytechnic Institute), a university for engineers. Despite the
ubiquity of the name, Bradford Washburn’s father was an Episcopal minister
of humble means.
At Harvard, Bradford Washburn was able to pay his tuition from book sales
and a lecture circuit on mountaineering that included Boston’s Symphony
Hall and Carnegie Hall in New York. In college Washburn became a member
of a group of five Harvard mountaineers who would define American
exploration in the 20th century. He was a member of the Harvard
Mountaineering Club and graduated in the Class of 1933.
In 1935 Washburn headed an 84 day winter expedition for National
Geographic Society (NGS) into Canada’s Yukon Territory. This would be one
of many NGS operations. Scientists from various fields would conduct
research as Washburn meticulously mapped and surveyed these unknown
mountains. From 1935 to 1942 he was an instructor at the Institute of
Geographic Exploration at Harvard. He was pioneering the use of aircraft
and photography for planning his precision expeditions, often removing the
door of the aircraft and tying himself part way out the door so his 53 pound
large-format camera would not pull him to his death. Often he dealt with
frostbite and brutal conditions hanging from these rattletrap planes at
Bradford Washburn with his 53 lb Fairchild K-6 camera.
© National Geographic Society/photo by Bob Reeve/courtesy Panopticon
During this time he was carefully mapping ascent routes from the air for
further ground expeditions. He was also testing mountain equipment and
techniques for the U.S. Army in the arctic field. Though Washburn was
famous for his planning he did finally run into trouble in 1937. He and a
fellow Harvard climber Robert (Bob) Hicks Bates (who would later make
ascents of K2) decided to climb Mt. Lucania (17,147’), the highest mountain
unclimbed in North America at the time. It was considered unapproachable
do to its remote location.
The expedition started with a crash landing by the pilot who was almost
forced to go with the two climbers because his plane was stuck in the snow.
Washburn and Bates made their ascent and when they returned to base
camp the weather had turned so bad there was no way the rendezvous
plane could land, in fact, it never showed. Ill dressed and short of food the
two climbers walked 100 miles through the arctic mountains navigating to the
nearest village. They shot and ate squirrels to sustain their trek. (Escape
from Lucania (2003), David Roberts.)
That was not the only close call in 1937. Bradford Washburn had a
worldwide reputation by now and Amelia Earhart consulted him about her
planned flight across the Pacific. She wanted him to be her navigator.
Washburn said he would only navigate if she installed a radio beacon on the
speck of an island she planned to refuel on and insisted she install a ship to
air radio on the aircraft. Earhart declined and Washburn did not fly.
One might think this a busy schedule for a young adventurer but he was very
busy in civilization too. His prodigious climbing schedule went from the 1920s
through the 1950s. Back in New England Washburn was coordinating a very
ambitious project. In 1939, at age 29, he got a position as director of the New
England Museum of Natural History in the Back Bay. He was the youngest
museum director in the country. He had a vision of transforming this Victorian
museum of animal taxidermy and panoramas into a top-notch science
museum--- the best in the country. He raised millions of dollars. The result
was Science Park on the Charles River with the Boston Museum of Science
as its centerpiece. It was the first time a science museum incorporated the
disciplines of physical, applied, and medical science; natural history;
oceanography; planetary; and interactive exhibits in one building. He
remained director for 41 years and was an honorary director with an office
he continued to use after his retirement.
In 1963 at age 53, Bradford Washburn the Boston Museum of Science
Director climbs seven stories up his building to inspect the work of a
construction crew who had installed new panels on its walls.
During these years of mountaineering and directing Bradford Washburn was
busy drafting topographical maps of remote mountain ranges from Alaska to
New Hampshire’s Presidential Mountain Range to Mt. Everest. His exacting
detail, knowledge of climbing, and willingness to embrace technology would
help him create the best maps in the world. Many were adopted by the
National Geographic Society and are still used today. One such definitive
piece is a mapping of the Grand Canyon. Others were so detailed from the
1930s they are used today by scientists to study the changes that have
occurred in the last 75 years. His skills were a useful specialty when he
served three years in the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) during WWII.
From the early propeller planes Washburn quickly adapted his methods to
the advances of jet aircraft, helicopters, lasers, GPS as these inventions
came about. At age 89 Washburn led an expedition of hikers to Mt. Everest
coordinating a survey with satellites that corrected its elevation to 29,035
feet, seven feet higher than previously measured.
Bradford Washburn was not all scientist, educator, businessman, or
daredevil. There was a deeply private side to his life. It has been said,
mountaineers are solitary people, fiercely independent, antisocial, but
Washburn does not fit that mold, his reticence was a result of Puritan stock.
The virtues he admired were those of the old school. His statement was
Washburn knew his crowd. As new director of the museum in Boston he
began to recruit talent for his staff. One person was Barbara Teel Polk, a
Smith College graduate who was working at Harvard’s biology department.
After luring her away they eventually married. It would form a team that would
brave the glaciers of many alpine ranges the world over. In 1947 Barbara
(Polk) Washburn became the first woman to summit Mt. McKinley. Bradford
called it their honeymoon.
In their explorations Bradford Washburn took 15,000 + pictures, not all for
science purposes. His artistic eye was admired by such friends as Ansel
Adams and Bradford’s work is in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York and the Smithsonian Institution,
With all of the accolades, honorary degrees, awards, firsts in
mountaineering, etc., Washburn remained a Yankee with insignificant pride.
The only time he was ever have said to boast was when he was talking about
his expeditions--- not for their accomplishments or the fact he had dangled
off four mile high cliffs--- but for the fact he ALWAYS came in under budget.
Whatever anyone wanted to talk about on a past expedition the only matter
Bradford thought worth mention was how much he had saved in the funds of
a particular journey. One time it was only $30 under budget but on a four-
month expedition that was a big deal.
This speaks to the heart of the Yankee that is little understood outside New
England. With all the privilege and advantage of a Brahmin upbringing, they
never display their wealth. They live as simple as the regular guy and
probably dress worse. They certainly drive worse cars. The point is, money
is never to be spent except as a last resort. They are not indulgent people.
Wealth is measured by capability not bank accounts. Maybe it comes from
the snow filled landscape and long winters their ancestors endured. Every
fieldstone wall is a reminder of the battle of life.
A reporter recounted a chance meeting with Bradford Washburn at the base
of Mt. Washington conducting a survey in the 1980s. Washburn was friendly
in a dry sort of way and when the reporter mentioned he was headed for the
summit, Washburn offered him a ride in the helicopter, as that is where he
was headed next, too. The reporter took up the offer but was a bit taken
back when Washburn calculated to the penny his share of the cost for the
lift, making sure the reporter had it, before they climbed in the craft.
This is not a Yankee being flinty and rude, this is a Yankee being flinty--- it
runs in their blood. The picture above where Bradford scales the seven-story
side of the museum for inspection is no stunt. I would put money on it he was
conducting a personal review before he was willing to cut the last check to
the contractor. I bet he would not trust anyone else to do the inspection.
Growing up around such men you learn these things.
When asked about all his books and adventures, his stacks of degrees and
awards, his definitive geographic works, his world record climbs, his fame, of
all of it, “What did he want to be remembered for?” What he wanted to be
remembered for was--- his work at the museum. “"The top of Mount McKinley
was thrilling," he said, "but there's nothing on earth more exciting than the
eyes of a youngster at the instant of discovery."”
At age 96 Dr. Henry Bradford Washburn, Jr. died at his home in Lexington,
Massachusetts. In the style of this quiet class of American Yankee he
instructed there would be no memorial or funeral services. His work was