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The end of the Frederick A. Cook Society?

Written on June 14, 2011

2010 was not kind to the Frederick A. Cook Society.
First, Dr. Ralph Myerson, a Philadelphia area M.D. and long-time treasurer of the society passed away on January 31. Dr. Meyerson was 91. I had a number of dealings with Dr. Myerson over the last fifteen years and always found him to be courteous and accommodating. He was interested in Cook as a fellow medical doctor, and contributed many pieces to the Cook Society’s publications on medical aspects of polar exploration. He never openly advocated for Cook’s attainment of the pole in any of these. He represented the society at several conferences, including the Belgica Centennial Conference held in Brussels in April of 1998. His paper, “Frederick A. Cook, M.D. , the art and science of medicine aboard the Belgica,” was published in the proceedings of that conference.
Next, the long-time sitting president of the society, Warren B. Cook, died on March 25, a few days short of his 80th birthday. Mr. Cook, who was a New Jersey insurance man, met his great uncle, Frederick Cook, as a small boy, and was very devoted to him as an adult. Warren Cook was the grandson of Frederick Cook’s brother, William, who partnered with him in their Cook Brothers Milk and Cream Company business in Brooklyn, NY, before Frederick Cook took a medical degree in 1890. Mr. Cook, like Dr. Myerson, was also very courteous and accommodating and granted me unlimited access to Dr. Cook’s papers and the rights to quote from them in connection to the publication of Cook and Peary in 1997. It was a difficult task to inform him shortly before my book was published that my research had come to the definite conclusion that both Cook’s claim to have ascended Mt. McKinley and to have attained the North Pole were fabrications. After the book was published, I had little contact with Mr. Cook, but before my negative conclusions appeared he wrote to me, “The Cook Society is very appreciative of your meticulous and unparalleled research of Dr. Cook’s life and achievements. Other than not having met him, you know more about him than his Grand Nephew.”
Finally, the society’s executive director and editor of its publications, Russell Gibbons, passed away on September 24 at 78. A native of Hamburg, New York, he became involved in the Cook saga when he chose Cook for the subject of his undergraduate thesis, taking up the standard Cook line that he was discredited by a monied conspiracy that deprived Cook of his rightful claim to the Pole. Apparently, Mr. Gibbons, long-time director of communication for the United Steel Workers in Pittsburgh, had an “us against them” mindset and a fondness for conspiracies, so Cook’s story had a strong appeal. Gibbons always professed an open mind about the truth of Cook’s claims in public, but, in reality, he was very heavy-handed in dealing with anyone who opposed Cook. At one of the conferences the Cook Society sponsored, Gibbons was observed removing literature and articles that provided evidence that Cook had not been to the summit of McKinley or reached the North Pole, which had been placed on a table provided for handouts for conference attendees, even though no restrictions had been placed on what could be given out. According to public records, Gibbons was paid a considerable sum yearly for his editorial services on behalf of the society, but its publications suffered as a result. Although he edited a number of publications for USW and other organizations throughout his career, his work for the society was very shoddy, both factually and physically. When the proceedings of the 1993 conference on Cook was released by Ohio State University some years later, it must have been an embarrassment to anyone involved in the conference, due to its gross editorial mistakes and misrepresentations.
The deaths of these three officers of the society follows closely on the dissipation of the last of the substantial funds provided the society to promote Dr. Cook’s claims by his last lineal ancestor, his grand-daughter Janet Vetter. Much of these funds was spent on an ill-advised republication of Cook’s four published books. These titles, all in the public domain, were soon-after offered by a number of print-on-demand publishing companies, leaving the society holding a large stock of unsalable physical books. More money went to several conferences designed to lend academic stature to Cook’s achievements. The society’s annual payments to Ohio State University to conserve a collection of papers the Cook Society had in its possession further senselessly depleted society funds; they could have been donated to the Library of Congress and thereby be reunited with his other papers and conserved at no cost. More went to fund dubious “expeditions,” such as two that tried to retrace the route Cook claimed to have used to summit Mt. McKinley in 1906. The leaders of both said they had proved Cook had made the climb, but each came to diametrically opposite conclusions on the route he took. And a substantial amount was used to compensate Gibbons for “editorial” work and other society officers for “historical research,” even though such payments are not allowed under the terms of NY State’s non-profit educational corporation statutes under which the society is organized. Finally, a rather inartistic monument placed in Forest Lawn Cemetery in Buffalo, near the columbarium where Cook’s ashes are stored, all but finished off the trust funds.
At an International Polar Year conference in Philadelphia in 2008, there were rumors of the society’s insolvency. Funds had run so low by the centennial of Cook and Peary’s claims in September 2009, that Warren Cook felt compelled to ask for donations to keep the society going. This plea appeared in the last newsletter the society published, the publication of its annual journal having already ended for lack of funds. For twenty years, Janet Vetter’s trust fund had made the society a player in the ongoing Polar Controversy. But with the three Cook stalwarts at the heart of the organization gone, and the once-substantial trust funds depleted, it seems unlikely that the Cook Society will be able to have much of a future role except as the low-profile booster club it was before Vetter’s death.

Filed in: News.