Robert M. Bryce has been a scholar of the Cook-Peary dispute over the North Pole for more than thirty years. Eight years of concentrated research in the primary materials of the dispute culminated in the publication of his massive study in 1997 under the title Cook and Peary, the Polar Controversy, Resolved. To date, it is the only book based on both the personal papers of Frederick A. Cook and Robert E. Peary. As a result of Cook and Peary, Bryce’s original work in manuscript materials was recognized by Dr. James H. Billington, the Librarian of Congress, by an invitation to write a summary of his work for its journal, Civilization, on the occasion of the Library’s bicentennial. The conclusions Mr. Bryce had drawn from his research were showcased in the public exhibit Treasures of the Library of Congress, which was put on display in the Library of Congress’s exhibit hall to mark that anniversary.
Bryce is also the author of several papers, including a preliminary survey and preservation recommendations for the Cook materials once held by the Frederick A. Cook Society, which resulted in their donation to Ohio State University, and a paper given at Brussels on Frederick Cook in 1998 was included in the proceedings of the Belgica Expedition Centennial Symposium published under the patronage of the Belgian king in 2000. He has also published scholarly articles examining aspects Cook’s Mount McKinley hoax, including a comparative study of Cook’s and Barrill’s 1906 Alaskan diaries, and the methods used by the Frederick A. Cook Society in its efforts to support its namesake’s false claims. He has also written new, analytical introductions to modern reprints of Cook’s My Attainment of the Pole, Peary’s The North Pole, Matthew Henson’s A Negro Explorer at the North Pole, and Josephine Peary’s My Arctic Journal. He is a contributor to the recently published Encyclopedia of the Arctic and has published a number of feature book reviews of polar titles in recent years in the journal of the Scott Polar Research Center at Cambridge, The Polar Record, and other academic publications. He has appeared in three film documentaries on the Polar Controversy, two for the BBC, acting as a consultant to the other, and has been a guest to discuss the subject on ABC World News Tonight with Peter Jennings, CNN, CBC-TV and radio, NPR, MSNBC, The Diane Rehm Show, Good Morning America, As it Happens, and the Voice of America. He has also lectured widely on the Polar Controversy, including appearances before the Naval History Museum, the University of Wisconsin, the National Archives, and the Explorers Club.
The published literature of the controversy is vast; stories printed in jut the New York Times and New York Hearald which backed Peary and Cook respectively, are estimated to run to more than 1,000 typed pages in just the months of September and October 1909, alone. Bryce has read all of these and most of the extensive secondary literature from other sources, including scores of related books and articles. He has made more than 800 interlibrary loans to obtain materials related to the subject, and has had some foreign language materials translated, including the book written by Cook’s assistant on his 1908 polar attempt, Rudolph Franke. At the Adams Building of the Library of Congress, he read the scarcest of the periodical literature written about the controversy not available by loan, and in the Madison Building, he read thousands of pages of newspaper stories related to it in the nearly twenty New York dailies then in publication and other significant newspapers from elsewhere associated with the events of the Polar Controversy.
During the years of research for Cook and Peary, he visited all of the archival repositories with significant materials related to Frederick Cook. These included: Dartmouth College, which houses the papers of Vilhjalmur Stefansson, Belmore Browne, Charles W. Furlong, Robert Dunn, and a small group of Cook Papers; The University of Virginia, which houses the papers of Edwin Swift Balch; Bowdoin College, which houses papers of Langdon Gibson, Robert A. Bartlett, Donald B. MacMillan, and a few Peary items; The Library of Congress, which houses most of Frederick Cook’s papers, as well as those of Evelyn B. Baldwin; The National Archives, which houses the Robert E. Peary papers, and those of Russell W. Porter, and Henshaw Ward; The Sullivan Country Historical Society, which at that time housed the papers of Frederick Cook not taken by the Library of Congress from the estate of Janet Vetter, which have since been moved to the Ohio State University Archives; the Southwest Branch of the National Archives, at Fort Worth, TX. At these facilities, the author examined tens of thousands of pages of letters, manuscripts, diaries and other related papers, as well as hundreds of photographs and many collections of memorabilia, including extensive press clippings. At the Southwest Branch of the National Archives alone, the author examined more than 13,000 pages of materials related to Cook’s conviction for stock fraud in 1923.
It is estimated that the amount of material Bryce read in research for Cook and Peary fell between 400,000 and 500,000 pages of published and unpublished materials. This included an examination of all collateral materials included in Cook’s papers at the Library of Congress, and all of the manuscript materials. He is the only person outside of Cook’s family to have read all of these primary materials.
During research, Bryce made scores of discoveries of key, original documents crucial to a correct assessment of the Polar Controversy. Some of the highlights included: the discovery in Copenhagen, Denmark of a copy of the original diary kept by Cook his attempt to reach the North Pole in 1908, which, as the Danish Konsistorium realized upon reading, shows his claim to have done so to be a fabrication; a clear and uncropped original print of the photograph Cook represented as the summit of Mt. McKinley, proving it was taken on a small outcrop of rock, 19 miles away from the actual summit and 15,000 feet lower, and the original diary and affidavit of Edward N. Barrill, Cook’s climbing partner and witness to this hoax, long thought to have been lost. Bryce was also the first to publish the original prints of photographs Cook claimed were taken of new land discovered on the way to the Pole (which does not exist and is therefore a fake) and at the Pole itself, which strongly indicates tampering during developing to obscure significant identifying details that might establish the place it was actually taken. Some of these discoveries were presented nationally in articles in the New York Times. The Times also reported his latest recovery, that of the original drafts of the telegrams Cook sent from Lerwick on September 1, 1909, announcing his polar attainment. Full details of the recovery were printed in the Polar Record in October 2009.
Mr. Bryce is a retired academic librarian. He is currently working on a second book about Frederick Cook’s polar expedition and he continues to review books on polar themes for ALA’s academic library book review journal, Choice.