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Inside one Harvard prof's trip to the top of the world

Dr. S. Allen Counter | 4/15/2009, 5:40 a.m.
, president of the Harvard Foundation (second from right), poses for a photo...

Being aware of the discoverers’ association with the United States Navy, I contacted Admiral Melvin G. Williams Jr., commander of the Second Fleet, and shared with him my desire to honor their attainment of the North Pole by transporting to the North Pole a commemorative case containing memorabilia associated with the 1909 expedition.

A short time thereafter, I was informed that my request had been honored, and that the North Pole Discovery Centennial Commemorative Memorabilia Case would be transported to the North Pole on board the USS Annapolis (SSN 760).

I created a multi-compartment sealed Plexiglas case that contained a triangular American flag at the top; a Holy Bible from Harvard’s Memorial Church, signed and dedicated to the North Pole centennial by the Rev. Professor Peter Gomes; Rear Admiral Peary’s book of 1910, entitled “The North Pole”; Matthew Henson’s book of 1910, entitled “A Negro Explorer at the North Pole”; a letter from President Ronald Reagan in recognition of Peary’s and Henson’s achievements and their sons’ visit to America in 1987; my book, “North Pole Legacy: Black, White and Eskimo”; Inuit cultural symbols, including bear claws from a necklace and Eskimo sealskin gloves worn by Henson’s son Anaukaq; an insignia cap from the launching of the USNS Henson; as well as photographs, letters and poems from family and others associated with or touched by the story of Commander Peary, Matthew Henson and their Greenlandic descendants.

In a letter dated April 6, 2009, Vice Admiral Williams wrote:

“I wish to convey my sincere congratulations to you and the entire team that made the Harvard North Pole Discovery Centennial Commemorative Project a success. We have confirmed through the U.S. Navy Commander, Submarine Force that the Henson-Peary memorabilia case successfully made it aboard USS ANNAPOLIS (SSN 760) and reached the North Pole.”

On April 6, 2009, in the village of Qaanaaq, Greenland, about 40 descendants of Matthew Henson, Robert Peary and Ootah gathered in the local schoolhouse for a celebration of the 100th anniversary of the North Pole discovery by their grandfathers. In addition to traditional Inuit food, including raw seal, walrus and polar bear, the Inuit descendants prepared a cake decorated with the phrase “Happy 100 År Anniversary.”

During the ceremony, I presented the families with a letter sent to me by President Barack Obama to mark the occasion, and a picture of the first family to be placed in the local schoolhouse. In his letter, President Obama wrote:

“I am pleased to join all who are commemorating the last hundred years of Arctic exploration ... Many pioneers braved harsh conditions and beat the longest of odds to explore one of the final terrestrial frontiers — the North Pole … It is only fitting that we honor all those who have risked their lives and well-being to expand our knowledge of our continuously evolving planet. I commend those gathered for this occasion for continuing America’s proud tradition of exploration and scientific discovery.”

Dr. S. Allen Counter is the director of the Harvard Foundation and a professor of neurology and neurophysiology at Harvard Medical School.