THE POLAR ADVENTURES OF A RICH AMERICAN DAME: A LIFE OF LOUISE ARNER BOYD.
I first came across Louise Arner Boyd's name when I was a graduate student and read her American Geographical Society publications about East Greenland (Boyd 1935, 1948). Boyd's multidisciplinary expeditions were intriguing, and her beautiful black-and-white photographs of geological features were captivating. Decades later, while reviewing Robert A. Bartlett's papers, I again encountered Boyd's name when I read correspondence about the top secret 1941 L.A. Boyd Expedition to southwestern Greenland, conducted by Boyd and Bartlett on behalf of the United States' war effort.
In 1985, Elizabeth Fagg Olds published an excellent profile of Boyd in Women of the Four Winds (Olds, 1999). More than a decade later, Amy Rule (1998) published an article about Boyd's friendship with Ansel Adams. Boyd is mentioned in histories of the research vessels she chartered, in some children's books, and in a few compilations about women explorers and travelers. William Mills included Boyd in his 2003 historical polar encyclopedia, but her name is absent from most accounts of Arctic exploration history. Durlynn Anema self-published a limited popular biography of Boyd in 2013, and a number of Internet sites describe facets of Boyd's life. In 2016, Michele Willman published an analytical piece about Boyd, focusing not on Boyd's personal history, but on her travel narratives and what they reveal about her views as a woman navigating a largely male domain.
Who was this woman, famous during her lifetime and largely forgotten after her death in 1972, except in San Rafael, California, location of the Boyd home? Her absence from accounts of polar exploration and science is astonishing when one realizes that beginning in the 1920s she organized, often financed, and led seven ship-based Arctic expeditions to Franz Josef Land, Jan Mayen, and East and West Greenland, and participated in the 1928 search for Roald Amundsen, for which she was awarded the Royal Norwegian Order of St. Olav by a grateful Norwegian government. A locality in East Greenland and an undersea bank in the North Atlantic are named after her. She made scientific contributions in various fields, including botany and geography; adopted cutting-edge technologies to enhance and facilitate research on her expeditions; and was recognized by eminent scientific organizations, including the American Geographical Society, which awarded her the Cullum Geographical Medal.
Joanna Kafarowski's comprehensive biography of Boyd is a long-overdue examination of this wealthy and generous socialite, gifted photographer, and goal-oriented and determined expedition organizer. The research underpinning Kafarowski's biography of Boyd is extensive. She studied Boyd-related archival holdings on both sides of the North Atlantic, the papers of scientists and explorers who were on Boyd's expeditions or worked with her in other contexts, and newspaper and magazine articles.
This detailed biography, illustrated with maps and interesting photographs (though astonishingly none of Boyd's scientific photographs), is divided into three major sections, arranged chronologically so that one gets a sense of Boyd's evolving character and intellectual interests. The first section covers the Arner and Boyd family history, Louise's upbringing, and her initial recreational Arctic forays, which included polar bear hunts. The second section details the Arctic expeditions that established her standing in the world of Arctic exploration and scientific investigations, as well as her social activities in the parlors of high society and the corridors of scientific organizations. The third section focuses on her important East Greenland expeditions, Second World War work, philanthropic enterprises, and 1955 jaunt to the North Pole. A short epilogue summarizes aspects of Boyd's life and takes some tentative steps toward assessing her legacy. Kafarowski notes that some of Boyd's thousands of photographs are being used to track climate change, and alarmingly, she reports that many of Boyd's journals and photographs are missing.
Kafarowski's descriptions of what many male expedition members wrote about Boyd, as well as direct quotes from their journals, add an important dimension to this book, for the accounts vividly convey the significant challenges Boyd faced in scientific circles because of her gender, upbringing, and lack of higher education. The extent to which Boyd earned the respect of some initially skeptical ship captains, crews, and scientists becomes obvious, but so does the deep resentment of her expressed by a number of scientists who were not used to taking orders from a woman, let alone one who maintained an iron grip on the conduct of research on her expeditions and who lacked formal academic credentials.
Kafarowski has detailed her subject's vast social and professional networks; Boyd seems to have met or corresponded with almost everyone of note in the fields of polar exploration and polar science. Descriptions of the cast of important characters with whom she interacted is fascinating reading if one knows the importance of the individuals to the history of polar research and history of science. Kafarowski provides short explanations of the backgrounds of many of these people. Regrettably, she does not go one step farther and anchor Boyd to the larger historical, political, scientific, or social stage on which her life unfolded. Nor does she analyze the significance of Boyd's scientific work. One is left wondering: how unique a woman was Boyd, a member of the Society of Woman Geographers, for her time? In what ways were Boyd's scientific goals and methods similar to or different from those of other scientists working during the same period? Why has Boyd been absent from the annals of polar history for so long? Did she have a lasting impact on polar science? And where does this woman, who took still and motion picture cameras into very remote and hard-to-access northern spaces and worked in the newly emerging field of photogrammetry, fit in the history of photography and geography?
Thanks to Joanna Kafarowski's biography, Louise Arner Boyd can no longer be ignored in accounts of the history of polar research. Hopefully this biography, which should be read by polar historians and anyone doing fieldwork in polar regions, will serve as a springboard from which Boyd's scientific contributions to a diversity of disciplines can be assessed and her life contextualized.
Anema, D. 2013. Taming the Arctic: The 20th century renown Arctic explorer Louise Arner Boyd. Parker, Colorado: National Writers Press.
Boyd, L.A. 1935. The fiord region of East Greenland. American Geographical Society Special Publication No. 18. New York: American Geographical Society.
--. 1948. The coast of Northeast Greenland: With hydrographic studies in the Greenland Sea. American Geographical Society Special Publication No. 30. New York: American Geographical Society.
Mills, W.J. 2003. Exploring polar frontiers: A historical encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO.
Olds, E.F. 1999 . Women of the four winds: The adventures of four of America's first women explorers. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.
Rule, A. 1998. Ansel Adams and Louise Arner Boyd: A camera tells a story. History of Photography 22(2): 155-160. https://doi.org/10.1080/03087298.1998.10443871
Willman, M. 2016. Seeing with a new lens: Louise Arner Boyd's polar expeditions. In: Cabanas, M.A., Dubino, J., Salles-Reese, V., and Totten, G., eds. Politics, identity, and mobility in travel writing. New York: Routledge. 183-193.
Susan A. Kaplan
Professor of Anthropology and Director
The Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum and Arctic Studies Center
9500 College Station, Bowdoin College
Brunswick, Maine, 04011 USA