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Polaris: The Chief Scientist’s Recollections of the American North Pole Expedition, 1871-73


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Polaris: The Chief Scientist’s Recollections of the American North Pole Expedition, 1871-73

Translated & edited by William Barr

Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2016

6” x 9”, softcover, xxvii + 643 pages

Illustrations, maps, appendices, notes, bibliography, index. $44.95

ISBN: 9781552388754

 

Arctic exploration has been marred with tragedy since much before the voyage made by Polarisin 1871. In the spirit of exploration, fear of misfortune was cast aside and Captain George Hall persuaded the United States Government to fund an expedition to the North once more. German scientist Emil Bessels joined this expedition as chief scientist and medical officer with hopes of expanding the knowledge found in previous expeditions.Polarissuffered its fair share of problems. In Polaris: The Chief Scientist’s recollections of the American North Pole Expedition. 1871-73, Bessels provided an extensive account of the expedition. He includes details of flora, fauna, geology, and even anthropological observations of the Inuit that are not found in any other account. William Barr translates this account to English for the first time, adding his own expertise to the story.

 

Bessels provides information specific to the history of the Polaris’journey and those that preceded it. To create a cohesive narrative, he uses sources from his fellow crew members to fill in missing information. When writing from his own memory, Bessels paints a beautiful picture which allows a peek at his otherwise absent personal feelings. As a scientist, the author provides extraordinary detail to discoveries made in the frozen North which are not present in other accounts.

 

Bessels’ style of writing is interesting because it can be very vague or beautifully detailed depending on his emotion toward a subject. Due to this fluctuating nature, sometimes transitions between topics can seem rather abrupt. Often, details are simply absent. For example, Bessels is surrounded in controversy over the sudden death of Hall, the medic who aided him. As the accused, it seems reasonable that he would have details surrounding the mystery. Unfortunately, the fog surrounding the events of Hall’s death are not cleared within this account. It may seem slightly suspect that he omitted these details but, as a scientist, Bessels tries to write a narrative unimpeded by drama.

 

Barr has done a fantastic job of translating this account. The footnotes provided by Barr help to clarify details a modern or lay reader may not understand. A complaint could be made about bias introduced in some of Barr’s comments. Examples of this can be found in various footnotes added by Barr as well as well as in the Preface.

 

Emil Bessels is not widely remembered for his scientific achievements. That is unfortunate as the passion that he had for this journey is indisputable in his writing. Bessels, assisted by Barr, provides an account not to be missed by those fascinated with the voyage made byPolaris.

 

Teresa Ellen Will

East Carolina University

This review is provided courtesy of the Nautical Research Guild.

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