American Polar Society History

The mid-1920s were a particularly exciting time for polar exploration. Airplanes, which Americans Wilbur and Orville Wright had done so much to invent, were proving their usefulness in polar exploration. In 1925 Roald Amundsen and American explorer Lincoln Ellsworth attempted to use airplanes to reach the North Pole but failed. A year later Richard Byrd claimed credit as the first to fly over the North Pole. Two years later, Byrd organized an expedition to Antarctica that would culminate in a flight over the South Pole. Before Byrd could do so, Sir Hubert Wilkins, an Australian who was financed by American publisher William Randolph Hearst, became the first to fly in Antarctica.


August Howard

Polar exploration was not only interesting to men on the ice. August Howard, the son of a tailor and Russian immigrant, grew up fascinated by Richard Byrd and the romance and adventure of polar exploration and adopted Byrd as his personal hero. Howard’s other interest was in the Boy Scouts. In 1928, at the age of eighteen and after years of pleasure in Scouting, he became an employee of the National Council of Boy Scouts of America, which would become his life-long career. For Howard, interest in polar exploration and the Boy Scouts came together in 1928 when Richard Byrd and the Boy Scouts of America conducted a national campaign to select a suitable Boy Scout to accompany Byrd on his first expedition to Antarctica. The successful applicant, Eagle Scout and Sea Scout Paul Siple, and August Howard became close friends. To report the activities of Siple in the first Byrd Antarctic Expedition (1928-30), Howard created the Metropolitan Sea Pilot, a mimeographed newsletter that was distributed monthly to relatives and friends of Paul Siple and to the twenty-five members of Siple’s Sea Scout Ship.

In 1933 when Richard Byrd began his second expedition to Antarctica, Siple joined him again. By this time, August Howard was assistant to the director of publicity for the National Council of the Boy Scouts of America and the advisor for the Manhattan Boy Scout Press Club. For Howard, the second expedition was an opportunity for another venture into journalism: The Little America Times, named after Byrd’s base in Antarctica. In eighteen issues, from December 27, 1933 and May 31, 1935, The Little America Times reported monthly the activities of the second Byrd Expedition and also the Lincoln Ellsworth expedition of 1935. It was distributed freely to friends and relatives of members of the expeditions. As The Little America Times expanded in content and readership from the Metropolitan Sea Pilot, Howard confronted the commercial concerns of polar exploration in the private age. Letters in the records of the American Polar Society evidence the fear of some in the leadership of the Byrd expedition that reporting by The Little America Times would violate the contracts that the expedition had negotiated with other news media in exchange for funding. Howard resolved this brief but intense conflict with the support of Admiral Byrd himself.

US Navy photo, Operation Highjump, 1946-1947

Byrd’s second expedition and that of Lincoln Ellsworth as well as Howard’s experience with The Little America Times set the popular stage for the creation of the American Polar Society. The radio broadcasts from Little America II to the living rooms of Americans brought the voice of an American hero to the ears of many. Byrd’s solitary and near-death experience and rescue at a weather station gave the second expedition similar drama to the South Pole flight. Meanwhile, Lincoln Ellsworth accomplished the feat of flying across Antarctica in 1935. Clearly, Antarctica had become an arena for American accomplishments in exploration and in science.

In a letter of July 31, 1934, August Howard proposed the creation of a privately funded organization that would serve as a clearinghouse of information about Antarctica. He noted that public interest was at a fever pitch and there was the likelihood of financial support from the Columbia Broadcasting System, Paramount, and the New York Times. A special polar library, to house information about Antarctica, could be created in either the American Geographical Society or in the American Museum of Natural History. Howard proposed that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, be honorary president and that Richard Byrd and Lincoln Ellsworth be honorary vice presidents. The organization would make a special effort to recruit veterans of polar expeditions and scientists as members of this organization. In addition, this new organization should maintain regular contact with similar organizations elsewhere, including Scott Polar Research Institute, the New Zealand Antarctic Society, and the Arctic Institute of Leningrad. Finally, Howard envisioned that the organization should develop a service for the education of children. He proposed that the society should use its library to develop bibliographies and outlines for teachers to instill an interest in geography, history, and science in their students.

Richard Byrd

Rear Admiral Richard E. Byrd

The first Polar Times appeared in June of 1935. It brought news of interest to explorers, arm-chair explorers, and polar enthusiasts excited by tales of adventure.On November 29, 1934, notice of the organization of the American Antarctic Society was mailed to potential members. The American Museum of Natural History offered space for meetings and a mailing address. By January 1, 1935, there were twenty-five members. A few months later, Fred Meinholtz of the New York Times proposed to change the name from the American Antarctic Society to the American Polar Society. This would expand the range of interest and the numbers of prospective members. At an organizational meeting at the Hotel Barbison in New York City on September 9, 1935, with August Howard presiding as chair, the name was changed officially to the American Polar Society. At the time, it already had ninety-three members in twenty states and seven foreign countries. Paul Siple became the first president, and the Society held its first annual meeting on November 25th at the American Museum of Natural History.

August Howard’s friendship with Siple and his ties with the newspaper and scientific organizations in New York City were critical to the formation of the American Polar Society and the Polar Times. By the spring of 1935, Howard had developed agreements with the New York Times, and the North American Newspaper Alliance to receive and re-print newspaper articles concerning polar regions. In September of 1935 the Burrelle Press Clipping Bureau agreed to provide its services for $1 per month. These important agreements assured that the Polar Times would have enough articles to serve as a central source of information about polar regions. By 1937, Howard had added the Associated Press, United Press International, the New York Herald Tribune, and the London Times to his recruits of volunteers in the campaign to gather news and information about the poles.

The first Polar Times appeared in June of 1935. It brought news of interest to explorers, arm-chair explorers, and polar enthusiasts excited by tales of adventure. Of course, much of the issue focused on Admiral Richard Byrd’s second expedition and that of Commander Lincoln Ellsworth. The paper also included stories of adventure in the Arctic, plans by Sir Hubert Wilkins for a submarine expedition beneath the Arctic Ice, and Soviet activities in polar regions. For the explorer-in-waiting, there were useful articles about tractors in polar work and surveying in Antarctica. Historians then, and even now, appreciated the biographical information contained in obituaries of famous figures in polar exploration and scientific discovery.

Beginning in 1936, the American Polar Society designated as “Honorary Members” those explorers and scientists who had distinguished themselves in polar activities.The organization continued to grow as famous polar explorers such as Hubert Wilkins, Richard Byrd, Richard Black, Bernt Balchen, and Finn Ronne joined. By 1947, at war’s end, the American Polar Society had doubled its membership to 500 members in forty-one states and sixteen foreign lands. Two years later August Howard reported that membership had again more than doubled to 1319. Much of this dramatic increase was due to Operation Highjump which exposed some 1100 of soldiers and scientists to Antarctica in 1946 and 1947.

APS flourished by directing the energy and enthusiasm of its members into a variety of activities in addition to gathering news for the Polar Times. One effort, headed by Paul Siple, was to organize committees to report the news of scientific activities for a popular audience. In 1949 Siple coordinated committees based on twenty-one subjects dealing with polar regions.

Drawing attention to noteworthy polar explorers and scientists was an important activity of APS. Beginning in 1936, the American Polar Society designated as “Honorary Members” those explorers and scientists who had distinguished themselves in polar activities. The first was David L. Brainard of the Adolphus Greely expedition (1881-84). Thereafter, many others received that honor, including Richard Byrd, Vilhjalmur Stefansson, Lincoln Ellsworth, Lawrence Gould. A total of twelve individuals have been so honored, including one woman, scientist Louise A. Boyd. In the process of selecting its honorary members, APS issued press releases and succeeded in making both members and non-members aware of the importance of polar work and what had been accomplished.

On December 4, 1988, August Howard died. The American Polar Society would continue as his legacy but faltered temporarily. In 1989, the Society designated Peter Anderson of The Byrd Polar Research Center to succeed Mr. Howard and records and papers of the American Polar Society arrived at The Ohio State University. However, a stroke soon after the transfer prevented Mr. Anderson from resuming the Polar Times and the work of the American Polar Society.

In 1992 the American Polar Society turned to one of its members, Captain Brian Shoemaker, to take over the responsibility for the Polar Times. Captain Shoemaker, a U.S. Navy veteran, commanded 1500 men, twenty airplanes and four ships in Operation Deep Freeze, and is a man of both experience and knowledge in polar issues and history.

In 1993, the new secretary resumed publication of the Polar Times and began seeking new directions. In addition to recruiting members amongst military veterans and scientists, Captain Shoemaker has made the ever-increasing numbers of tourists to Antarctica aware of the American Polar Society and its publication. Currently, he is seeking to develop an oral history program in which members of the American Polar Society would interview in their areas the distinguished scientists and veterans of polar expeditions. Documentation of the interviews would be deposited, preserved, and made available at the Byrd Polar Research Center. Since 1994 he has served on the Advisory Board to the Byrd Polar Research Center Archival Program at The Ohio State University.

APS History based on a paper written by Raimund E. Goerler and Lynn Lay, which ran in the Fall-Winter 2003 and Spring-Summer 2004 issue of the Polar Times, – adapted from a paper of the same title in Juli Braund-Allen and Cathie Innes-Taylor, editors, Creativity, Lighting the Poles: Collaborative Solutions to Common Problems: Proceedings of the 16th Polar Libraries Colloquy (Anchorage: University of Alaska Anchorage Press, 1997), and updated by the Byrd Polar Research Center Archival Program. ca 1999.