Louise Arner Boyd (September 16, 1887 – September 14, 1972) was an American explorer of Greenland and the Arctic, who wrote extensively of her explorations, and in 1955 became the first woman to fly over the North Pole privately chartering a DC-4 and crew that included aviation pioneer Thor Solberg.
Born in San Rafael, California to John Franklin Boyd and Louise Cook Arner, owners and heirs to the Bodie Gold Bonanza of 1877, Louise grew up in Marin County and the hills of Oakland playing and competing with her two older brothers, Seth and John. The Boyds were leading citizens of the era and their children's early years, though privileged and relatively carefree, included a well-rounded education that was punctuated every summer by an extended stay on their ranch in the Oakland Hills. It was here where Louise and her brothers rode horses, explored Mount Diablo, fished, hunted, camped, and generally led a rugged and adventurous life. When Louise was a teenager, both of her brothers died from heart disease within a few months of each other. Her parents were devastated and began to lean heavily on Louise for care and comfort. It was at this time that the Boyds bequeathed to the City of San Rafael their former gatehouse and some of the family property as a memorial to their two sons. The Victorian-style building is now the home of the Marin History Museum. After her brother's deaths, Louise traveled extensively with her parents making numerous trips to Europe. In the spring of 1919, Louise took a train to Buffalo, N.Y., purchased a touring car and drove across the United States at a time when there was no highway system and roads were often gravel and dirt. This would be the first of many cross-country trips that she would take and detail in her many journals. Upon her parents death in 1919 and 1920, Louise inherited the family fortune after caring for her parents in the last few years of their lives.
With her inheritance, Louise Boyd could control her own destiny and indulge her intrepid spirit developed during her active California childhood where she rode horses and competed and played with her two older brothers. She began to travel in the early 1920s, and on a trip to Norway in 1924 she cruised out to sea and saw the Polar Ice Pack for the first time. This experience proved instrumental in her life and she immediately began planning her own Arctic adventure. In 1925, she was presented to the King and Queen of England and soon after, in 1926, she chartered the supply ship Hobby which had been used by famous explorer Roald Amundsen, for a hunting and filming trip to the Arctic accompanied by her friends the Count & Countess of Ribadavia. She gained international notoriety for her exploits (and hunting of polar bears) and was dubbed by newspapers around the world, as the, “Arctic Diana” and “The Girl Who Tamed the Arctic”.
In 1928, Boyd was planning a second pleasure trip aboard the Hobby when it was learned that the famous Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen had recently disappeared in his own attempt to find and rescue the Italian explorer Umberto Nobile. Louise offered her services and the ship to the Norwegian government to search for Amundsen, saying, “How could I go on a pleasure trip when those 22 lives were at stake?” Although she traveled about 10,000 miles (16,100 km) across the Arctic Ocean she found no trace of him. Nevertheless, the Norwegian government awarded her the Chevalier Cross of the Order of Saint Olav. "She was the first American woman to receive the order and the third woman in the world to be so honored." (1)
Boyd was probably best known for leading a series of scientific expeditions to the east and north- the 1933 expedition in her 1935 book The Fiord Region of East Greenland. An area near the De Geer Glacier was later named Louise Boyd Land.
In August 1934, after being elected as a delegate to the International Geographical Congress in Warsaw, Poland, Louise set out on a 3 month journey across the Polish countryside photographing and recording the customs, dress, economy and culture of the many ethnic Poles and Russians in the newly formed nation. The journey, by car, rail, boat and on foot took her first from Lviv to Kovel (these towns are in the Ukraine today), and then to Kobrin – Pinsk – Kletsk – Nesvizh – Slonim (these towns are in Belarus today). She finished the journey in Vilno. Her travel narrative was supplemented with over 500 photographs and published by the American Geographical Society in 1937.
With the outbreak of World War II, the knowledge she had gained in the course of her six previous expeditions to Greenland and the Arctic became of strategic significance and sensitivity. The United States government requested that she not publish the book she was writing about her 1937 and 1938 expeditions and asked her to lead, for the Department of Commerce National Bureau of Standards, a geophysical expedition along the west coast of Greenland and down the coast of Baffin Island and Labrador. She was appointed as the Bureau's consulting expert on a dollar a year basis. She chartered and outfitted at her own expense the schooner Effie M. Morrissey. This schooner, owned and commanded by captain Robert Bartlett, had been successfully running yearly scientific expeditions to the Arctic since 1926. The principal purpose of the 1941 Bureau of Standards expedition was to obtain data on radio-wave transmission in the Arctic regions traversed. The ionosphere, geomagnetism and aurorae were studied. The Effie M. Morrissey sailed from Washington DC on June 11, 1941, with Louise Boyd leading a scientific party of four men (including a physician) and a crew of eleven under the command of Capt. Bartlett. The expedition returned to Washington DC on November 3, 1941 with valuable data.
During the remainder of the war, Boyd worked on secret assignments for the U.S. Department of the Army and she was awarded, in 1949, a Department of Army Certificate of Appreciation.
Her earlier book that had been held from publication, The Coast of Northeast Greenland, was published after the war, in 1948.
Later in life Louise Boyd was an active and well-known Marin figure and hostess while serving as a member of the Executive Committee of the San Francisco Symphony. She also accumulated many academic honors receiving an honorary law degree from the University of California, Berkeley and from Mills College. She was also the second woman ever to receive the Cullum Medal of the American Geographical Society and in 1960 was the first woman to be elected to their board. She was also made an honorary member of the California Academy of Science. Near the end of her life, Louise made some bad investments and had already spent much of her fortune outfitting and chartering her many explorations. Eventually she had to sell the family home in San Rafael and all her furniture. She died in San Francisco on September 14, 1972.
The present day Marin History Museum is located in the old Boyd Estate Gatehouse in San Rafael, California and features a permanent exhibition of Louise Boyd photographs, memorabilia and information.
- American Geographical Society Special Publication No. 20 “Polish Countrysides” Photographs And Narrative by Louise A. Boyd with a contribution by Stanislaw Gorzuchowski, New York, American Geographical Society Broadway at 156th Street, 1937
- U.S. Department of Commerce, Technical News Bulletin of the National Bureau of Standards, Washington, December 1941, Number 296.
- "Woman Explorer Honored by Army. Miss Boyd Gets Award for Her Work as Consultant During the War's 'Critical Days'". New York Times. March 19, 1949. Retrieved 2011-11-02. "Miss Louise Arner Boyd, explorer, writer and lecturer, added another decoration to her long list yesterday when she received the Department of Army "Certificate of Appreciation." Maj. Gen. Roscoe B. Woodruff, commander of the First Army, made the presentation in his office at Governors Island. ..."
- The Fiord Region of East Greenland (1935)
- Polish Countrysides (1937)
- The Coast of Northeast Greenland (1948)
1 Moss, Jocelyn. The Call of the Arctic: Travels of Louise Boyd'.' Marin County Historical Society Magazine, vol. XIV, no. 2, 1987.
3 Fletcher, Scott. Librarian, San Domenico School, San Anselmo, CA.