Donald Baxter MacMillan
Donald Baxter MacMillan (November 10, 1874 – September 7, 1970) was an American explorer, sailor, researcher and lecturer who made over 30 expeditions to the Arctic during his 46-year career. He pioneered the use of radios, airplanes, and electricity in the Arctic, brought back films and thousands of photographs of Arctic scenes, and put together a dictionary of the Inuktitut language.
Born in Provincetown, Massachusetts in 1874, MacMillan lived in Freeport, Maine after the deaths of both his parents in 1883 (his father died while captaining a Grand Banks fishing schooner) and 1886 (his mother died suddenly), and was educated at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, graduating in 1898 with a degree in geology. He later taught at Worcester Academy from 1903 to 1908.
On March 18, 1935, MacMillan married Miriam Norton Look, the daughter of his long-time friends Jerome and Amy Look. Though MacMillan at first refused to let her accompany him north, Miriam soon convinced him of her willingness and ability to participate in his Arctic travels. She participated in several of his scientific and exploration trips to the Arctic and elsewhere.
After five years as a high school teacher, MacMillan caught the attention of explorer and fellow Bowdoin graduate Robert E. Peary when he saved the lives of nine shipwrecked people in two nights. Peary subsequently invited MacMillan to join his 1908 journey to the North Pole. Although MacMillan himself had to turn back at 84°29' on March 14 because of frozen heels, Peary allegedly reached the Pole 26 days later.
MacMillan spent the next few years traveling in Labrador, carrying out ethnological studies among the Innu and Inuit. He organized and commanded the ill-fated Crocker Land Expedition to northern Greenland in 1913. Unfortunately Crocker Land turned out to be a mirage. The expedition members were stranded until 1917, when Captain Robert A. Bartlett of the ship Neptune finally rescued them. Journals from the expedition by Maurice C. Tanquary, Walter E. Ekblaw, Donald B. and Miriam MacMillan are available online at the George J. Mitchell Department of Special Collections & Archives website. Digitization of materials at Bowdoin College related to the Crocker Land Expedition was generously funded by the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation in 2016.
Shortly after the armistice which ended the First World War, MacMillan was commissioned an ensign in the Naval Reserve Flying Corps on 24 December 1918. (MacMillan was 44 years old at the time, making him one of the oldest ensigns in the history of the U.S. Navy.) After the war, MacMillan began raising money for another Arctic expedition. In 1921, the schooner Bowdoin—named for MacMillan's alma mater—was launched from East Boothbay, Maine and set sail for Baffin Island, where MacMillan and his crew spent the winter. The expedition was notable for taking along an amateur radio operator, Don Mix, who used station WNP ("Wireless North Pole") to keep them in contact with the outside world.
In 1923 there was concern about a new ice age and he sailed toward the North Pole aboard the schooner Bowdoin, sponsored by the National Geographical Society to look for evidence of advancing glaciers.
In 1925 MacMillan led a scientific expedition backed by the National Geographical Society and financed primarily by the Chicago entrepreneur Eugene MacDonald - which was accompanied by U.S. Navy personnel and planes commanded by Lt. Cmdr. Richard E. Byrd. The planes were to be used for aerial surveys of Baffin and Ellesmere Islands, investigation of the Greenland icecap, and reconnaissance of previously unexplored areas of the Arctic Sea. The aerial results proved to be disappointing due to severe weather conditions, unreliable engines and inadequate navigational tools (although Byrd would use this experience in preparing for his attempt to reach the North Pole the following year). The expedition is noted for the successfully demonstration of SW radio in communications from the Arctic Region.
In September 1926 MacMillan led a group of explorers which included three women and five scientists to Sydney, Nova Scotia. The team spent several months beforehand collecting flora and fauna in Labrador and Greenland. He believed it was possible that the ancient ruins off Sculpin Island, twenty miles from Nain, Labrador, are the remains of a Norse settlement 1,000 years old. On the side bordering the mainland MacMillan found what he considered the vestiges of ten or twelve houses. He estimated the age of the dwellings to be hundreds of years old according to the lichens which partially covered their foundations. However MacMillan could not say for certain if these had been built by Vikings. According to Inuit tradition the "stone igloos" were constructed by men who came from the sea in ships. Inuit called the site Tunitvik, meaning the place of the Norseman. MacMillan said the strongest argument that the Sculpin dwellings were of Viking origin was their resemblance to those he found in Greenland the previous year.
World War II
MacMillan was placed on the Naval Reserve Honorary Retired List with the rank of lieutenant commander on his 64th birthday in 1938. Despite being past retirement age, he volunteered for active duty with the Navy during World War II. On May 22, 1941, he transferred the Bowdoin to the Navy for the duration of the war and served as her initial commanding officer before being transferred to the Hydrographic Office in Washington, DC. He was promoted to the rank of commander on 13 June 1942.
After the war, MacMillan continued his trips to the Arctic, taking researchers north and carrying supplies for the MacMillan-Moravian School he established in 1929. On June 25, 1954 MacMillan was promoted, by a special act of Congress, to rank of rear admiral on the Naval Reserve retired list in honor of his lifetime of service and achievement.
Admiral MacMillan made his final trip to the Arctic in 1957 at age 82, and died in 1970 at the age of 95. He is buried in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where a main wharf is named after him.
In 1927, the Boy Scouts of America made MacMillan an Honorary Scout, a new category of Scout created that same year. This distinction was given to "American citizens whose achievements in outdoor activity, exploration and worthwhile adventure are of such an exceptional character as to capture the imagination of boys...". The other eighteen who were awarded this distinction were: Roy Chapman Andrews; Robert Bartlett; Frederick Russell Burnham; Richard E. Byrd; George Kruck Cherrie; James L. Clark; Merian C. Cooper; Lincoln Ellsworth; Louis Agassiz Fuertes; George Bird Grinnell; Charles A. Lindbergh; Clifford H. Pope; George Palmer Putnam; Kermit Roosevelt; Carl Rungius; Stewart Edward White; and Orville Wright.
MacMillan Pier in Provincetown, Massachusetts is named in his honor.
Medals awarded by the United States Government
- Peary Polar Expedition Medal
- Naval Reserve Medal
- American Defense Service Medal
- American Campaign Medal
- World War II Victory Medal
- A more complete MacMillan biography, courtesy of Bowdoin College
- The Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum
- Bio by Laurel Gaudazno of Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum
- An Arctic Expedition Rediscovered by Amy Nevala of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
- Bowdoin College. Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum. https://www.bowdoin.edu/arctic-museum/biographies/macmillan.shtml
- West, James E. (1931). The Boy Scouts Book of True Adventure. New York: Putnam. OCLC 8484128.
- "George J. Mitchell Department of Special Collections & Archives (Bowdoin Library - George J. Mitchell Department of Special Collections & Archives)". library.bowdoin.edu. Retrieved 2016-11-16.
- John Dilks, Wireless North Pole Christmas, QST, December 2008, pp. 94-5.
- "MacMillan Sails North. Explorer Hopes to Determine Whether New 'Ice Age' Is Coming". The New York Times. July 4, 1923. Retrieved 2015-03-11.
Captain Donald B. MacMillan, Arctic explorer, and his picked crew of six sailed for the Far North tonight ...
- "MacMillan to Seek Signs of New Ice Age. His Expedition Equipped for Polar Radio". The New York Times. May 28, 1923. Retrieved 2015-03-11.
Captain Donald B. MacMillan, who will sail from here June 16 on the little schooner Bowdoin to resume his arctic explorations, announced today that one purpose of the expedition is to determine whether there is beginning another ice age, as the advance of glaciers in the last seventy years would indicate. ...
- "MacMillan Finds Old Norse Ruins". The New York Times. Associated Press. September 5, 1926. Retrieved 2009-07-24.
Thinks Relics of Settlement Off Labrador Perhaps 1,000 Years Old. Sub-Arctic Expedition of Field Museum of Chicago Returns to Sydney. The authenticity of old legends telling of Norse settlements established in America by Vikings long before Columbus sailed for the New World has received ...
- Register of Commissioned Officers of the U.S. Naval Reserve. July 1, 1939.
- U.S. Naval Reserve Register. 1 July 1944.
- The New York Times. June 25, 1954.
- "Around the World". Time. August 29, 1927. Retrieved 2007-10-24.