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MacMillan, Donald Baxter, 1874-1970



  • Existence: 1874 - 1970



Donald Baxter MacMillan (born November 10, 1874, Provincetown, Massachusetts—died September 7, 1970, Provincetown, Massachusetts) was an Arctic explorer, scientist, author and teacher who led over 25 Arctic explorations throughout his career (1, p. 33). Famous for leading the Crocker Land expedition in 1913, , MacMillan continued to travel, study and write about the north for the rest of his life (1, p. 33-35). He taught anthropology at Bowdoin College (which often sponsored his various trips) and served the US Naval Reserve in both WWI and WWII. MacMillan retired in 1954 and lived with his wife in Provincetown, Massachusetts (2).

Donald MacMillan is born into a family of five. His father, Neil MacMillan is a sea captain who dies in 1895 in an arctic gale, and his mother Sarah (Gardiner) dies three years later.
He graduates from Bowdoin College with a degree in Geology.
MacMillan is hired as principal of North Gorham High School.
He teaches Latin, physical education, and mathematics at several schools in Maine and Massachusetts, including Levi Hall in Maine, Swarthmore in Pennsylvania, and Worcester Academy in Massachusetts.
Establishes a summer training camp in Casco Bay, Maine, that teaches seamanship and navigation.
Saves nine people from drowning while working at the summer camp (that Robert E. Peary's child attended) and is awarded a certificate from the Massachusetts Humane Society. In response to his heroism, Peary offers MacMillan a position on his 1905 arctic expedition, but MacMillan waits till 1908 to join Peary.
Goes on his first Polar Expedition as Robert E. Peary's assistant, overseeing tidal observations, preparing equipment and organizing the Inuit assistants in the search for food.
MacMillan continues his anthropological studies of Inuit peoples in Northern Labrador, Greenland.
He intermediately pursues a Master of Arts Degree at Bowdoin College.
MacMillan again travels to Greenland to study First Peoples and Intuits in Northern Greenland.
MacMillan and George Borup (who he met through Peary) begin to plan an expedition to Crocker Land, an island which Robert Peary claimed to have seen during his 1905 expedition to the Polar Sea. This expedition was sponsored by AMNH, the National Geographic Society and University of Illinois.
George Borup dies in a boating accident, and the Arctic expedition is postponed.
Becomes the sole leader of the Crocker Land Expedition, charged with leading the party and conducting research in anthropological and meteorological study.
After several problems, including the expedition's initial boat crashing on the shore of Labrador, the Crocker Land team reaches Etah, Greenland and sets up camp.
1914-02 to 1914-05
MacMillan and team attempt to reach Crocker Land, traveling through Greenland, islands in Northern Canada, and taking dog sleds over the Polar Sea. The team finds no evidence of the island, and returns to Etah, where they spend the next three years collecting data on geology, botany, ornithology, meteorology and ethnology.
After two failed rescue attempts, MacMillan and team leave Greenland and return to New York.
Publishes a book about the Crocker Land Expedition experience, “Four Years in the White North”, in 1925.
MacMillan joins the aviation branch of the United States Naval Reserves and serves in WWI.
MacMillan receives an honorary doctorate from Bowdoin College, as well as continuing post-doctorate studies at Harvard University. He also begins teaching at Bowdoin as a professor of anthropology.
MacMillan returns to the Arctic on a schooner, the Bowdoin, designed by MacMillan specifically for use in frozen arctic waters.
MacMillan travels through the Hudson Bay, Fox Channel and Cape Sabine in several much-publicized trips.
MacMillan and a group of scientists travel to Greenland.
MacMillan begins yearly trips to the Arctic with various sponsors including AMNH, the Field Museum in Chicago, and the Explorers Club.
He founds the MacMillan-Moravian School in Nain, northern Labrador to provide food, essentials and education to Inuit children living in the area.
He is appointed professor of Anthropology at Bowdoin College, and is sponsored by the Tallman Foundation to continue his work in the Arctic.
MacMillan marries Miriam Norton Look, author and educator, on March 18, 1935. Miriam will join MacMillan on at least five of his next Arctic expeditions.
MacMillan goes on three additional trips north including expeditions to: Baffin Bay, Labrador and the Resolution Islands.
He joins the United States Naval Reserve and serves in WWII, acting as captain of the Bowdoin, patrolling Greenland as well as working for the Department of Defense at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
He is assigned to the Research and Development Branch of the Military Planning Division of the Quartermaster General, where he plans aviation trips over Greenland and the Arctic, taking photographs of coastal points, further mapping the region.
He receives a Special Congressional medal from the US government for his service in WWII. MacMillan resumes trips north sponsored by the Colorado Natural History Museum and the Chicago Geographic Society.
MacMillan continues his Artic explorations on behalf of Bowdoin College and other public and private institutions, as well as often visiting the school that he started in northern Labrador.
MacMillan retires at 80 years old.
Dies in Provincetown, Massachusetts.

Biographical Note

MacMillan worked his way through Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine and graduated in 1898 with a bachelor’s degree in geology. He spent the years after graduation teaching Latin, math and physical education in Maine, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania (1, p. 33). He also ran a summer camp that taught navigation and seamanship, attended by the son of the explorer Robert Peary. In 1905, while working in Maine, MacMillan saved nine people from drowning—a deed that led Peary to ask MacMillan to join him as an assistant on his Arctic trip in 1905. Unwilling to break his teaching commitment, MacMillan declined but did travel with Peary on his third, successful, attempt to the Pole in 1908-1909 (2). Once MacMillan returned to the US, he pursued masters and doctorate degrees in anthropology from Bowdoin College and Harvard University, and began planning his next Arctic exploration with his colleague and AMNH employee George Borup (2). He went on the Cabot Labrador expedition of 1910, where carried out ethnological studies among the Innu and Inuit throughout Greenland (1, p. 33-34). In 1911 he and George Borup declared their intention to go the Arctic to reach the island that Peary had supposedly seen during his expedition in 1905. Crocker Land, named after one of Peary’s financiers, was at the time thought to be the northernmost landmass in the Arctic Ocean (3, p. 379-382). With the funding promised from President Henry F. Osborn of the AMNH, the two men plotted the trip as co-leaders, but Borup's untimely death in 1912 waylaid the expedition till July 1913. MacMillan would act as leader of the Crocker Land expedition, and would be joined by personnel from AMNH, the United States Navy, Bowdoin College and University of Illinois, as well as one of MacMillan’s childhood friends from Provincetown, Massachusetts. After a rocky sail north, the team landed in Etah, Greenland in August 1913, and remained in Northern Greenland for 7 months preparing for the long Arctic journey (3, p. 379-383). After almost 3 months traveling north, MacMillan, Navy ensign Fitzhugh Green, and two Inuit assistants reached the location that Peary posited as Crocker Land, finding the island to be a fata morgana, an unusual type of mirage. After marking their location on Peary’s previously built cairns, the team traveled back south, returning to Etah in May 1914 (4, p. 925-930). The expedition team was expected to return from Greenland in the summer of 1915, but two inadequate relief boats foundered in the Arctic ice. Despite being trapped, the team had managed to collect an impressive amount of scientific data, photographs, and film, traveling to largely unsurveyed locations throughout the Arctic Circle and Polar Sea. In 1916 several members of the party returned to the US by dog sled to get to southern Greenland, then catching ships traveling south. But MacMillan stayed in Etah, continuing his research till September 1917, when the Neptune, sent by AMNH, was able to arrive and bring MacMillan, the remainder of the expedition team, and various specimens back to New York (3, p. 406-411). MacMillan joined the Naval Reserves soon after his return and served for two years with the rank of lieutenant. In 1920 he returned to the Arctic on the first of many voyages on the schooner, the Bowdoin, a vessel of his design that could cut through ice fields. MacMillan would go on 12 trips north over the next fifteen years, only taking a break to join Bowdoin College’s staff as a professor of anthropology in 1933. His trips north would continue until his retirement in 1954. He only took a break from his scientific duties to serve in the US Navy during WWII (1, p. 34-35). During his 50-year career MacMillan made fundamental contributions to Arctic geology, anthropology, botany, zoology and geography, many times in the company of his wife Miriam Lock, whom he married in 1935 (2). He contributed to his field—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 Inuktikut language” while teaching and lecturing throughout the US (2). MacMillan wrote several books, including Four Years in the White North (1918), Etah and Beyond; or Life within 12 Degrees of the Pole (1927), and How Peary Reached the North, the personal story of his assistant (1934). He continued working with the school he founded in Nain, Greenland in 1927, providing funds and traveling north to visit students regularly. Donald MacMillan remained an active explorer until 1954, when he retired from the Navy reserve with the rank of rear admiral. He and his wife spent the last years of his life in Provincetown, Massachusetts where he died, age 95, on September 2, 1970 (1, p. 34-35).

SOURCES (1) Walter Mcclintock, "MacMillan, Donald Baxter", Current Biography Yearbook (1948): vol. 9: no. 8. 33-35.

(2)Bowdoin College. Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum. “Donald Baxter MacMillan.”

(3) MacMillan, Donald B. "Geographical Report of the Crocker Land Expedition, 1913-1917", American Museum of Natural History Bulletin 56 (1928): 379-435.

(4) MacMillan, Donald B. 1915. In Search of a New Land. Part II. New York: Harper's Magazine: 921-930.



Found in 4 Collections and/or Records:

Crocker Land Expedition collection

Identifier: Archives Orn159
Scope and Contents

Correspondence with Donald B. MacMillan

Dates: 1912-1933

Crocker Land Expedition field photographs

Identifier: PPC .C76
Scope and Content Note This collection is a small subset of copies of prints from the larger Photographic Collection no. 14 – Crocker Land Expedition field photographs. The photographs in this collection are individually sleeved and arranged in four series. Folder 1 consists of 4 photographs that were taken prior to departure for the Arctic and include images of the S.S. “Diana” in the Brooklyn Navy Yard and group portraits of the expedition team.Folder 2 is divided into two sets. The...
Dates: circa 1913-1917

Crocker Land Expedition papers, 1907-1922.

Identifier: Mss .C76
Dates: Majority of material found within 1907 - 1922