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Washburn, Bradfordfree

(7 June 1910–10 Jan. 2007)
  • Susan Ware

Washburn, Bradford (7 June 1910–10 Jan. 2007), mountaineer, photographer, cartographer, and museum director, was born Henry Bradford Washburn, Jr. in Cambridge, Massachusetts, into a family that traced its roots to Plymouth Colony. His father, Henry Bradford Washburn, Sr., was the dean of the Episcopal Divinity School; his mother, Edith Buckingham Hall, was an amateur photographer and the widow of Rev. Samuel Colgate. In addition to a younger brother, Sherwood, born in 1911, he also had a stepsister from his mother’s first marriage.

The young Bradford attended the Buckingham School in Cambridge and first climbed Mount Washington, New England’s highest mountain, at the age of eleven. In 1923, he enrolled at Groton, his tuition paid by a wealthy uncle. In 1926, he and Sherwood spent the summer in Europe, climbing the Matterhorn, Monte Rosa, and Mont Blanc. His exploits brought him to the attention of publisher G. P. Putnam, who brought out Among the Alps with Bradford (1927) as part of his Boys’ Books series. It was followed by Bradford on Mt. Washington in 1928. Both books were illustrated by photographs taken by the young author.

After graduating from Groton in 1929, Washburn enrolled at Harvard College, where he received his B.A. in 1933, majoring in French history and literature. His major extracurricular activity was the Harvard Mountaineering Club. The summer after his freshman year, he made his first trip to Alaska, where he would pioneer major climbs in uncharted wilderness throughout the rest of the 1930s. While his first expeditions to Mount Fairweather and Mount Crillon were unsuccessful, in 1934 he summited Mount Crillon, a conquest that he documented in an illustrated article for National Geographic magazine in March 1935. In 1937, he did a first ascent of Lucania, one of his most challenging Alaskan expeditions; in 1938, he did two more first ascents in the St. Elias range. In organizing these expeditions, Washburn, who had first flown at the age of thirteen, pioneered the use of airplanes to drop supplies and climbers in remote locations. He also inaugurated the aerial photographic reconnaissance of remote peaks that became one of his main contributions to mountaineering.

Trips to Alaska and the Yukon were expensive, and Washburn, who was still only in his mid-twenties, benefitted from the financial support of the esteemed National Geographic Society. Still he had to do significant fundraising on the side by lecturing. In 1935, he took a job as an instructor at Harvard’s Institute for Geographical Exploration. Through his association with G. P. Putnam, who was now married to Amelia Earhart, he was approached to be the aviator’s navigator on her doomed round-the world flight in 1937 but declined.

In March 1939, Bradford Washburn began his life long association with Boston’s Museum of Science, then a dusty antiquarian institution in Back Bay called the New England Museum of Natural History. Chosen at age twenty-eight to become its director, one of his first tasks was to hire a secretary. In the process he met the woman who would be his partner and fellow explorer for the next six decades.

Barbara Polk Washburn (10 Nov. 1914–25 Sept. 2014) was born Barbara Teel Polk in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, to Alvar Polk, who worked in publishing, and Maybell Tell, who was adopted and raised in Boston after her Scottish parents died. The family included an older brother, a younger sister, and a stepbrother. Barbara graduated from the elite Boston Girls Latin School in 1931 and entered Smith College at age sixteen. She spent her junior year abroad in France, and graduated in 1935. She worked for a while at Dennison House, a Boston settlement house where she lived in a room once occupied by Amelia Earhart. Deciding against a career in settlement work, Barbara enrolled in 1936 at the Pierce Secretarial School and secured a position in the Harvard Biology Department. She was happily working there when a mutual friend suggested she apply for the position at the Museum of Natural History in 1939. “I don’t want to work in an old museum,” she announced, “and I definitely don’t want to work for a crazy mountain climber” (Accidental Adventurer, p. 27). She took the job nonetheless, and a year later on 27 April 1940 Barbara Polk and Bradford Washburn married.

From that point on, Brad and Barbara’s lives were totally intertwined on and off the mountains. Despite her lack of mountaineering experience, Barbara was surprised to learn that her new husband wanted her to come on that summer’s expedition to Alaska. She gamely signed on, and their party made a successful first ascent of Mount Bertha. When they came down off the mountain, she realized she was pregnant. Their first daughter was born in March 1941. A son followed in 1942, and another daughter in 1946.

During World War II, while Barbara cared for the family, Bradford Washburn served as a consultant to the US Army Air Forces on cold weather equipment, a vital task in a global war fought in harsh climates. In 1942, his team headed back to Alaska to try out existing gear in that harsh environment. They found the gear woefully inadequate but did manage to summit Mount McKinley, North America’s highest peak.

Washburn resumed his position as director of the Museum of Science in September 1945, and he continued to organize and lead major expeditions to Alaska. In 1947, Barbara Washburn became the first woman to climb Mount McKinley, leading the final pitch to the summit. This expedition was sponsored in part by RKO Pictures, which was interested in footage to promote a movie called The White Tower. Having a woman along greatly increased the publicity value, but Barbara always disavowed any feminist aspirations. She merely wanted to go along with her husband, she demurred, although she later admitted that she was a role model for women. McKinley was Barbara’s last major climb, but Brad came back one more time in 1951 to pioneer the route along the West Buttress that became the standard way up Mount McKinley (now known as Denali).

In 1951, the Museum of Science moved into a new building along the Charles River on the Boston–Cambridge border, ushering in a period of remarkable growth for the institution. Under Washburn’s direction, the museum focused on outreach and education, highlighting scientific engagement through exhibits and interactive displays. By the time he retired as director in 1980, the budget had grown to 3.5 million dollars and yearly attendance broke 1 million visitors.

Bradford Washburn always said that the Museum of Science was his proudest achievement, but he and Barbara were not done yet in terms of exploration and adventure. Now their focus turned to cartography, specifically using the extensive catalogue of aerial photographs that Washburn had been taking since the 1930s (often strapped in the open door of a plane at high altitude wielding a fifty-pound Fairchild K-6 aerial camera) to compile state-of-the art maps. The first to appear was the 1960 map of Mount McKinley done in association with the Swiss Institute for Alpine Research. Starting in 1971, Barbara and Brad began a seven-year mapping project of the Grand Canyon, which culminated in a map published in National Geographic magazine in June 1978. In the 1980s, the Washburns and a team of volunteers produced a comprehensive survey map of the Presidential Range in New Hampshire.

While Brad was involved in leading the Museum of Science, in the early 1960s, Barbara became a reading specialist at Shady Hill School in Cambridge, where she taught students with dyslexia and other reading disabilities. Her tutoring, which brought her great pleasure, still left her summers free to accompany her husband on his cartographic and photographic adventures.

Bradford Washburn never had a chance to climb in Nepal, but in the 1980s, the Washburns participated in aerial surveillance and photography of this area, including the towering Mount Everest. While doing preliminary mapping in 1984, Barbara was stricken with a rare blood disease and almost died. She eventually recovered, but her illness ended her teaching career at Shady Hill. The Everest map was published in 1988. In 1992, they returned to Nepal, where they ascertained the true height of Everest as 29,035 feet, seven feet taller than previously thought.

The Washburns were jointly honored by many awards, including the Centennial Award of the National Geographic Society in 1988, and continued to lecture and be active well into their nineties. Brad Washburn died at the Brookhaven retirement community in Lexington, Massachusetts, at the age of ninety-six, and Barbara Washburn died there seven years later, just months shy of her one hundredth birthday.

Bradford Washburn’s legacy lies in the intersection of science, exploration, and art. His early exploration of Alaska and the Yukon sparked interest in this remote region, and his photographs and maps were central to attempts to access and climb its peaks. Largely self-taught in photography, his pictures are also stunning works of art. An institution-builder as well as a popularizer of science, he made the Museum of Science a major Boston attraction. And from 1939 on, Barbara Washburn was at his side as partner and collaborator. She may have been, in the title of her memoir, an “accidental adventurer,” but she earned her place in the annals of science and exploration alongside her husband.


Archival material is held in the Bradford Washburn Collection at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, and at the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University. Panoptican Gallery in Boston oversees the extensive Washburn photographic archive; an excellent introduction is Anthony Decaneas, Bradford Washburn: Mountain Photography (1999). For Washburn’s diaries, see Exploring the Unknown: Historic Diaries of Bradford Washburn’s Alaska/Yukon Expeditions (2001), edited by Lew Freedman. Freedman also collaborated with Barbara Washburn on The Accidental Adventurer: Memoirs of the First Woman to Climb Mount McKinley (2001). Biographies include Donald Smith, On High (2002); Michael Sfraga, Bradford Washburn: A Life of Exploration (2004); and Lew Freedman, Bradford Washburn: An Extraordinary Life (2005). Obituaries of Bradford Washburn appeared in The Boston Globe on 12 Jan. 2007 and The New York Times on 16 Jan. 2007; Barbara Washburn’s obituary appeared in The Boston Globe on 25 Sept. 2014.