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Thursday, January 11, 2007
(Robert J. Keller/Globe Staff)
Bradford Washburn climbed seven stories in 1963 to inspect plaques installed at the Boston Museum of Science.
By Michael J. Bailey, Globe staff and Andrew Ryan, Globe Correspondent
Bradford Washburn, the founder of the modern Boston Museum of Science who transformed a modest collection into renowned institution, died last night at the age of 96.
The cause was heart failure, said his wife, Barbara Washburn. He died in Brookhaven retirement home in Lexington.
"He was a very kind and loving person and just had a desire for doing good things and adventure," Barbara Washburn said. "And he loved to share that goodness and that spirit of adventure."
Mr. Washburn ran the Museum of Science for 41 years, moving the small collection from its original Berkeley Street building to its present site on the Charles River Basin, now known as Science Park. An avid mountaineer and cartographer, Mr. Washburn made eight first-recorded ascents of North American peaks and authored two-dozen maps, several of the Grand Canyon, Mount Everest, and Mount McKinley. As a photographer, he pioneered the high-resolution, large-format aerial picture.
Mr Washburn took over the helm of the New England Museum of Natural History in the Back Bay in 1939 at the age of 29.
The museum then was little more than a dark repository of deteriorating stuffed animals. One patron had described it as "a grandmother's attic, a hodgepodge of ill-cared and often repulsive exhibits which belong by rights in a medical school."
Mr. Washburn later said he got the job because no one else wanted it.
He had energy and ideas; what he needed was money. So Mr. Washburn led a series of fund-raising drives that delivered on average about a $1 million a year. Within a decade, plans were set for a new Science Park at the Charles River Basin, with a Museum of Science as the centerpiece. A mobile planetarium was built to travel across New England, promoting the idea and attracting donations; an army of children was recruited to help move the exhibits.
"Everyone thought we were absolutely mad," he recalled.
In 1951, the new museum opened. Subsequent additions housed a planetarium, the Mugar Omni theater, and the 2 1/2 million-volt Van de Graaff generator.
By the time he retired as director in 1980, Mr. Washburn had built "the first major museum anywhere to bring all science under a single roof -- natural, physical, applied, and a planetarium," said the late-Leonard Carmichael, who once ran the Smithsonian Institution.
The key, Mr. Washburn insisted, was bringing science to life. "The great majority of our visitors," he once said, "probably never will be scientists, but they will be better lawyers, businessmen, clergymen, scoutmasters, parents, citizens because of this fascinating glimpse of the wonders which lie constantly hidden on all sides of every one of us."
A Cambridge native, Henry Bradford Washburn Jr. attended the Buckingham School and then the Groton School. His father was dean of an Episcopal theological school; his mother, Edith Buckingham Hall, was an amateur photographer who gave him his first camera, a Kodak Brownie, when he was 13.
In his boyhood, he was hampered by breathing difficulties. He found relief in the same place he would later find inspiration and, ultimately, a touch of glory.
"I had perfectly terrible hay fever for the first 10 years of my life," he said in 2000. "I noticed that I didn't get hay fever when I went into the mountains."
By age 11, he had hiked Mount Washington, the highest in New England; by 16, Mont Blanc, the highest in the Alps.
During his time in the Alps, he took his first aerial photos and wrote articles for youth magazines. Still in his teens, he wrote three guidebooks and gave lectures on the Alps in such august venues as Carnegie Hall in New York and Symphony Hall in Boston.
When not exploring what he called "the incredibly savage beauty" of Alaska, Mr. Washburn was in Boston transforming the museum. As part of that effort, he attempted to recruit as his secretary a Smith College graduate working in Harvard's biology department. Barbara Polk, however, had little interest in the job. "I didn't want to go work in that stuffy old place with a crazy mountain climber," she said in 2001.
With a persistence that would become his trademark, Mr. Washburn succeeded in hiring Polk. After working to shape the museum, the two couple married.
"She's the best thing that ever happened to me," he often said.
Together, the Washburns hiked some of the most treacherous mountains of Alaska. They were most identified with North America's biggest: Mount McKinley. At 20,320 feet, the mountain known as Denali to nearby tribes had been considered among the most difficult in the world to climb before Mr. Washburn began exploring and detailing it.
The rise from its plateau to its summit exceeds that of Mount Everest by 6,000 feet. Its proximity to the jetstream and high latitude increase the chances of altitude sickness and harsh weather.
In 1947, Mr. Washburn became the first to reach its summit twice, and Barbara became the first woman at the summit. After a decade of research on the mountain that included creating detailed maps and shooting hundreds of photographs, Mr. Washburn devised a new path to the summit. Known as the West Buttress Route, this approach dramatically eased the ascent and opened the mountain to tens of thousands of climbers who would follow in his footsteps.
In his mountaineering pursuits, he displayed a single-mindedness -- more than one colleague called it an obsession. Mr. Washburn, his wife said, was "the kind of guy who, when he makes up his mind about something, you don't have time to take a deep breath."
That dogged approach served him well in safely completing his climbs and in creating his maps and models, renderings that became signposts to generations of scientists and adventurers. In addition to his research on Alaskan mountains, Mr. Washburn created what many believe are the definitive maps of the Grand Canyon and the Presidential Range in New Hampshire.
In photography, Mr. Washburn married this profound sense of purpose with a sense of wonder. For his aerial images, he devised an elaborate process to capture the light and the detail, the drama and the sweep of what he experienced. He would yank the side door off a single-engine plane and strap himself and his 53-pound Fairchild K-6 camera into position at the opening. At more than 20,000 feet with buffeting winds, well below zero temperatures, a vibrating and yawing fuselage, and oxygen supped through a bottle, conditions were brutal.
The results were striking. Because they were shot from adjacent or diagonal angles, rather than from straight above or from the base, the shrouded rocks and shifting clouds create visceral, almost animate images. Epic in scale yet intimate in detail and shadings, they are more like portraits of individual mountains than landscapes.
His photographs, critics say, don't merely record, they reveal.
"This is at once good science and expressive art," Clifford S. Ackley, a curator at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, said in 2000.
Even though he was known for his thorough preparation, Mr. Washburn was not without his close calls.
In 1937, Mr. Washburn and Bob Bates, who would later become famous for his assaults on the world's second-largest mountain, K-2, in Nepal, became the first to reach the summit of Mount Lucania, at 17,150 feet the highest mountain in North America yet to be climbed then. Bad weather and logistics, however, prevented their pilot from returning to their base to pick them up. Short on food and without adequate clothing, the pair bushwhacked their way through about 100 miles of wilderness to the nearest town. Decades later, their ordeal became the subject of a book: "Escape from Lucania."
Also in 1937, Mr. Washburn was one of the candidates to be the navigator for Amelia Earhart's attempt to fly around the world. In the process of interviewing for the post, Mr. Washburn told her she should place a radio on Howland Island, 2,000 miles from Australia, as a beacon in one of the most treacherous parts of her mission. Earhart disagreed and did not offer him the job. Her plane disappeared in the South Pacific.
"Her death made me sick. It was so preventable," Mr. Washburn told the Baltimore Sun in 1998. "She was a delightful girl and was in many ways an excellent pilot [but] pathologically self-confident. Amelia didn't listen to anybody."
Mount Everest eluded Mr. Washburn as a climber. "I was interested in climbing it, but that was before it was climbed, before (World War II), and I couldn't do it then because Nepal wouldn't let you in," he said in 2000. "And ... after the war I was just too damned busy getting this museum going."
After retiring from the museum in 1980, however, he saw an opportunity. No longer could he, at age 70, climb it. But he could, as he had throughout his life, use science to strip away some of its mysteries.
In a years-long project involving scientists from at least a dozen other nations, Mr. Washburn led a team that took photographs during a series of crisscrossing flights over and around the mountain. From his research, he created state-of-the-art topographical maps and the world's largest model of Everest (12-by-15 feet), which was placed in the museum.
At age 89, he was part of a US team that used hikers and Global Positioning Satellites to determine Everest's height.
Mount Everest, Mr. Washburn told a news conference beamed around the world, was 29,035 feet, seven feet higher than previously measured.
In addition to his wife, Washburn is survived by his son Edward H.
Washburn, and daughters, Dorothy W. Dundas and Elizabeth W. Cabot; nine grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
There will be no services. Mr. Washburn will be cremated.
"He didn't want any fuss," his wife said.
Posted by the Boston Globe City & Region Desk at 09:22 AM