Thursday, 4:30 PM
Bradford Washburn, father of modern Museum of Science, dies at 96
(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
Bradford Washburn, the founder of the Museum of Science and an explorer who spent three-quarters of a century unlocking the secrets of such sites as Mount McKinley and Mount Everest, died Wednesday of heart failure. He was 96.
Mr. Washburn was a world-class mountain climber and a renowned cartographer. He often said, however, that these were secondary pursuits. He'd be happy, he told the Globe in 2000, if his obituary were one sentence: "He built the Museum of Science."
"The top of Mount McKinley was thrilling," he once said, "but there's nothing on earth more exciting than the eyes of a
youngster at the instant of discovery."
For eight decades, Mr. Washburn traveled to some of earth's most remote regions, recorded his observations, and returned to share his discoveries.
Along the way, he was credited with being the first to reach the summits of seven North American mountains. As part of his effort to document his expeditions, he created photographs that were both aesthetic gems and gateways for other explorers. From such work, he is considered a pioneer of aerial photography.
"You recognize the explorer in Bradford Washburn at first sight," his longtime friend, the late Ansel Adams, said. "There is something about his eyes, the set of his chin ... the consistent energy of mind and spirit."
Mr. Washburn was known for his nearly boundless enthusiasm, a granite determination, and a meticulous attention to detail. Those qualities, colleagues said, brought success both in the jagged wilderness and in the thicket of Boston's politics and academia.
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 millions of dollars. Within a decade, plans were set for a Museum of Science at the Charles River Basin. A mobile planetarium was built to travel across New England, attracting donations; an army of children was recruited to move the exhibits.
"Everyone thought we were absolutely mad," he once recalled.
In 1951, the new museum opened. Subsequent additions under his direction housed a planetarium 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 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. 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.
While an undergraduate at Harvard University, he began exploring what he called "the incredibly savage beauty" of Alaska.
After assuming control of the Natural History Museum, he attempted to recruit as his secretary a Smith College graduate working in Harvard's biology department. Barbara Polk, however, had little interest. "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. As they worked to shape the museum, the two fell in love and married. For their honeymoon, they made the first recorded ascent of Mount Bertha in Alaska.
"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 had been considered among the most difficult in the world to climb before Mr. Washburn began exploring and detailing it. The rise from plateau to 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 that included detailed maps and scores of photographs, Mr. Washburn devised a new path to the summit. Known as the West Buttress Route, this approach dramatically eased the ascent. Tens of thousands of climbers have since followed 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 completing his climbs and in creating his maps and models, renderings that became signposts to generations of scientists and adventurers. In addition to his Alaska research, he 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 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 20,000 feet with buffeting winds, finger-freezing temperatures, a vibrating and yawing fuselage, and oxygen sucked 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 shading, 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.
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 a dozen other nations, Mr. Washburn led a team that took photographs during a series of crisscrossing flights 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. To reveal their conclusions, team members turned to the man who had been sharing his experiences and enthusiasm since he was 16.
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, Mr. Washburn leaves a son, Edward H.; two daughters, Dorothy Dundass of Newton and Elizabeth Cabot of Belmont; nine grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
There will be no services.
"He didn't want any fuss," Barbara Washburn said.
Material from Globe correspondent Edgar Driscoll Jr. was used in this obituary.