Louise Boyd: First Woman Polar Explorer

Updated: Oct 17, 2020

Do you admire women who seize the chance to do what few other people have done? To count down the days to National Kick Butt Day, October 14, I am celebrating ten adventurous members of the Society of Woman Geographers (SWG). The eighth person to be honored is Polar Explorer Louise Boyd.

Louise Boyd Films Rescue Efforts, National Archives

A Passion for the Arctic

In 1924, at age 36, Louise Boyd cruised the waters of Norway with a friend and became spellbound when she saw the Arctic ice fields: Gigantic imaginary gates, with hinges set in the horizon, seem to guard these lands. Slowly the gates swing open, and one enters another world where men are insignificant amid the awesome immensity of lonely mountains, fiords and glaciers.” After the voyage, Louise was determined to return. As a millionaire, Louise had broad contacts and the resources to sponsor her own expedition.

But it was not easy to find someone to guide her through the Arctic Ocean. They did not take her seriously, telling her that “the Arctic was a place only for men.” When she asked polar expert Francis J. de Gisbert to navigate the ship she planned to charter, he declined. She wrote back: “ I fully appreciate your point of view but I am determined to go into the pack ice and to lands beyond it.” After she told him about her Norwegian cruise, de Gisbert finally agreed to join her expedition.

The Arctic was a place only for men.”

In 1926, they boarded The Hobby, the base ship of explorer Roald Amundsen, which she had chartered for her first expedition. She asked de Gisbert to tell her about other women Arctic explorers, but he was at a loss to describe one: “You are, without doubt, the first woman, Miss Boyd, to freight and equip a ship in order to navigate the polar seas. These are trips that, before you, women had not embarked upon.”

On the ice floes, Louise spied a polar bear. She acted without thinking:

“My brain left all of me that was feminine behind on the ship, and, with Army Springfield over my shoulder, with a man-size stride and will power, I set out with de Gisbert and two of the crew, bound on proving I belonged there just as much as the men!”

Louise Arner Boyd and Polar Bear

The Search for Amundsen

In 1928, Louise chartered the Hobby for another Arctic expedition. As the ship was getting ready to sail, Louise heard reports that Arctic explorer Roald Amundsen went missing while on an air rescue mission to find the crash site of the Italian dirigible, Italia. The Hobby had just returned from searching for the crew of the Italia. Louise immediately offered to outfit the Hobby for a rescue mission, on the condition that she go along.” She thought:

“How could I go on a pleasure trip when those 22 lives were at stake? I want to do something worthwhile, of which I can be proud.”

She wrote of her excitement to a friend: “I could write pages, but if I am to be up and see us start and get this mailed, I must stop and get some sleep. We are at the dock for freshwater, and the light in my cabin is so poor that I cannot see sufficiently well to write other than a bad scrawl. However, I wanted you to know that all goes well and that I enjoy obeying orders.” The Hobby’s crew was all male, except for Louise’s friend Julia Calhoun, who came with her husband, and Hilda, a housekeeper-cook.

The Hobby sailed to King’s Bay, Spitsbergen, where they met fourteen other ships and several planes on the search mission. Although the Hobby’s crew had no problem with Louise, the crew of the other vessels did not think a woman belonged in the Arctic. Louise wrote in her diary:

“That to them, I was an object of curiosity, they did not hide. Did they expect me to look different from other women? Was I to have flippers of a seal, tusks of a walrus or horns of a muskox? Or was I to be some extremely eccentric, awful, hard-boiled old hag, sloppy and dirty-looking in appearance?"

"This latter seemed evident, and my plain, well-made American tweed tailor suit and brown leather low-heeled shoes, well-shampooed and waved hair topped off with felt hat, gloved hands that were useful and seen doing all kinds of things, from moving things on the dock to trunks and cases, or wielding the hammer or screwdriver, and yet, when not gloved, were seen to be not calloused or the quality of sandpaper, all seemed absolutely incomprehensible to them. Their sphinx-like faces glared still harder on sight of my using face powder and lipstick as the sweat of the Arctic during long working hours rolled down my face and neck in rivulets.” But Louise soon won them over.

At King’s Bay, the pilots and their mechanics joined the crew of the Hobby. Two seaplanes were hoisted onto the ship’s deck. Pilot Riiser-Larsen wrote in his autobiography: I was a little anxious about what it would be like to have ladies on board for the type of voyage we were to make. Let me quickly add: it was perfectly fine, despite the fact that this was not a pleasure trip.” But Louise was not surprised by his initial reaction:

“The greatest handicap I have is being a woman, which caused many to look upon me as not worthy to be included in the scientific world. In many cases, I have had far more actual experience than those so-rated scientists.”

The next day, the Hobby received their instructions and set sail for Greenland.

After a month of dodging sea swells and icebergs, the seaplanes took off in search of Amundsen and the Italia. Louise wrote: “Among the ice floes far in these Arctic waters, to see a hydroplane lowered off Hobby and go off gave me a real thrill … it’s a job getting the planes on and off.” When searches of Greenland proved unsuccessful, the Norwegian government ordered the Hobby to search Frans Josef Land. The ship docked in King’s Bay and took on supplies and airplane parts before heading further north.


Conditions were treacherous. Louise wrote that: “We rolled; we pitched; and things just catapulted about. The Hobby became covered in ice so thick that one plane got 37 holes put in it from falling ice; the other plane 27 holes. The wireless wires fell, also the heavy aerial. This smashed the tail of the plane.” The further north they got, the worse the conditions became.

Pilot Riiser-Larsen was sleeping in his cabin when he smelled smoke. He ran to the galley and informed mechanic Myhre of the fire. Myhre handed him a fire extinguisher. “I dashed into the galley and directed it at the bulkhead. In doing so, an enormous flame shot almost explosively up toward the bulkhead and the ceiling. There was gasoline in the extinguisher — a serious error by whoever filled it. Myhre stood behind me and saw this and immediately got another extinguisher.” This one was filled with fire retardant and doused the flames before they spread to Louise’s cabin, where the dynamite was stored. The crew soon received orders that their mission was over, and the Hobby limped into Spitsberg.

Louise Boyd signs the Fliers and Explorers Globe at Explorers Club

When Louise returned from the voyage, she learned that King Hakkon VII planned to give her the order of St. Olaf, First Class, for her rescue efforts. In desperate need of formal clothes, she dashed to Paris to buy a gown. She was the first non-Norwegian woman to receive this honor.

First Woman to Fly Over the North Pole

In the 1930s, Louise led six scientific expeditions in Greenland. She collected hundreds of botanical specimens and surveyed the land to create reconnaissance-scale maps. She had learned the art of photogrammetry—creating a topographical map by creating three-dimensional images—from Isaiah Bowman, the American Geographical Society’s director. He praised her photographs, rare praise from a man who thought that women should stay at home. Greenland named a region after her: Weisboydlund (Mis Boyd Land). Because Louise had a unique understanding of the country, the United States appointed her, during World War I, to led a geophysical expedition of the western Greenland coast to acquire strategic information on radio transmissions and potential military landing sites. In 1949, she received a Certificate of Appreciation from the Army for this work.

Her last expedition was in 1955, at age 66, when she became the first woman to fly over the North Pole. “North, north, north, we flew. And in a moment of happiness, which I shall never forget, our instruments told me we were there. Directly below us, lay the North Pole!”

Other Posts in this Series

  1. Amelia Earhart, aviator

  2. Mickie Akeley, old school explorer

  3. Mary Vaux Walcott, botanist

  4. Lucile Quarry Mann, naturalist

  5. Frances Oldham Kelsey, pharmacologist

  6. Rebeca Carion Cachot, anthropologist

  7. Louise Arner Boyd, Arctic Explorer

  8. Caroline Mytinger, Artist Explorer

  9. Gloria Hollister, Marine Biologist

  10. Blair Niles, Explorer and Author

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