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