Part explorer, part thrill-seeker, part philosopher, Richard Byrd is best known for his exploration of Antarctica, but for all his successes, it was an embarrassing defeat that opened his eyes to what’s important in life.
Byrd was born in Virginia in 1888. He was a graduate of the Naval Academy and served as an admiral in the U.S. Navy. He came to New England when he married Marie Ames, daughter of a wealthy Boston industrialist and settled on Brimmer Street on Beacon Hill, the house a gift of Marie’s father.
But it was adventure that Byrd truly craved as a young man. He aspired to compete with the likes of Charles Lindbergh, the aviator who was the first to cross the Atlantic.
A born adventurer, Byrd chose the North Pole as his target. In a race to be the first to fly over the pole, Byrd claimed he crossed over on a flight on May 9, 1926. That claim is highly suspect, given the amount of time the trip took. His charitable critics figure he miscalculated his position; other say the claim was an intentional fraud.
Nevertheless, the flight put Byrd firmly in the public eye as a hero, and for his next target, he chose the South Pole. In 1928, he departed America and travelled with an extensive expedition to Antarctica. He set up his camp, Little America, and after 14 months of effort, on November 19, 1929, Byrd and his pilot, Bernt Balchen, flew over the South Pole and Byrd became known as the Admiral of Antarctica.
Byrd was nothing if not a showman. He knew his next journey would have to top his last. He needed his fame to procure funding, since at this stage of his career his expeditions were privately sponsored by patrons with names like Ford and Rockefeller.
While the key point of his next voyage to Antarctica would be gathering scientific data about the continent and conducting extensive mapping and surveying, for the public Byrd concocted a stunt. He would spend the winter of 1934 living alone in the interior of the continent.
It was a bust. Byrd could not last the winter. He suffered carbon monoxide poisoning. He had to be rescued by his own men. The incident forever scarred his health, and upon his return he was mocked for naming features such as mountains in Antarctica after his famous investors.
But the failed winter stay also marked a profound shift in Byrd’s attitudes. The swashbuckling adventurer had been mellowed by what he witnessed and his brush with death.
In 1938, when he wrote of the experience in his book, Alone, Byrd recalled that he came to realize how little a person actually “needs” in life.
“Solitude is greater than I anticipated. My sense of values is changing, and many things which before were in solution in my mind now seem to be crystallizing. I am better able to tell what in the world is wheat for me and what is chaff. In fact, my definition of success itself is changing,” he wrote. “Part of me remained forever at Latitude 80 degrees 08 minutes South: what survived of my youth, my vanity, perhaps, and certainly my skepticism.
On the other hand, I did take away something that I had not fully possessed before: appreciation of the sheer beauty and miracle of being alive, and a humble set of values. All this happened four years ago. Civilization has not altered my ideas. I live more simply now, and with more peace.”
Byrd committed himself to working for a vision of world peace in which men learned to coexist in harmony. He would make two more trips to the South Pole, interrupted by his wartime service in the Pacific. The last two trips were funded by the government and he engaged in far less promotion, letting the science take the lead.