Explorers Club hunts new frontiers not in trophies, but of thought

Seventy-five years ago this month a polar veteran, Gen. Adolphus Washington Greely, and his former aide, Col. David L. Brainard, started the Explorers Club.

The two had survived three arctic winters in the early 1880s, had celebrated the anniversary of their rescue every year since, and in 1904 decided to expand their convivial occasions into a full-fledged club.

But now, despite its illustrious membership (which has included the likes of Theodore Roosevelt and Robert Peary, and -- more recently -- Lowell Thomas, Thor Heyerdahl, and former astronaut James Lovell), the club sees itself at a crossroads.

It is going through a period, not of financial crisis, but of acute self-examination. Exploration, it seems, no longer means blowpipes and giraffe tails so much as it does new frontiers of thought, action, and dedication.

"Today, exploration is much more than an investigation of geography, space, or even physics," insists club president Charles Brush, himself noted for finding the earliest pottery in Mexico, "Industrial research and development presents frontiers for exploration. And in the forefront of these are today's advances in the communications industry. To turn our backs on frontiers is to atrophy."

To bring this point home to members, a coming club awards ceremony will feature live photo transmissions of planetary rings and moons beamed back by the Voyager spacecraft hurtling toward its November rendezvous with the planet Saturn.

There still may be undiscovered Amazon Indians in the jungles of Brazil, Egyptian temples of unearth, and vast undersea exploration to be done. Mr. Brush concedes, but exploration just for self-fulfillment, adventure, or profit "is not enough." So he has tried to make sure that would-be members have a deep interest in contributing to world knowledge and is actively seeking new corporate members because of the immense technological resources these kinds of explorers need.

Still, it is difficult to walk into the Exploers' clubhouse on East 70th Street in Mamhattan and not be pulled back into the past. Inside the oak-paneled walls of what was once a private mansion, there are mounted game- animal heads and rugs -- although a guide was quick to point out that "we don't collect trophies anymore."

The trohies, some of which are as old as the club, were taken for "scientific purposes," another club member says. But some critics maintain that the club's practice of serving hippo, wild boar, and lion meat does not jibe with its protestations that the days of trophy hunting are long gone. Such "exotic" fare , is served only for hors d'oeuvres.

Moreover, some women's rights activists have taken the club to task for not admitting women as members. Dr. Brush favors such a move, but members have voted it down. However, women guests can use the extensive research library and come to lectures.

Financially, while the club can well afford to maintain its headquarters and send out mailings of the exploits of its members, it is failing to do as much in the way of enabling young people to get out of the classroom and into the field as it thinks essential for the growth of scientific knowledge.

"Were it not for the chance to go into the field myself," Dr. Bush says, "I doubt that I would have become an archaeologist, for the library, the classroom, and the laboratory cannot substitute for actual experience. Often a surprisingly few dollars can enable a student to gain field experience, for the cost of maintaining him is minimal. . . ."

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