Polar Discovery Debate Heats Up. ARCTIC EXPLORATION: WHODUNIT. Scientists and scholars question Robert Peary's claim to the North Pole

`ADMIRAL Peary's reputation was one of absolute integrity,'' says Edward Peary Stafford, grandson of the supposed discoverer of the North Pole. ``At the apex of his career, the leopard is not going to suddenly change his spots.'' Whether Robert E. Peary and his black assistant, Matthew Hanson, actually reached the theoretical top of the earth has been debated ever since they made the claim in 1909.

The first challenge came from Frederick E. Cook, Adm. Peary's former medical assistant, who claimed to have reached the pole one year earlier in 1908. The affable Dr. Cook was eventually discredited for lack of evidence; he died in a Texas jail serving time for mail fraud.

Still, critics remained skeptical of 52-year-old Peary's claim, demanding scientific evidence - particularly navigational readings - which Peary couldn't produce because he hadn't recorded them and said they weren't necessary. Today, critics are again demanding evidence of Peary's claim.

Yet the debate is more than scientific uncertainty. It involves heroism and human fallibility; honesty and fakery. Eighty years later the voices - navigators, scientists, writers, and hobbyists - clamor to be heard over the din of controversy. It's no longer just the Peary question.

``It's an unsolved crime,'' says Joseph Judge, senior editor of the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C. ``People want to know who dunit? Did Peary really do it? Did he really fake it?''

While the society helped sponsor Peary's trip, embraced his claim, and did much to make him a national hero, it never demanded proof. Critics have accused National Geographic magazine of ``rose-colored journalism,'' based on one man's word rather than scientific evidence.

That attitude changed in 1988 when the magazine published an article by British explorer Wally Herbert - who trekked to the pole in 1969 - concluding that Peary fell short by 30 to 60 miles (see map).

At the request of the society, Mr. Herbert spent three years researching the Peary archives, opened in 1984 for the first time since Peary's death in 1920. (The Peary family made the documents public after CBS aired a controversial TV ``docudrama'' which suggested Cook reached the pole first.) The records are in the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

``There is no absolute proof one way or the other....[But] the circumstantial evidence against him reaching the pole is really massive,'' says Herbert from his home in Devon, England.

Herbert is most troubled by Peary's lack of longitude readings, which would have kept him marching in the straight line Peary claimed he followed by using the sun.

``You can only use the sun for navigation if you know what your longitude is. And you can only know your longitude if you find it out'' by taking sextant readings, says Herbert. During a 1911 US Congressional hearing, Peary stated that he took no longitude readings.

Furthermore, says Herbert, strong wind currents from the east would have blown Peary off course and slowed the journey, which at the end averaged an incredible 25 miles per day. Unlike the continental South Pole, the North Pole is located in ocean covered by constantly shifting ice. IN addition to navigational uncertainties, there are gaps in Peary's records. Diary pages were left blank on the days he was supposedly at the pole. Only a loose-leaf sheet - which could have been written and inserted at any time - states: ``The Pole...Mine at last!!!'' The destination on the cover of the diary is also blank.

Critics find these blank pages oddly suspicious in the otherwise-meticulous records of a man who had spent 22 years striving to reach the pole.

One month after Herbert's conclusion was published, the most vociferous of Peary's critics, Baltimore astronomer Dennis Rawlins, topped it. He announced he'd found a ``suppressed document'' that put Peary exactly 121 miles from the pole on April 6, the day he claimed to have reached it.

The undated paper, containing navigational readings by Peary, was in an envelope labeled ``North Pole observations'' in the National Archives. (There was also a disclaimer written in 1936 by the Peary family stating the paper had been misfiled, of which Rawlins was aware.)

Called a professional ``Peary basher'' by some, Rawlins has spent nearly 20 years trying to prove the explorer was a fraud. His 1973 book, ``Peary at the Pole: Fact of Fiction,'' concludes that Peary's feat was an impossible ``413-mile pole-in-one.'' Rawlins's book cites much of the same circumstantial evidence from which Herbert later drew.

Again the society acted. Director Gilbert M. Grosvenor called on the Maryland-based Navigation Foundation, a member-supported group of 500 navigators worldwide.

``We've been asked to leave no stone unturned,'' says the president of the foundation, Thomas Davies. ``The first stone we turned over had Rawlins underneath.''

In January, Adm. Davies blasted Rawlins's theory: Rawlins had mistaken what were actually serial numbers on Peary's three chronometers to be sextant readings. The paper's other readings, clearly labeled for the star ``Betelgeux,'' could have been taken, says Davies, at an ``infinite number of times and places.'' Indeed, the paper had been misfiled.

It was a glaring error by the man eager to criticize unscientific conduct. ``Admitting errors is part of science,'' says an unruffled Rawlins, noting that the experience gave him ``an unexpected opportunity to show how one should treat making errors.'' MEANWHILE, amid 225 cubic feet of Peary documents in the National Archives, Davies will not discuss specifics except to say he's encouraged by the mounds of information. ``Peary was kind of a squirrel. He saved everything.''

Davies is not bothered by Peary's lack of longitude readings. ``There are several ways to stay on the meridian. Some are better than others,'' he says, noting that he's not yet sure which method Peary used.

The diary cover is blank, says Davies, because ``Peary always left them blank.'' Davies expects to reach ``the final word'' on the controversy by mid-summer.

Says Cmd. Stafford, a navigator himself, ``Every time a detailed, expert analysis takes place, it always comes out that the admiral was right, without exception.''

But Herbert, assessing the achievements of ``greatest arctic explorer ever,'' says, ``I'd be extremely surprised if [the foundation] didn't come to the same conclusion as I.'' Herbert's book will be published in May.

Whatever the outcome, continues Herbert, ``We mustn't lose perspective on the man's individual achievement.''

Without modern technology and radios linking him to a base, Peary traveled by dogsled over 800 miles of dangerous, icy terrain in sub-zero conditions. No explorer has since traveled to and from the pole without air support.

Says Herbert, ``I don't think it was an instant decision to cheat. Peary was under enormous pressure to succeed.'' Herbert guesses that Peary waited until he was onboard the `Roosevelt' before deciding to fake his claim.

Should Peary be discredited if it's proved he missed - or probably missed - the pole?

``I think one should certainly put a question mark against his claim,'' says Herbert, who is the third in line - after American Ralph Plaisted (who went by snowmobile in 1968) - to be credited with reaching the pole overland. ``But the claim should never be given to someone else.''

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