Obituaries

Barbara Hillary, the first black woman to reach the North Pole, has died

 

She has a famous last name. Edmund Hillary was the first man to climb Mount Everest

Matthew Henson, a black man, was the first person to reach the North Pole

Barbara Hillary

 

Barbara Hillary, the first African American woman to reach both the North and South Pole, has died. She was 88.

Hillary, then 75, reached the North Pole on April 23, 2007, after skiing there from a location where she had been dropped off by a helicopter. Hillary was so excited about her accomplishment, she removed her gloves and suffered frostbite on some of her fingers, reported the Seattle Times.

The North Pole at the northern end of Earth’s axis, lies in the Arctic Ocean, about 450 miles north of Greenland. This geographic North Pole does not coincide with the magnetic North Pole—to which magnetic compasses point.

Matthew Henson, whose life had been chronicled in the book “Dark Companion: The Story of Matthew Henson,” was the first person and the first black man to reach the North Pole.

Matthew Henson, a black man, was the first person to reach the North Pole

Henson was part of an expedition with Robert Peary to the North Pole, but Peary became ill and remained behind. Henson went ahead, becoming the first person to reach the North Pole on April 6, 1909.

Peary was devastated. He rarely spoke to Henson. The U.S. Navy commission Peary a Rear Admiral in the Navy but Henson, who learned and mastered intuit language, ended up working as a postal clerk.

The New York Times published an article about Peary reaching the North Pole but never mentioned Henson. On April 6, 1954. President Dwight Eisenhower honored Henson during a ceremony at the White House.

In 1996, the U.S. Navy commissioned USNS Henson, a pathfinder/survey ship named in his honor.

At the age of 79, Barbara Hillary reached the South Pole.

Hillary, whose last name briefly remined me of Edmund Hillary, the New Zealand mountaineer who was the first man to climb Mount Everest, the world’s tallest mountain, became interested in exploring after surviving lung cancer.

Previously, she had worked 55 years as a nurse. She also drove a cab. After retiring, she went dogsledding in Quebec, Canada and photographed polar bears, a very dangerous animal.

When Barbara Hillary learned no black woman had reached the North Pole, she decided to try, raising the $25,000 mostly through donations to make the trip.

Born June 12, 1931 in Manhattan, N.Y. , she earned both her bachelors and masters degrees in gerontology from the New School in New York before becoming a nurse.

Hillary died Saturday, November 23, at a hospital in Far Rockaway, Queens. Hillary is now known as both an explorer and a nurse.

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