Hayes was born in 1832 to a farming family in Chester County, Pennsylvania. After attending the local public school until age 13, he was sent to Westtown School, a Quaker boarding school of such austerity that its disapproval of frivolous literature extended even to Shakespeare. It was a good incubator of scientists, however. Another of its pupils was Edward Drinker Cope, who became a renowned paleontologist (and taught the subject at Penn). Even without the Bard, Westtown must have been to Hayes’s liking: upon graduating, he stayed there two more years as an assistant teacher of mathematics and civil engineering.

Hayes was leaning toward the study of law when his father talked him into medicine instead. The young man entered Penn’s Medical School in the fall of 1851. As a student he was ambitious, if not traditionally so. “I had a lot of intuitive feeling that my destiny would lead me to the North,” he recalled, “and under the influence of this feeling I set to work the harder and graduated a year earlier than I otherwise would have done.”

Toward the end of his abbreviated stay at Penn, Hayes wrote a letter to Kane, offering his services as medical officer on his imminent rescue mission to the Far North. (Kane’s own Arctic career had begun with a stint as ship’s doctor on an earlier voyage.) The interview went well—and the Penn connection couldn’t have hurt—but an offer was not immediately forthcoming. Hayes hedged his bet by opening a medical practice in Philadelphia and trying to latch on to John Charles Frémont’s planned expedition to the Rocky Mountains. The arrival of a brief note on May 26, 1853, saved Hayes from casting his lot with the inept Frémont: “Dr. Kane would like to see Dr. Hayes as soon as possible.” A whirlwind week later, Kane’s ship left New York harbor with the 21-year-old Hayes on board.

Up north, Hayes looked and learned, especially from adaptations by Eskimos (as the Inuit were then called) to their uncompromising environment. He also tended to patients, notably after the return of a party sent out to lay depots on Canada’s Ellesmere Island. Temperatures bottoming out at 75 degrees below zero had left the sojourners severely frostbitten; despite Hayes’s best efforts, three of them died. On a happier note, Hayes and another man made it to Ellesmere and back by sledge, filling in blank spots on the map.

Bent on exploring some more, Kane decreed that the expedition would spend a second winter in the Far North. Yet fuel and rations were running so low that he gave everyone a choice: stick with him or head south with a portion of the supplies to live on. To his dismay, eight men—a majority—elected to leave, Hayes among them. Their journey proved so harrowing that the famished secessionists were reduced to eating lichen scraped off rocks. In desperation, they turned around and retraced their steps, all the way back to the mother ship. Hayes was chosen to deliver the plea for mercy. “We have come here, destitute and exhausted,” he told Kane, “to claim your hospitality; we know that we have no right to your indulgence, but we feel that with you, we will find a welcome and a home.” They knew their man. Although hurt and resentful, Kane not only took the prodigals in but also surrendered his bunk to Hayes, who had to undergo the amputation of three frostbitten toes. The reconstituted group abandoned ship and made its arduous way back to Greenland on sledges and boats. In October of 1855, they finally reached New York, where they were welcomed as symbols of America’s coming-of-age: it was no longer a country to be explored, but one that engaged in exploring.

Hayes lectured about his just-concluded adventures at the Smithsonian Institution, the American Geographical Society, and lesser venues. Although the talks were well received, audiences found one aspect of them disappointing: the speaker himself. A reporter described him as “quite a young looking, slender, black haired, dark complexioned gentleman, rather under the medium size, [who] does not, at first sight, appear like one of those robust men whom we naturally picture to ourselves as the best fitted to encounter the rigors and hardships of polar navigation.” Ultimately, however, that slight specimen became, as Douglas W. Wamsley puts it in his invaluable 2009 biography, Polar Hayes, “the most prolific lecturer and writer on the Arctic in the nineteenth century.”

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FEATURE: Pointing the Way to the Pole By Dennis Drabelle
©2011 The Pennsylvania Gazette

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Famed Civil War photographer Mathew Brady shot this portrait of Hayes sometime between 1860 and 1872. Library of Congress.


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