Dr John Rae


Obituary of JOHN RAE, M.D., F.R.S.

Dr. John Rae, for thirty-five years a Corresponding Member of the American Geographical Society, died at his home in London on the 22d of July last. An attack of influenza in April had left him in a weakened condition, though he kept up with surprising energy and interested himself in his usual occupations to within a few days of his death.

Dr. Rae was born at the Hall of Clestrain, Pomona, Orkney Islands, September 30, 1813. He studied medicine at Edinburgh and took his degree from the Royal College of Surgeons in 1833; and shortly after went out in a Hudsonís Bay Company ship to Moose Factory, on Hudsonís Bay. There he remained in the service of the Company till June, 1846, when he set out, at the head of a party of ten men, in two boats, to survey the 700 miles of coast which separated Rossís explorations in Boothia from those of Parry at Fury and Hecla Strait.

Rae started from York Factory, with four monthsí provisions but no fuel, on the long voyage to Repulse Bay, where he wintered in N. lat. 66į 32'. The survey was accomplished in the spring. A memorandum in Dr. Raeís handwriting says, of this expedition and the one of 1853-4:

In both of these he carried with him only four months* provisions for his party, and was absent fifteen months, having on return to York Factory one and one half monthís provisions remaining. All game and fish for food were obtained by the party; chiefly deer. We had not a bit of fuel to warm our stone house with, and the smoke of the andromeda used for cooking would not go out by the chimney. We had to keep the door open all the time of cooking, as the smoke was very pungent. The temperature usually fell 15 or more degrees when the cooking was going on. We (had) no oil for a fire lamp in the snow hut in 1853-4.

In 1848 Dr. Rae, as second in command, accompanied Sir John Richardsonís expedition from the Mackenzie River to the Coppermine, in search of Sir John Franklin; and he descended the Coppermine, after Richardsonís return to England. The next year, with two men, he made a sledge journey along the coasts of Wollaston and Victoria Land. The daily march was twenty-five miles, Rae pulling his own sledge and inspecting personally every turn of the coast. The journey was continued to Winnipeg and thence to Crow-Wing, Minnesota. In this expedition, which lasted nearly eight months, and covered more than 5000 miles, Rae explored seven hundred miles of coast previously unknown.

The Founderís gold medal of the Royal Geographical Society was awarded to him in 1852, and in 1853 he took command of another expedition, fitted out expressly for him by the Hudsonís Bay Company, for the purpose of tracing the west coast of Boothia as far north as Bellot Strait and uniting the surveys of Sir James Ross and Dease and Simpson. His success was complete; he surveyed 400 miles of coast not laid down on the map and proved that King William Land was an island.

Among the Eskimo he found and secured many relics of Sir John Franklinís party, and the information he acquired dispelled the mystery which had shrouded the fate of those heroic men. When Dr. Rae returned to England Sir James Graham, the first Lord of the Admiralty, told him that ďhis party was entitled to a reward of ,£10,000 for bringing the first information of the fate of the Franklin expedition, and that he would stand in his own light if he did not put in a claim for it.Ē The claim was made and satisfied.

In 1860 Dr. Rae made surveys in the Faroe Islands, Iceland and Greenland for a proposed line of telegraph to America; and in 1864 he began another survey for a line from Winnipeg across the Rocky Mountains. In the course of this latter enterprise he accomplished the descent of the dangerous Fraser River for several hundred miles in a canoe and without a guide.

Dr. Rae published but one book, the ďNarrative of an Expedition to the Shores of the Arctic Sea in 1846 and 1847.Ē His other expeditions are described in brief reports addressed to the Royal Geographical Society, and he is the author of papers on the Eskimo, on the navigation of Hudsonís Bay, and on Polar exploration ; but his written contributions, though they testify to his thoroughness and accuracy and to his rare qualifications, bear no proportion to the magnitude and the solidity of his work. He wrote with simplicity and force, but he was more concerned to do things worthy of record than to record them. He had the gifts of the born explorer, the habit of exact observation, courage and fertility of resource, untiring energy, activity and strength ; and with these a firmness and generosity of character that won the respect and the affection of men.

A funeral service was performed in St. John the Baptistís Church, Addison Gardens; but the body of Dr. Rae rests at Kirkwall, in the churchyard of St. Magnus Cathedral.

Narrative of an Expedition to the Shores of the Arctic Sea in 1846 and 1847

John Rae Forgotten Hero of Arctic Exploration


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