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April 20, 1997

The Polar Controversy Resolved.
By Robert M. Bryce.
Stackpole, $50.

Who discovered the North Pole? The question, as old as the claims themselves, is re-examined by Robert M. Bryce, a research librarian at Montgomery College in Maryland. ''Cook & Peary'' comprises biographies of Robert E. Peary (holder of the prize in most history books) and Frederick A. Cook, and an analysis of their claims. Until their fight over discovery of the North Pole, the fellow explorers enjoyed cordial relations. A doctor from Brooklyn, Cook treated Peary's broken leg during an expedition to Greenland in 1891. He later achieved his own celebrity, saving an Antarctic expedition from scurvy by persuading members to eat raw penguin meat. But his star began to fade in 1906, with his claim to be the first man to ascend Mount McKinley, now definitively refuted by Mr. Bryce's meticulous scrutiny of Cook's bogus ''summit'' photographs. In 1908, Cook, with two Eskimos, made a dash for the North Pole, which he said he reached in April, a year before Peary. Peary, himself on his final attempt, roared back to civilization and, backed by affluent and well-connected supporters, won the battle, at least temporarily. His claim, challenged by Mr. Bryce and others, now seems fraudulent. Mr. Bryce also demolishes Cook's evidence. Not only was he inept at making celestial calculations, but a copy of his polar diary (the original is lost), unearthed in Denmark by Mr. Bryce, shows erasures and inconsistencies. Mr. Bryce's zeal to leave no stone unturned (130 pages of footnotes) hurts his book: he sometimes gets mired in too much detail. Nevertheless, he has made a leap forward in resolving the North Pole question.
Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company
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