Dr. Octave Pavy
Surgeon/Naturalist
by Lilla May Pavy

History, Geographym Adventure to the Greely Arctic Expedition

Dr. Pavy and the Polar Expedition

The people, both of America and Europe, have taken a deep interest in the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition. Accounts of this expedition, and of the one sent to its relief, as given by Commanders Schley and Soley of the U. S. Navy, and by Commander Greely and Lieutenant Lockwood of the U. S. Army, have been published. These accounts will be followed by other and important phases of its history. The complete story may never be told. Possibly, the interests of individuals who are a part of it, and even the policy of the government, will prevent the utterance of the whole truth. The papers of Dr. Octave Pavy—the surgeon and naturalist of the Polar Expedition—enable me to add to the published accounts some facts which cannot be spared.

An international Congress of scientists was held at Vienna, and later at St. Petersburg, in 1879 and ‘80. Several nations, among them America, pledged participation in the establishment of circumpolar meteorological stations. The object of the United States Government in locating the most northern station was the advancement of scientific knowledge by observations made in the region of and beyond Lady Franklin Bay, 81 deg. 44 min. N. latitude. Subsidiary to this purpose was the design to gain tidings of the lost “Jeannette,” and to advance discovery on the Grinnell and Greenland coasts.

The Lady Franklin Bay Expedition consisted of twenty-five men from the United States Army, and the Signal Service Corps. Its executive officers were First Lieutenant Greely, commanding; Second Lieutenants Kislingbury and Lockwood; and the surgeon, Dr. Pavy, commissioned with the rank of first lieutenant. Sergeant D. L. Brainard was chief of the enlisted force. The vessel was the steamship “Proteus,” chartered by the government to convey the expeditionary party from St. Johns, Newfoundland, to Lady Franklin Bay, where was established a meteorological station, the “Proteus” returning at once to Newfoundland. The colony was located on the 12th of August, 1881. Their settlement was named Fort Conger.

As the capacities accepted by Dr. Pavy, and the participation otherwise taken by him in the Polar Expedition, required peculiar experience and versatility, I must be pardoned, at this point, for giving a brief outline of the life and training which especially fitted him for the undertaking.

Dr. Pavy was an American, New Orleans being his native city. He was born in 1844. At a very early age he was sent to France to be educated; and became a graduate in science and art from the University of Paris. He pursued a course in medicine, for four years, under the Medical Faculty of Paris, and enjoyed the exceptional favor of daily friendship and association with the eminent surgeon Velpeau. A season of each year was devoted to travels on the Continent, in Great Britain, New Zealand, Iceland, Africa, and Australia. Many seasons were passed in Alpine travel, where glacial action, with natural history, in its various forms, was made a study. All the countries of Europe were visited during the course of his education, and, from practical observation and frequent travel on the seas, Dr. Pavy obtained a thorough insight into the laws of navigation. His exhaustive study of Arctic history, including research into every branch of science connected with life and exploration in the northern regions, made it possible for a scientific explorer to say of him “He is versed in the history of every former explorer and exploration, and seems to know the history of every degree of latitude gained in the Arctic.”

Within a few months of his graduation in medicine, a French Arctic expedition was proposed by the government. The distinguished scientist and explorer, Gustave Lambert, was placed in command, and Octave Pavy was appointed his chief executive associate. Strong interest was taken in the movement by the Emperor Napoleon, who personally donated to it 50,000 francs. At the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War, the project was necessarily abandoned. Lambert and Pavy entered the war. The former lost his life on the battlefield. M. Pavy became the captain of a French independent corps of infantry and cavalry, of which, as organizer, he assumed the command and expense. Associated with him in this enterprise were his friends, Lieutenant P. S. Beauregard, a nephew of General P. T. Beauregard, and the lamented French painter, Henri Regnault, who fell in battle at Captain Pavy’s side. “This little army,” said the London “Graphic,” “was successful and useful, brave and daring.”

In 1872 M. Pavy came to the United States to launch an individual interprise, which was called “The Pavy Expedition to the North Pole,” the intended route being by the way of Bering Strait and Wrangel Land. This undertaking was heartily encouraged in France by the leading scientific minds. The French Geographical Society commended M. Pavy to the special consideration of the American Geographical Society, and the fellows of  the various American Academies of Science. The Duke Alexis of  Russia gave M. Pavy special encouragement, furnishing him with strong letters of recommendation to the officials of the various Siberian outposts, commanding their cordial co-operation. The American Geographical Society prepared a letter, commending Dr. Pavy and his “highly important expedition,” to “all scientific societies, and to all governments throughout the world, for their aid and co-operation.” The Academy of Science of his native city, New Orleans, commended him as “a gentlemen of high literary and scientific culture, of daring enterprise, and of great personal worth.” The Arctic project for which Dr. Pavy had matured all plans, until within a few hours of departure from San Francisco, was suddenly brought to a close in June, 1872, by the death of his financial associate.

In 1879 correspondence passed between James Gordon Bennett and Dr. Pavy, relative to the doctor’s engagement as surgeon of the “Jeannette” expedition. The United States Navy subsequently taking charge, its regulations excluded a civilian surgeon. The United States Congress, in 1880, authorized an expedition to be fitted out by the army and navy, the vessel being furnished by a private individual. Dr. Pavy was commissioned by the War Department to become its surgeon. The vessel proffered, the “Gulnare,”was pronounced unseaworthy, and the army and navy withdrew from the undertaking, leaving it a private expedition. Leave of absence was granted Lieutenant G. C. Doane, U. S. A., who commanded this expedition. Dr. Pavy embarked in it as surgeon and naturalist. The voyage of the “Gulnare” toward the Arctic regions was discontinued at Godhavn, from which point she returned to the United States on account of unfitness for polar navigation, leaving Dr. Pavy to fulfill his intention to study and explore in that region.

During the year he accompanied Mr. Smith, the royal inspector of North Greenland for Denmark, on his official journeys along the coast, as far north as Upernavik, and into the interior Greenland. The doctor acquired the Eskimo language, familiarized himself with the habits of the natives, and made a study of the climatic influences, and the most effective mode of treating the diseases peculiar to the region. He made himself an adept, so far as a foreigner can become such, in the management of the Eskimo sledge—an acquirement upon which largely depends the security of life, and the safety of transpertation, in the extreme North. He attained valuable insight into the sciences of the Arctic zone; made a study of the geological formations; of the mineral, vegetable, and animal kingdoms. The fauna and flora were exhaustively studied, and, when collection was possible, classified. As a taxidermist, he made a comprehensive collection of the species of animal life of both land and sea, the collection being intended for the Smithsonian Institute. Dr. Pavy engaged the two Eskimos who accompanied the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition, and took great care in purchasing dried fish and walrus meat—food which in the Arctic regions is indispensable in keeping scurvy in abeyance. He purchased this anti-scurbutic food with great difficulty and much travel, but with the discrimination of a savam and the fidelity of a physician.

The steamship “Proteus,” bearing the Polar Expedition under the command of Lieutenant A. W. Greely, while on the way from St. Johns to Lady Franklin Bay stopped at Godhavn, and took on board the surgeon, and the supplies which he had accumulated. The experience and achievements of the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition have been presented to the public in so many forms that I need not attempt to give any specific repetition of the story. From Fort Conger detachments of sledge-parties were sent out in different directions during the two years’ life at the fort. Depots of provisions were established in the autumn and spring of the first year, as far north as Lincoln Bay, preparatory to sledge-travel northward later. Two attempts were made during the same year to reach Cape Joseph Henry, and land north of it; in both instances the party being turned back by open water, having made 83 deg. N. latitude on one of the journeys. ( * Where Sir Geo. Nares found paleocrystic ice, Pavy and Rice found open sea).

In the spring of 1882 the highest latitude was reached that has ever been attained by man (83 deg. 24 min. N; 40 deg. 46 min. W). The interior of Grinnell Land was penetrated in the spring and summer of 1882, resulting in the discovery of a large lake and a mountain chain. In the summer of ‘82 a southward journey was made; resulting in the discovery of an imposing valley, lying between Cape Baird and Cape Defosse. In the spring of ‘83 the western coast-line of Grinnell Land was reached, resulting in the discovery of the Western Sea. The party attained latitude 80 deg. 47 min., and longitude 88 deg. 29 min. Many other sledging journeys were made by the various members of the expedition, which, though unsuccessful in geographical results, were important in their bearing upon former theories, as leading to their verification or rejection. Fort Conger was abandoned by the expedition in August, 1883, the party taking with them a steam-launch, a whale-boat, and two towing boats. On 10th of September the commander abandoned the launch and one boat, and later another boat. On the 29th land was reached, one boat remaining, a twelve-man sledge, and twenty-five days’ rations. At Cape Sabine the final catastrophe took place. There, in con- sequence of official neglect in Washington and in the Arctic regions, the party were subjected to starvation, and the lives of nineteen men were needlessly sacrificed. The life of the surgeon closed sixteen days before rescue, which occurred on his birthday, June 22d. It will be remembered that during the year following the departure of the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition, a futile attempt was made by Lieutenant Beebe and the "Neptune" to reach them and that, in the succeeding year, Lieutenant Garlington and the “Proteus” failed in a like attempt. The “Neptune” found impenetrable ice and returned, having reached Cape Isabella. The “Proteus” was wrecked a few miles north of Cape Sabine. The officers and crew, escaping in boats, returned to the United States.

The instructions of the Signal Service Bureau required that provisions should be left on the Greenland coast at Littleton Island, in Smith Sound. Fort Conger, the winter quarters of the Polar Expedition, were established on the Grinnell, not the Greenland coast. The objective point of the expedition, in making the southward retreat, according to official instructions given at Washington, was Littleton Island. Even in the face of starvation and death it was found impossible to obey these instructions. The food was on the wrong side of the channel; and, although the distance was only eighteen miles, the death of more than three-quarters of the party was the result of the impracticability of crossing the channel between Cape Sabine and Littleton Island.

According to the testimony of the survivors, Dr. Pavy volunteered, while yet at Fort Conger, to make an advance retreat to Cape Sabine, going in April and returning in June, 1883. He suggested taking as companions Lieutenant Kislingbury, who urged the value of the retreat, and an Eskimo. Upon reaching Cape Sabine, records were to be cached in the name of Commander Greely, giving instrnctions that provisions should be left on that island, instead of at Littleton Island, across the dangerous, and possibly impassable channel. The offer made by Dr. Pavy was declined by the commanding officer. Of this proposed retreat, Sergeant Brainard, since rescue, has said: “Had Dr. Pavy made this noble advance march for us, every man in the party would today be alive. Not one would have suffered starvation.”

Upon asking why the surgeon was not permitted to do what he considered of vital necessity, this was the answer: “The commander wished to have further exploration on the west coast accomplished.”

Much admiring comment has been made upon the retreat of the entire party in August, 1883, covering five hundred miles - about forty days of travel begun when the expectation of a relief ship in Discovery Harbor had been abandoned. Dr. Pavy offered not only to make the same journey, but to do so with two men, and return to Fort Conger, making a distance of more than one thousand miles. Had this advance retreat been made, records being left at Cape Sabine between the months of April and June, Lieutenant Garlington, who reached that point in July, and examined it, would, upon finding the cairn and its contents, have had a definite description of the whereabouts and the condition of the expeditionary party, and the course by which they could have been rescued, either by land or sea. Lieutenant Garlington not only landed where this record would have been found, but he left some few provisions near by, which were afterward devoured by the starving party. If the "Proteus" could not then have made her way to Lady Franklin Bay, or even to a lower latitude, one of two alternatives, or both, would have followed, in accordance with the instructions given at Washington, which provided for the contingency “of the party not being able to reach the south by retreat, and for the sledges of the relief party to travel toward them.” In short, if the records had been left by Pavy, as proposed, and found by Garlington, as would have resulted, the horrors of Cape Sabine would have been averted, Dr. Pavy would have been the savior of his party, and Lieutenant Garlington the rescuer. In that event the lives of nineteen men would have been spared, and the health of six survivors. All journals would have been returned. The scientific records would have been preserved intact, Instead of mutilated. The “Proteus” and her cargo would have been saved. Many attacked and blighted reputations would have been spared, as well as millions of dollars to the government; and no blot would now rest upon the nation’s record for leaving the men sent out at  its command to starvation and death.

Under the supervision of the commanding officer an official map has been prepared, embodying the geographical results of the expedition, and purporting to outline its sledge journeys and discoveries. The various and important sledge journeys made by Dr. Pavy and Sergeant Rice, on one of which they attained 83 deg. N. latitude, and the discovery by Dr. Pavy, later, of the valley lying between Cape Baird and Cape Defosse, are not outlined or named upon this map. Up to the present time all maps copied from this one have appeared without the name of Dr. Pavy in connection with his discovery, or the outlined sledge journeys of Pavy and Rice, in their Northern explorations. The maps found in the latest physical geographies, in the volume of Schley and Lanman, and the official maps, as well as several other publications, bear this unjust omission. Many alterations were made on the original map. In one instance the commander changed the name of his discovery of “Mount Chester A. Arthur” (named after the ex-President), to “Mount Arthur,” referring to himself, the name Lieutenant Greely appearing in brackets. The map reveals its story of commission and omission. Numerous names appear on it - some of them the names of those who brought dire disaster upon the expedition - standing out boldly to remind us for all time of their culpable and cruel neglect.

Dr. Pavy’s notes, to be presented, and other matter that will be published at a later day, were placed in my possession by the Signal Service Bureau of the United States. “Additional records” were reported “as due me” when these were delivered, and which I was told “to expect as soon as the official report was made.” The statement has since been withdrawn by the same official source, the chief signal officer. No reason or explanation has been assigned to reconcile this official inconsistency. Certain letters and journals, private in character, which according to indisputable testimony were written by Dr. Pavy, must have been included in the “additional records” refered to.

During, the years 1880 and ‘81, Dr. Pavy wrote a journal in South Greenland. This journal contained an account of numerous journeys along the coast and into the interior, and of the various studies which occupied his attention. A letter via the “Proteus,” in 1881 informed me that it was taken by the doctor to Fort Conger, for revision, and would be brought to the United States by himself the next year, as he did not wish to remain longer with the party, as constituted. There being no government contract in 1880, the journal in question could not rightfully be retained in Washington even for copy. It was reported by the chief signal officer “to have been left in Greenland if written at all, as there were no papers of 1880 in the office.” A more recent reply, from a subordinate officer, names the record of 1880 in the inventory of papers held in the office.

From 1881 to ‘83 memoranda were made, and pages intended for a book were written, during three years’ life at Fort Conger, each page marked by Dr. Pavy "My Book." I possess but a dozen pages of this book, though hundreds of pages were written. Most of these are upon glacial action, and contain the most exact and carefully prepared writing of which Docter Pavy is author.

Between August, 1883, and June, 1884 (the month of his death), Dr. Pavy kept an occasional journal. This record is reported as “missing,” in addition to all private journals and letters, written during three years’ absence. The latter papers the doctor himself described in official communication both to the commander and the Surgeon-General, U. S. Army, in the following words: “A journal destitute of any official value, a mere record of events, hypotheses and reminiscences, closely mingled with personal and intimate thoughts; sentiments from detached notes, and reduced into letters of an entirely private character, intended only for the use of my family.” The letter embodying this description, and addressed to the Surgeon-General, was never seen by that officer until I forwarded to him copies of various official documents. According to the testimony of a survivor, there were three sealed boxes marked as the property of Dr. Pavy, and known as such before and after his death. By the same survivor they were seen unchanged and still labeled, on ship-board, when he was on the way to the United States, after rescue. One box only of these three has been officially reported by the chief signal officer. Dr. Pavy specified their contents in these words: “In my boxes are all the official and private papers that I have possessed since leav- ing the United States - from 1880 to ‘84. Except the official letters, the papers are chiefly of a private character.” Among the memoranda delivered to me from Washington, there is not a line or a page having the nature of a personal or private communication, with one exception - a single mutilated page. The fate of the two boxes not reported to me, and of the contents, as previously enumerated, is yet involved in mystery. Records were both lost and injured at Cape Sabine, during the rescue of the party. Injury occurred to those records of the surgeon’s which have since come into my hands. Such a fate might also have caused injury to the so-called “missing records;” but their disappearance occurred after leaving Cape Sabine. On reaching New York. the records were delivered to the chief signal officer. The onus of their disappearance rests with him.

According to official regulation, it was expected that the surgeon’s medical records would be referred to the medical division of the War Department. Finding, in his papers, letters addressed to the Surgeon-General, in which Dr. Pavy states important facts, and demands investigation into his conduct, because of unjust charges in writing against him, I applied for judgment upon the case, and received official information from the Surgeon-General that there were no records on file in his office relating to the matter other than that Dr. Pavy was contracted with as surgeon.

The commanding officer relieved Dr. Pavy from his duties as naturalist in June, 1883. The surgeon had no contract papers for any department save the medical. The duties of naturalist were assumed by request of the commander, without expectation of pay. According to the testimony of the survivors, those duties were ably and satisfactorily performed; and an official circular of the commander (June, 1883) refers to the “zeal and good results of work in this direction during the years 1881 and ‘82.” The survivors further testify that “Lieutenant Lockwood to whom the duties were transferred, was not qualified to perform them,” and that “after the doctor was deprived of that capacity there was little work of consequence done in that line.” They add that “the doctor’s collection of natural history, made in 1880 in South Greenland, and from ‘81 to ‘83 at Fort Conger, was boxed well, and will probably be found intact at Discovery Harbor, by some future expedition.”

In July, 1883, Dr. Pavy presented his resignation as surgeon, still offering his services to the party, but wishing to sever himself, as a survivor said, “from all official connection with the commander.” The following is an extract from the surgeon’s contract in my possession, and shows his rank, and for how long a time his contract, without renewal, bound him: “Surgeon of the rank of first lieutenant. This contract to continue at least one year, if not sooner determined by the officer commanding the military expedition, or the Surgeon-General”. It would have been culpable in the surgeon to have severed himself from the moral obligation to serve a party dependent upon him. But Dr. Pavy by no means took this step; and his own official words forever refute the charge made by the commander, and place it upon the ground of deliberate and willful falsehood. On the contrary, the surgeon, in his resignation expressly said “As a matter of course I offer my services to the expedition, and declare myself willing and ready to perform the same duties as in the past, still devoting myself to the welfare and success of our undertaking; but will desire, as in the past, to have full control of the medical stores and instruments, for which I consider myself responsible. I believe the exclusion of this clause, in our present circumstances, to be incompatible with the dignity of the profession. The surgeon, thereafter, officially declined to surrender the medical stores and instruments to any one unable to use or care for them. Had Dr. Pavy so far forgotten the supremacy of right and duty, which he owed first, through professional dignity, to the Medical Department, as to surrender his medical equipments to an unprofessional junior officer, or to any but a medical man, the commander would have been obliged, at once, to revoke his despotic order, in case of scurvy, fracture, or even tooth-pulling, in order that a physcian might render relief. Forgetting neither duty nor dignity, the surgeon, in the face of charges and arrest, declined to surrender his medical stores and his private journal. This declination, made July 19, 1883, was followed by official charges and specifications against Dr. Pavy, and resulted in an order of arrest, and confinement to limits. At the moment of arrest Dr. Pavy said: “I accept the arrest physically but not morally.”

The surgeon claimed his right and duty to express his professional opinion, in the face of difference and opposition. The expression of this medical opinion, given for the highest welfare of the party, was declared by the commander to be “subversive to discipline.” By official communication, thereafter to the commander and the Surgeon-General, Dr. Pavy demanded that upon his return to the United States, “investigation should be opened on his conduct of the Medical Department.”

Regarding his resignation and arrest, three of the survivors have said: "Dr. Pavy had been under arrest nearly a year at the time of his death." The order read that he was to be confined to limits within one mile of the camp. Dr. Pavy was a civilian surgeon, his time ran out, and he refused to serve under the orders of Lieutenant Greely. He was an enthusiastic Arctic explorer, and knew better than any man in the party what to expect in the frozen zone. He was a grand, good man, and, if he had lived, the inside story of the Greely Expedition would have been told before now. The men regarded him as their hero. He was always doing something for the command, and was one of its hardest workers.”

The life of Dr. Pavy was sacrificed. But a part, at least, of his records remain to speak for him. His memoranda were made in French. The official letters are in English. The notes which will appear later were translated by Mr. George Wilson, A. MI., of Lexington, Missouri, who has made affidavit of their accuracy. It is well understood that a scientist or student notes many points of interest and importance in a book of memoranda, which he would subsequently enlarge upon, discard, or modify. I am well aware that a few detached notes are a meager representation of the labors of a scientist for four years, as compared with official and private records of fuller detail and greater value, which are not in my possession, and are denied me. Yet these notes, though necessarily presented in detached form, and under many disadvantages, cannot fail to mirror, to any candid mind, the surgeon’s fidelity to his profession, his courageous adherence to conviction, and his accurate discernment of future events, which foreshadowed disaster, and impelled him to perform his duty in the face of opposition, and to give warning even when it was proffered in vain.

LILLA MAY PAVY
Dr. Pavy and the Polar Expedition, The North American review
Volume 142, Issue 352, University of Northern Iowa, March 1886, pp. 258-270.

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