Donald B. MacMillan

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American Polar Society Luminary

Donald B. MacMillan (1874-1970) was an American explorer who made more than 30 expeditions to the Arctic pioneering the use of airplanes, radio and electricity in the polar regions. He was born in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and graduated from Bowdoin College in Maine in 1898 with a degree in geology.

MacMillan taught high school for five years. He caught the attention of another Bowdoin graduate, Robert E. Peary, after saving the lives of nine shipwrecked people. Peary was sufficiently impressed with MacMillan to invite him along on his 1908 expedition to the North Pole.

During the next few years MacMillan made several trips to Labrador, Greenland, and Baffin and Axel Heiberg Islands, including the ill-fated Crocker Land expedition of 1913. On that outing, MacMillan determined that the large land mass Peary reported having sighted from a promontory on northwest Axel Heiberg Island in 1906 (he named it Crocker Land), was in fact a mirage and didn’t exist. The expedition ended up being stranded in northern Greenland until 1917, when they were finally rescued.

MacMillan spent the time learning the ways of the Inuit and compiling a dictionary of their language. In 1925, he led a trail-blazing expedition to the Arctic backed by the National Geographic Society. Lt. Commander Richard E. Byrd was placed in charge of three amphibious airplanes contributed by the U.S. Navy. The goal was to conduct a series of flights across Ellesmere and Axel Heiberg Islands and points west in search of new land in an uncharted area of the Arctic Ocean. Severe weather hampered flying time, although the experience proved the worth of aircraft to explore territories never before penetrated by man. The expedition also demonstrated the utility of short-wave radio to communicate from the Arctic halfway around the world.

In 1918, MacMillan had been commissioned as an Ensign in the Naval Reserve Flying Corps. He was advanced to the rank of Lieutenant Commander in 1925 and Commander in 1942. In 1954, Congress promoted MacMillan to the rank of Rear Admiral in honor of his lifetime of service and achievement.