In 1891, a group of Philadelphians with a passion for exploration and geography founded the Geographical Society of Philadelphia. Goals of the Society from its inception included the promotion of geographical studies, the interchange of experiences of travel, the recording of discoveries, and the presentation of research by means of lectures
A summary of first President Professor Heilprin’s adventure on Mont Pelee follows:
Professor Angelo Heilprin – Ascent of Mont Pelée (1902). As related by journalist George Kennan …
“We were all so overawed by the terrific grandeur of the deep roaring chasm that for two or three minutes we stood on the brink of it, motionless and silent. Then Professor Heilprin shouted to me ‘Oh, isn’t it fine to see these great operations of Nature!’”
On Martinique Island in the French West Indies, Mont Pelée erupted on May 8, 1902. It bombarded nearby Saint Pierre and environs with molten rock fragments, burning ashes and superheated steam traveling at over 100 miles per hour. It scorched and suffocated some 40,000 people, as well as uncounted birds, animals, trees and other plants: it destroyed homes, stores, churches and other public buildings. It wiped out everybody and everything in its path with devastating efficiency.
Soon after the news hit the Philadelphia headlines, Professor Angelo Heilprin was on his way south. When he arrived, Mont Pelée was still blitzing the landscape with deadly salvos of lava, steam and toxic gasses. For a scientist all agog to observe the “great operations of nature” close up, it was an ideal opportunity.
The main thing was to get to the crater without delay. Heilprin, accompanied by the brilliant journalist, George Kennan, clambered up the steep flank of the volcano, heading for the inferno. Kennan, quoted above, admired the Philadelphian’s utter disregard for the ever-imminent danger as they watched the raging, exploding guts of Mont Pelée just a few feet away.
Kennan said: “I must pay the highest possible tribute to Heilprin. He is modest and brave, a superb mountaineer and the nerviest and pluckiest man I ever knew. The ascent was the most terrifying experience of my life.”
Exploration Grants, Medals and Awards. The Society supported many of the turn-of-the-century explorers financially, materially, and by the encouragement of its members. It then recognized their achievements by awarding its prestigious Elisha Kent Kane Gold Medal to, among others, Robert E. Peary (1902), Robert F. Scott (1904), Roald Amundsen (1907), Ernest Shackleton (1910), and Richard E. Byrd (1926).
The Society’s Heilprin Literary Medals and Bryant Geographical Research Medals have been presented to distinguished authors, scientists, and explorers such as Thor Heyerdahl, Jacques-Yves Cousteau, John Glenn, Lowell Thomas, and Rachel Carson. Aviators Richard D. Norton, a Philadelphian, and Colin Rosetti were awarded Elisha Kent Kane medals for their pioneering round-the-world flight via the earth’s poles.
Two specially struck medals have been awarded by the Society: The Commander Robert Peary North Pole Medal and the Sir Edmund Hillary Mt. Everest Medal. Their descriptions follow:
Peary Medal – Discovery of the North Pole (1909). In addition to the Elisha Kent Kane Exploration Medal awarded to Commander Peary (1902), a special gold medal was struck to commemorate his Discovery of the North Pole. This was the first distinction of its kind (specially struck medal) ever bestowed by the Geographical Society of Philadelphia. The obverse contains a profile head of Peary encircled by the legend: Geographical Society of Philadelphia to Commander R. E. Peary, U.S.N. The reverse of the medal shows a draped female figure representing America, standing on a low dais pointing with one hand to the northern apex of the globe and with her other upraised arm calling the attention of the world to the fact that one of her sons has attained the Pole. Beside the globe is the conventional representation of a mariner’s sextant. A loaded sledge with dogs and driver and a representation of the S. S. Roosevelt form a fitting background and typify the means employed to reach the Pole. “For the Discovery of the North Pole,” encircles the design and below the central figure appears the date of the discovery: April 6, 1909. A silver replica was awarded to Capt. R. A. Bartlett, Master of the S. S. Roosevelt. The medal is the work of Mr. A. C. Frank of Philadelphia and was executed under the direction of a committee of the Geographical Society.
Sir Edmund Hillary – Ascent of Mt. Everest (1954). A specially struck gold medal was awarded to Sir Edmund Hillary in commemoration of his ascent of Mt. Everest, the world’s highest mountain, on May 29, 1953. (Use this copy for the caption for the photo instead of in the body: The photograph (right) shows Sir Edmund Hillary and Lady Hillary receiving the Geographical Society Special Medal from Roger W. Hallowell, President of the Geographical Society, on February 10, 1954.)
Exploration Grant Program. Grants are awarded to explorers, scientists, and scholars working particularly in the Polar Regions. Our most recent exploration grant was awarded to Art Mortvedt to support his landing at the North Pole in early 2011. This flight, first for a single engine plane, conducted scientific studies from the air using leading-edge laser technology.