Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

For nineteen-year-old Eagle Scout Paul Allman Siple (1908–1968) of Erie, wintering over in Antarctica was perhaps the ultimate, yet seemingly unlikely, merit badge. He had completed his first year at Allegheny College, founded in 1815 in Meadville, Crawford County, when a fellow Boy Scout asked him if he was entering the contest to be the Scout who would accompany Commander Richard E. Byrd (1888–1957) on his first Antarctic expedition. Siple had been unaware of the competition, but several days later rushed to the public library in Erie to learn about Antarctica.

So began an adventure that would shape his education, career, and life.

Paul A. Siple became a leading Antarctic explorer, geographer, scientist, climatologist (devising the wind-chill factor), inventor, researcher, lecturer, author, and diplomat. Among many honors, he received seven honorary doctoral degrees, medals from three American and two international geographical societies, and the Legion of Merit. He was made an honorary member of the British Empire and decorated by the United States Departments of Defense, Army, and State. Antarctic landmarks were named for him. He was featured on the cover of Time. And the U.S. Army created the Paul A. Siple Award in his honor for excellence in scientific research. More recently, in 2007, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) erected a state historical marker at the plaza of its Erie Maritime Museum, noting that Siple was “honored internationally for his work as scientist, explorer, inventor, geographer, diplomat, and statesman.”

He was born in Montpelier, Ohio, to Clyde L. and Fannie Hope Allman Siple, who moved to Erie when Paul was ten years old. Two years later, the young Siple joined the Boy Scouts of America where he learned about insects, radio, woodworking, athletics, beekeeping, and first aid. He graduated from Erie’s Central High School in 1926. His formative years in Erie — particularly his experience as a Boy Scout and a Sea Scout — unwittingly laid the foundation for his far-flung adventures.

In his 1959 book 90 Degrees South: The Story of the American South Pole Conquest, Siple admitted that he had had no desire to become an Antarctic explorer. “Mere happenstance,” as he put it, gave him the opportunity, but his Boy Scout training, earning fifty-nine merit badges, plus experience as a Sea Scout on the Flagship Niagara, placed him in good stead. He was selected from all the eligible Boy Scouts in the United States and set off on an old barque, City of New York, as the youngest member of the inaugural Byrd expedition. Byrd and Siple became close friends and colleagues.

Many years later, Byrd asked Siple how he had acquired his sailing knowledge since many crew members said he knew more about sailing the barque than they did. “Sea Scouts,” Siple told the admiral. “We had a replica of the flagship Niagara which Oliver Hazard Perry commanded in the War of 1812. It stood in our harbor in Erie, and we Sea Scouts used it for training. That’s where I learned the nomenclature and seagoing knots.”

Siple recalled Byrd’s reply, “The minute I saw you I knew you were the one. In fact, so did your opponents. Don’t you remember that Dr. [James E.] West [(1876–1948), the first Chief Scout Executive of the Boy Scouts of America] asked each of the boys to list which of the others he thought most worthy to go with me? Well, all of them picked you.”

Besides his cheerful personality and sense of humor, Siple was in good physical condition. He won a spot among those who would remain with the winter team partly because of Boy Scout skills. One of the mission’s tasks was to provide the American Museum of Natural History with a barrel each of seal and penguin skins. When the individual originally assigned to the task was given other responsibilities, the job fell to Siple who became taxidermist, dog driver, and naturalist. Because he had earned nearly every scouting merit badge available at the time, he was well suited for the work.

Siple, who wrote with honesty and candor, admitted to learning a lesson that guided him ever after. Byrd assigned him the job of catching penguins to take back to zoos in the United States and instructed him to find out how to feed them. The penguins began dying when fish were not available. When he reported this, Byrd asked if he had contacted zoos in Edinburgh and Hamburg. Siple admitted that he had quit before he was halfway through and “vowed never again to come to him or anyone else for an answer to a problem before I tried every possibility.”

After the expedition ended, Siple returned to Allegheny College in 1930 and completed three years of study in two years, receiving a B.S. degree in biology with a minor in geology in 1932. He lectured on tours with Byrd and wrote two books, A Boy Scout with Byrd and Exploring at Home, which financed his knapsack trip to Europe, the Soviet Union, Jordan, and Egypt in 1932–1933.

Byrd asked Siple to gather supplies for an inland station for a second expedition, in 1933–1935, and to serve as the expedition’s chief biologist. In charge of a landing unit in Antarctica, Siple worked with Byrd’s men for two and a half weeks on just a few hours of sleep each night to move tons of supplies by dog sled over twisted and pressured ice. In addition, they rebuilt and added to Little America, an exploration base located on the Ross Ice Shelf, south of the Bay of Whales, and moved six months of emergency supplies to a retreat on more solid ice. The expedition also called for Siple and three men to explore and make scientific observations in the unknown area of Marie Byrd Land. He collected ninety-four species of lichens and mosses, including eighty-nine new species.

“There was something about the Antarctic that I found exhilarating on the trail. Its quiet was so profound that one could spend hours on end in satisfying contemplation,” he wrote. “It was my job to break trail for the dog team, a task which meant skiing alone in front, with no one to talk with for hours at a stretch. Except at rest periods, one was alone with his thoughts and had time to do the thinking he could not do in the bustle of civilization.”

Siple gave hundreds of lectures to scientific and public service groups, colleges, schools, and Boy Scout groups after he returned from the second expedition. His third book, Scout to Explorer: Back with Byrd in the Antarctic was published in 1936. That year he enrolled in a graduate program at Clark University, Worcester, Massachusetts, and married Ruth Johannesmeyer (1912–2004), whom he had dated at Allegheny College.

Besides prodigious logistical efforts, physical strength and great mental and emotional stamina, Antarctic expeditions asked much of its explorers. Those chosen agreed to participate for one dollar a year and, by the end of his second trip, Siple needed a career that paid more. Studying geography and climatology in graduate school, he earned his doctorate from Clark University in 1939 and answered a third call from Byrd to lead the logistics for a U.S. government expedition. Countries had begun to claim parts of the frozen continent — some without having set foot there. These emerging political interests convinced President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration to establish a permanent U.S. settlement and to conduct extensive air exploration. Where once Antarctic expeditions were private undertakings, Siple then became part of the federal government’s mandates and red tape. It was a balancing act that tried his patience and tested his managerial skills. After surmounting seemingly endless obstacles and bureaucratic hurdles, the third expedition set off. The explorers’ scientific projects included weather, climate, glaciology, mapmaking, magnetism, study of the aurora australis, and physiology.

It was during this trip that Siple began researching the effects of the cold on humans by conducting physiological research on them and analyzing their diet. He and his team also experimented to see how quickly noses and cheeks froze when exposed to -60° F and a fifteen-mile per hour wind. He and colleague Charles L. Passell tested water’s freezing rates. Siple coined the term “windchill” and devised an index to express the factor that anyone subject to cold on a windy day feels much colder than on a calm day at an actual lower temperature.

As World War II spread through Europe, funding to maintain Antarctic settlements began declining and ultimately ended. The team had delineated eight hundred miles of coastline never before approached by ship and discovered fourteen new islands, seven new mountain ranges, and two large peninsulas. Siple and his colleagues investigated 150,000 square miles and conducted hundreds of scientific studies. Upon returning in 1941, Siple was chosen by the U.S. Army to become the Quartermaster’s Corps’ cold weather expert where he worked as a civilian until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, when he was commissioned captain. General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s European Command asked Siple to investigate and propose a solution for trench foot (a debilitating inflammation of the feet caused by prolonged exposure to damp, unsanitary, and cold conditions), which had crippled American troops on the western front in Europe. It was not unusual to find Siple on the front lines collecting data from fighting units. In 1944, he and Henry C. Bazett (1885–1950), a University of Pennsylvania physiologist, developed the concept of vapor-proof barriers for footwear; it was later patented.

After returning to civilian life, he worked for the Army on new designs of cold weather gear such as the parka and a thermal-barrier boot. Siple won the Legion of Merit for exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding services and achievements. A news article datelined “At the Korean Front, 1952,” reported on “a crazy new kind of Long Johns” being tested by the Quartermaster Corps. Siple rode for two hours in an open military Jeep when the temperature was below zero and was perfectly comfortable in the underwear, a field jacket, and cotton trousers. “Actually, he wears the jacket and cotton trousers more to provide him pocket space than for warmth,” wrote the reporter. The article carried a photograph of Siple standing in the Han River in Korea and added that he swam and waded in the river “without discomfort.”

In 1946, Admiral Byrd tapped Siple as scientific and polar advisor and senior War Department observer for a Navy operation to train men and test equipment in polar conditions. Beginning in the 1950s, various nations claimed pie-shaped wedges of Antarctica. Despite having explored the continent more than all claimants combined, the United States did not demand land. Nor had the federal government documented where Americans had gone, or what they had achieved. Efforts to consolidate American rights began. Siple wrote, “One of the rules of life is that no public activity can continue for long without running headlong into another.” The collision was between an overall national Antarctic program and an International Geophysical Year (IGY). In 90 Degrees South, Siple relates how he was eventually drawn into “doing the impossible” — setting up a base at the South Pole when the United States government had not offered to undertake the task.

Siple’s recounting of threading his way through myriad layers of federal and international red tape and politics sheds only a little light on his considerable abilities and insight. By dint of personality, good humor, organizational abilities, scientific and practical knowledge, and experience, he managed to successfully wear several hats as Byrd’s deputy while keeping an eye on task force operations outside Washington, D.C. At the age of forty-eight, Siple believed he was past the age to take an active physical part. He also was a husband and father who had spent much time away from his family. In addition, friends believed his return would be nothing short of career suicide. Byrd and Defense Department officials prevailed, and he accepted the post of scientific leader of the South Pole Station and deputy of the U.S. Antarctic Program. He began a physical strengthening program by digging a family swimming pool with a pick and shovel at his home in Arlington, Virginia.

Once at the South Pole, Siple contended with weather delays that slowed delivery of supplies for building the U.S. station for the International Geophysical Year (IGY) of 1957–1958. The International Council of Scientific Unions in 1952 proposed a comprehensive series of global geophysical activities to span the period between July 1957 and December 1958. Modeled on the International Polar Years of 1882–1883 and 1932–1933, the IGY encouraged scientists from throughout the world to participate in a series of coordinated observations of various geophysical phenomena. Although representatives of forty-six countries originally agreed to participate in the 1957–1958 IGY, by the close of the activity, sixty-seven countries had become actively involved. IGY activities literally spanned the globe from the North to the South Poles.

His recounting of the airdrops and “stream-ins” (the dropping of supplies without parachutes) inspires admiration for the daunting work accomplished by the men in harsh and difficult conditions. He wrote of damaged and lost equipment such as “a priceless mechanic’s box full of tools lay buried where no one would ever find it.” They crossed miles of rugged terrain to recover material and were at risk from equipment and crates being dropped from airplanes. Siple lifted, hauled, and handled equipment along with the others. Out of long experience of needing to be frugal, where every board was saved, tools were never put down lest they disappear into the snow. He “suffered in silence” as he watched “builders scatter tools and building material about wantonly. . .. The result was that I acquired a new job… official camp ‘picker-upper.’ I foresaw a possible use for every chunk of wood debris, every length of wire, and every stitch of canvas.” Some days, he collected as much as three tons of discarded material. The first ever wintering over at the South Pole would mean six months of complete darkness and isolation in temperatures of -100° F and raging winds. There would be no chance to replenish supplies, and every scrap of reusable material, no matter how small, was precious.

Siple was featured on the December 31, 1956, cover of Time, which took note of his characteristic humor. “Now that I was famous I spent part of the day cleaning up salvage materials . . . and hours hauling in, among other things, ten rolls of chicken wire. The chicken wire rolls were bent by streaming-in and were full of snow, making them doubly heavy and hard to carry.” They lifted the snow into their melter, as it was their only source of water, and took precautions against deadly fires.

Siple’s reminisces of life at the South Pole Station are punctuated with glimpses of humor, hard work, strenuous physical challenges, and tension. His refreshing candor and lack of rancor are testaments to his character and personality. Metal beds had streamed-in and some were bent in peculiar ways but could be pounded straight. Good beds were given to IGY and Navy personnel. Siple and physician Howard Taylor III had no success in straightening theirs, and so they built their own bunks. As winter closed in, Siple received word on March 12, 1957, that Admiral Byrd had died the day before. “This is the day I lost my best friend,” he wrote.

Winter’s arrival meant each team member needed to put on twenty-five pounds of clothing to venture outdoors. Because it was no longer possible to gather clean snow outdoors to supply water needs, the men dug a snow mine from which they hauled ice in parachute bags to the surface by hand-hauled sleds. Siple and his military counterpart, who was much younger, set the pace and often did twice as much work.

Housekeeping duties, work in the snow mine, and mess duty were shared by all. Siple wrote, “every six weeks I spent a portion of each day for seven days taking rubbish out to the Hubel Hole [garbage dump], cleaning up the floors, chopping ice that formed at our doors and checking our fuel supply. As a rule, I tried to do such a thorough job that the man following me would have little to do.” All this was on top of his scientific research and administrative duties. Part of the team’s routine included twice weekly lectures by colleagues on medical, scientific, and technical subjects. Some volunteered to read books from the limited library and report to the others. They explained how their instruments worked as well as why and how they took their observations. Non-denominational church services were organized. Movies were shown three times a week. Holidays and special occasions were celebrated.

Once Siple and the team physician prepared twenty-five separate dishes for a smorgasbord dinner. “Certain types of men have a hard time in the Antarctic,” he remarked. “Those who come without good motivation are generally unhappy. And those who come because of romanticism are quickly disillusioned.

“Close esprit de corps prevents many writers from presenting a full account of their difficulties. I have dared to, for any less frankness might hold us suspect. Humans just don’t live without impinging on one another, even in civilization.”

Nearing the end of the six months of winter darkness, the group anticipated a new world’s record. The temperature dropped to -100° F, and a movie camera recorded thermometer readings at various places and heights above the ground. Siple’s white plastic-rubber insulated boots, designed for -65° F, froze “as hard as cast iron, and he was conscious of the sound of his freezing breath. Actual sunrise came five days later and was celebrated with a banquet. “Shortly before we were to leave, I walked out a short distance from camp and turned to examine the place I had called home during the preceding year. I breathed a thankful prayer that our first year at the end of the earth had been successful and without mishap. . . . Although I had not been sent fully mature scientists to carry out our task, thank heavens they had been eager and willing young men who had been full of the drive to make the most of their opportunity and had possessed remarkable talents for improvising. . . . We had come into a land of apparent hostile nothingness but we had survived. We had gradually discovered that this white austere country as a fascinating new world with a special character all its own.”

Siple wrote of the expedition for National Geographic Magazine. He received awards from many government and scientific groups, wrote several books, and made a three-month good-will tour to Australia, New Zealand, Antarctica, and India. He was appointed as the first Scientific Attaché to Australia and New Zealand in July 1963. Three years later, in 1966, Siple suffered a stroke in New Zealand and several months later returned to Virginia. With lingering effects, Siple resumed his work as Special Scientific Adviser for the Army’s Research and Development Office.

On November 25, 1968, Paul Siple died of a heart attack at his office desk in Arlington, Virginia. Obituaries published throughout world praised his many scientific achievements but never failed to note his extraordinary leadership qualities, unfailing courage, and generous human spirit. He was an individual who selflessly made many sacrifices — working far away from family and friends in subzero temperatures and darkness — to advance an understanding of science and the world. Time characterized Siple as “a ponderous thick-girthed giant” who moved “inexhaustibly from job to job at the remote and lonely pole station.” And it was that perseverance and dedication that made the former Pennsylvanian a giant among scientists and adventurers worldwide.

 

Jane Siple Dewitt’s Recollection of Her Father

Siple’s daughter Jane Siple Dewitt recalls not realizing how experimental and dangerous her father’s work was. “Our occasional phone visits during that historic winter were in the middle of the night [from the South Pole Station via ham radio operator], and he sounded like Mickey Mouse,” she says. “It was hard to picture my father at the other end.

“One of my favorite and appreciative memories about my father — and key to his character — was a night at the dinner table as a high schooler. I had just complained about someone, probably a teacher at school, and my father responded with, ‘Now say something nice!’ That left a huge impression . . . on my awareness of being tolerant, being kind, etcetera,” she says.

She also remembers “the consummate scientist often awake at night writing notes, his working hard in the yard, from which I learned how to love gardening and raking leaves and his love of classical music which he and our mother passed on to us.”

 

Richard L. Chappell’s Association with Siple

Richard L. Chappell was chosen to represent the Boy Scouts of America on the U.S. Antarctic Expedition during the 1957–1958 International Geophysical Year. He spent the Antarctic winter at Little America while former Eagle Scout Paul A. Siple was the scientific leader of the South Pole Station for man’s first winter there.

A scientist and professor at Hunter College of the City University of New York (CUNY) and professor and executive officer of CUNY’s graduate center doctoral program in biology, Chappell is a member of the Explorers Club and past president of the American Polar Society. Antarctica’s Chappell Peak is named for him.

Chappell fondly recalls his association with Siple. “Last year was the one hundredth anniversary of the birth of Paul Siple, whose efforts gave us what is currently referred to as the ‘wind chill factor.’ We all know degrees Fahrenheit [0F] and degrees Kelvin [0K]. If Pennsylvanians decided to honor Siple by referring to the wind chill factor as degrees Siple [0Siple], it would not only be a fitting tribute to this great man but it would also bring attention to Pennsylvania and the young man it trained and sent off as a Boy Scout from Erie to Antarctica with Byrd. In less than a decade, I would expect you would see degrees Siple reported across the country and, later, around the world.

“Paul Siple was a tremendous inspiration to me as a young man. Sitting in his basement and seeing his studies of continental drift and his correlation of polar wanderings with earthquake cycles several years before its publication in his book 90 Degrees South was a special moment which prepared me to keep an open mind and think about what makes sense. This was true not only in my Antarctic adventure but throughout my career as a research scientist.

“Paul was a great observer and a great teacher,” Chappell continues. “His career was one of public service. Had it been at an academic institution with his own doctoral students, we would be hearing so much more about him as they carried his thoughts forward. Unfortunately, there are not enough Siple disciples to spread the word about all that he accomplished and gave to the world through his insight, perseverance, and dedication to science and the principles of Scouting he held so high.”

 

For Further Reading

Byrd, Richard E. Little America: Aerial Exploration in the Antarctic; The Flight to the South Pole. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1930.

____. Skyward: Man’s Mastery of the Air. New York: Blue Ribbon books, 1931.

Chapell, Richard L. Antarctic Scout. New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1959.

Gould, Laurence M. Cold: The Record of an Antarctic Sledge Journey. New York: Brewer, Warren and Putnam, 1931.

Lansing, Alfred. Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage. New York: Carroll and Graf, 1986.

Passell, Charles F. The Antarctic Diary of Charles F. Passell. Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 1995.

Siple, Paul A. A Boy Scout with Byrd. N_ew York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1931.

____. 90 Degrees South: The Story of the American South Pole Conquest. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1959.

____. Exploring at Home. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1936.

Sullivan, Walter. Quest for a Continent. London: Secker and Warburg, 1957.

Wilson, Patricia Potter, and Roger Leslie. Eagle On Ice: Eagle Scout Paul Siple’s Antarctic Adventures with Commander Byrd. New York: Vantage Press, 2008.

Scout to Explorer: Back with Byrd in the Antarctic. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1936.

 

Paulette Dininny, a native Pennsylvanian, is a writer and former Washington, D.C., reporter who covered regulatory and legislative issues. Her articles appear in national and regional magazines and newspapers. Her favorite topics are historic places and notable individuals and their achievements. She is a member of the Flagship Niagara League and frequently writes about the Erie Maritime Museum and the Flagship Niagara, administered by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.