Bradford Washburn

Bradford Washburn, former director of the Museum of Science in Boston and an accomplished mountaineer and mapmaker, passed away recently at the age of 96. Washburn published many articles and photographs of his explorations in the magazines Life and National Geographic before being named director of the New England Museum of Natural History in 1939. Over the next 40 years, Washburn re-created the institution from the ground up, and the transformation into a leading museum for science education necessitated the name change that took place during his tenure. Ioannis N. Miaoulis, the museum’s current director, recently explained that Washburn’s effect was to introduce “physics, geology and astronomy to exhibits in an integrated and interactive way.”

An accomplished mountaineer and photographer who had scaled both the Matterhorn and Mont Blanc by the age of 16, Washburn would later lead teams of mapmakers on pioneering missions to Mount McKinley and the Grand Canyon. In exploring the Grand Canyon, Washburn used lasers and reflecting prisms to measure contours and depths, a process which he described as mapping “a mountain upside down.” Among Washburn’s numerous books is the co-written “Mount McKinley: The Conquest of Denali,” which showcases his photographs.

After retiring as museum director in 1980, Washburn produced maps of Mount Everest’s summit using global positioning devices. His survey in fact helped to correct the height of the world’s tallest mountain, to 29,035 feet. For his work in cartography and photography, the Royal Geographical Society awarded Washburn its Cherry Kearton Medal in 1988.

Bradford Washburn (Necrology). 2007. AAG Newsletter 42(3): 21.