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H. Bradford Washburn, Jr. Papers

Identifier: A2018-01-01

Scope and Contents

This collection documents the professional life of Bradford Washburn: his work at the Museum of Science and his mountaineering work, including climbing, cartography, and photography. It includes correspondence, meeting records, manuscript material, published works, maps, photographs, and audiovisual material. More detailed Scope and Content information can be found within the series and subseries listings.


  • 1900 - 2014
  • Majority of material found within 1940 - 1980


Language of Materials

The textual materials are primarily in English. However, this collection does contain materials (primarily correspondence) in languages such as: German, Chinese, French, Russian, Japanese, Polish, and Spanish.

Conditions Governing Access

This collection is open for research with the exception of certain files that are listed as restricted. Certain files which contain sensitive legal, financial, or personal information are restricted.

As a preservation measure due to the fragile condition of some materials, access may be restricted to where only Archives staff can handle the materials.

Conditions Governing Reproduction and Use

The H. Bradford Washburn, Jr. Papers includes materials that are still under copyright, including photographs, maps, and commercial works. In particular, the Museum of Science maintains copyright over the photographic negatives produced by Washburn and held by the Museum. The Papers also contains works whose copyright is held by other organizations (e.g. National Geographic Society). The researcher assumes all responsibility for identifying copyright holders and attaining permission for reproduction.

Biographical History

Bradford Washburn (born Henry Bradford Washburn, Jr.) was born on June 7, 1910 in Boston, Massachusetts. He grew up in Cambridge with his father Henry Bradford Washburn (an Episcopal deacon and Dean of the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge), his mother Edith Hall Washburn, his young brother Sherwood, and his older half- sister Mabel Hall Colgate.

In July 1921, an 11-year-old Washburn had his first significant mountaineering experience when he climbed Mount Washington in New Hampshire. Over the next few years he made numerous return trips to Mount Washington and other peaks in the Presidential Range of the White Mountains and then, in 1926, began several years of regular mountaineering trips to the Alps. As a result of these experiences, the teenage Washburn acquired a reputation as a respected mountaineer and published several pieces on the subject.

In 1929, Washburn began his freshman year at Harvard. Although he majored in French Literature and History, he maintained his interest in mountaineering by taking courses at the newly established Institute of Geographical Exploration and by giving paid lectures about his exploits. Throughout the 1930s, as he completed his undergraduate degree and became a lecturer at the Institute of Geographical Exploration, Washburn participated in a number of mountaineering and scientific trips, including: the Harvard-Dartmouth Alaskan Expeditions and the first ascent of Mount Crillon (1933-1934), the National Geographic Yukon Expedition (1935), the first ascent of Mount Lucania (1937), and others. During this period, he also began the aerial photography work that would be a hallmark of his career.

On a flight to Philadelphia in November 1938, Washburn happened to meet John K. Howard, President of the Boston Society of Natural History, who was looking for help in saving the Society’s New England Museum of Natural History. Washburn was interested in the offer, which offered him more stability than his lecturing work at Harvard, and on March 1, 1939 became Director of the Museum.

Soon after beginning his new career, he met Barbara Polk, a Smith College graduate hired as his secretary. They were married on April 27, 1940 and raised three children together. Barbara accompanied her husband on many of his cartographic and mountaineering expeditions, beginning with a first ascent of Mount Bertha, Alaska on their honeymoon. Notably, Barbara was the first woman to summit Denali, a feat she accomplished while accompanying Brad on a 1947 expedition called “Operation White Tower.”

From 1942 through 1945, Washburn temporarily left his post at the Museum to serve as a civilian advisor for the United States Air Corps, where he participated in field tests of cold weather equipment in Alaska. After the war, Washburn returned to the New England Museum of Natural History, which was suffering from low attendance, budget problems, and an antiquated facility. Upon his return, he soon convinced the trustees of the Museum that the best solution would be to close down the old Museum, seek out a new site, and construct a new Museum that encompassed all of the sciences, not just natural history. In December, 1948, the Museum signed a 99-year lease with the Metropolitan District Commission (at one dollar per year) for a park site on the Charles River Dam, which was dubbed “Science Park.”

In late 1947, Washburn was recruited for an expedition to Amne Machin, a mountain in China reputed to be taller than Mount Everest. The expedition was initiated by Life Magazine with monetary support from Milton Reynolds, a Chicago-based entrepreneur who made his fortune manufacturing ballpoint pens. The Museum of Science was approached by Life Magazine and agreed to lend its name to the expedition (although it could not afford to provide any funds), as well as the services of its Director, Bradford Washburn. Planning for the trip took place throughout the first half of 1948, during which time Washburn traveled to China to meet with government officials and work out the logistics. However, the expedition was plagued by setbacks from the start, as Reynolds had exaggerated the degree to which the Chinese government had approved the expedition and he proved to be consistently uncooperative with other members of the group. The expedition was called off in April, 1948 after a mishap with the airplane. Reynolds subsequently fled China without permission and Washburn returned to the United States soon after.

The first building of the Museum of Science opened its doors on March 12, 1951. Throughout the next 30 years Washburn spent much of his time raising money and overseeing construction. He proved to be an able fundraiser; among the major donors he solicited were: the Charles Hayden Foundation (which funded the construction of the Hayden Planetarium), Mrs. Elihu Thomson (whose late husband would become the namesake of the Theatre of Electricity), and the Countway Charitable Foundation (which contributed a large sum to the completion of the Museum’s central building).

Washburn’s responsibilities as Director extended well beyond fundraising, as he had a hand in virtually every aspect of the Museum’s management. He played an active role in the creation of new exhibit content and was in frequent communication with the corporate partners that supplied many of the Museum’s early exhibits. In addition, Washburn was a relentless advocate for the Museum’s interests in government policy. For example, he oversaw the establishment, in 1954, of a program funded by the Metropolitan District Commission to provide free Museum admission to school groups. He also advocated for the construction of an M.B.T.A. station at Science Park, which opened in 1955.

In 1957, Brad and Barbara took an extended trip across Europe to tour over two dozen museums and learn as much as they could about exhibit design, construction, budget strategies, and educational philosophies. This trip contributed to a body of knowledge that made Washburn a respected figure in the field of museum administration. He was in frequent communication with other museum directors and served on planning and advisory boards for numerous institutions, including the Pacific Science Center in Seattle, Washington.

To honor Washburn’s 25th anniversary at the Museum, the Board of Trustees established the Bradford Washburn Award in 1964. The Award is given annually to an individual in recognition of significant contributions to the public understanding and appreciation of science. Recipients of the Award during Washburn’s tenure included: Jacques- Yves Cousteau (1965), Jane Goodall and Hugo Van Lawick (joint recipients, 1974), and Arthur C. Clarke (1977).

During his time at the Museum of Science Washburn still found opportunities to pursue mountaineering, photography, and cartography. Notable achievements include: completing a new map of Denali based on aerial photographs in 1960, leading a 1965 mapping expedition to Mount Kennedy (a mountain in the Yukon named as a memorial to the President), and conducting surveying trips to the Grand Canyon that culminated in the publication of two new maps in 1978 and 1981.

After 41 years as the Director of the Museum of Science, Washburn retired in 1980. In his retirement, he continued his involvement in the Museum of Science for the rest of his life, acting as Chairman of the Corporation, then Honorary Director, and finally Founding Director. He also continued to pursue his career in cartography. Most significantly, he led a 1984 National Geographic effort to produce a highly-detailed map of Mount Everest through the use of aerial photography and GPS.

Another project Washburn undertook during his retirement was to continue his efforts to discredit Frederick Albert Cook’s claim of the first ascent of Denali in 1906. Washburn had begun these efforts in 1956 with an article in Life Magazine. The crux of Washburn’s argument was that Cook could not have made the ascent in the time frame given and with the equipment he purported to carry. Additionally, Cook’s photographs and subsequent testimony contradict his claim to have reached the summit. Washburn renewed his interest in these claims in the 1990s and in 1996 he organized and participated in a mock trial in Fairbanks, Alaska at which he presented his evidence against Cook’s claims before a panel of judges.

Bradford Washburn died on January 10, 2007 in Lexington, Massachusetts. He was survived by Barbara (who passed in 2014), their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.


68.4 Linear Feet (109 letter document boxes; 2 half letter document boxes; 17 paige boxes; 1 flat box; 1,989 folders; 56 items; 8,638 negatives; Note that some boxes of materials have not yet been included in the finding aid)


This collection is arranged into three series, two of which are further subdivided into several subseries. Materials are arranged chronologically except where otherwise noted.

Series 1: Museum of Science, 1937-1995
Subseries 1: Subject Files, 1937-1995
Subseries 2: Correspondence, 1956-1980
Subseries 3: Publicity, 1950-1987

Series 2: Mountaineering and Cartography, 1907-2005
Subseries 1: Subject Files, 1926-1997
Subseries 2: Publications, 1926-2005
Subseries 3: Publicity, 1935-2005
Subseries 4: Photography, 1926-1994
Subseries 5: Amne Machin Expedition, 1946-1954
Subseries 6: Frederick A. Cook, 1907-2001

Series 3: Personal Papers, 1900-2014

Custodial History

The materials were created by Brad Washburn before, during, and after his time at the Museum of Science.

In 2001, staff member Ellyn M. Benner surveyed Washburn’s office files and created an inventory with a biographical sketch. At some unknown point in time, some elements of the Washburn materials had been inventoried or partially processed by staff from the Collections Department.

In 2017, the Archives took own the care and management of the Washburn materials.

For Series 2 Subseries 4: Photography: Washburn worked in a range of photographic formats for different private and commercial projects throughout his career. In 1990, he partnered with Antony Decaneas of Panopticon, Inc. to produce and sell fine art prints. To oversee long-term ownership and usage of his estate, a contract was developed in 1999 between Washburn, Panopticon, Inc., the Museum of Science, and the University of Alaska, Fairbanks; both the Museum and the University were granted large collections of negatives and the associated copyright. The Panopticon gallery maintained physical control of Washburn’s negatives and prints and oversaw all commercial usage until after Washburn passed away in 2007. In 2018, the Museum took back its negatives and related material that had previously been stored with Panopticon. The Museum has retained copyright over some 8638 negatives. The University of Alaska, Fairbanks retains their own physical holdings and associated copyright.


No further accruals are expected.

Related Archival Materials

Many galleries and museums own Washburn photographs and fine art prints and an exhaustive list would be difficult to compile. The following institutions hold significant collections of photographs or archival material that were donated by Washburn during his life: The American Alpine Club (“The Bradford Washburn Archives”), the Mount Washington Observatory (“The White Mountains Collection”), The Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Northern Arizona University (“The Bradford Washburn Collection”), The University of Alaska Fairbanks (“The Bradford Washburn Photographic Collection”), and the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University (“Washburn, Bradford (1910-2007)”).

For Series 2 Subseries 4: Photography, the University of Alaska Fairbanks holds approximately 8,700 negatives (predominantly 8x10) which were gifted as part of the 1999 agreement between the University, the Museum of Science, and Washburn. Additionally, Decaneas Archive (formerly Panopticon, Inc.) in Revere, MA possesses a collection of prints produced since 1990. An additional institution in Alaska, a foundation called the Legendaries, holds a large collection of prints and some supporting archival material that it purchased from Decaneas in 2018.

Processing Information

When the Archives Department was established in 2017, the Washburn papers were an immediate priority and became the first full archival collection to be processed. Previously, some elements of the Washburn material had been inventoried or partially processed by staff from the Collections Department. Those projects were frequently regarded as individual “collections” but have been incorporated into the overall Washburn Papers.

In 2001, staff member Ellyn M. Benner surveyed Washburn’s office files and created an inventory with a biographical sketch. When processing began in 2017, those office files were divided into Series 1, Subseries 1 and 2, and Series 2, Subseries 1. In 2011-2012, staff member Emma Dill did a processing project that created the “Cook/Washburn Debate Collection,” which was integrated into the Washburn Papers as Series 2, Subseries 6: Frederick A. Cook. In 2014, staffer Kittle Evenson organized “The Bradford Washburn Collection on Reynolds-Boston Museum China Expedition.” The contents of that project have been retained, with the folders rearranged, as Series 2, Subseries 5: Amne Machin Expedition.

Comprehensive processing was done in 2017-2018 by Archives Fellow Benjamin Covell to bring together past projects and produce this finding aid. Covell surveyed materials held by the Museum, assessed the results of past processing projects, and created a series structure to encompass all of the Washburn materials within a single intellectual unit. He also performed extensive physical processing: rehousing materials into archival folders and boxes, making preservation copies of particularly vulnerable materials, digitizing select materials, flagging restricted items, separating oversized items, and weeding superfluous copies as necessary (adhering to the policy of retaining no more than two identical copies of a given item). Original folder titles were retained during processing, except when folders had missing or inaccurate titles or when materials were loose. In one case, an incorrect term was kept: Mount McKinley, the former name of Denali (in Alaska), is used on folder titles to reflect the nomenclature that Washburn used during his life. Some folder titles include information about dates, formats, restrictions, or related content. When the contents of a single folder were divided among multiple folders, the folder titles will include a note in parentheses after the date (e.g. “Folder 12: Exhibits – miscellaneous, 1955-1958 (f. 1 of 2)”). Published items are labeled with their title (either in quotes or italics). For articles from a larger work, the title of the original publication is noted in square brackets within the folder title. Multimedia formats are noted in square brackets at the end of their folder titles. Restricted material is similarly noted in brackets at the end of the title.

In April 2022, Brittany Contratto, the Senior Archivist, ingested the finding aid into ArchivesSpace. Minor updates to the finding aid were made such as box numbers, box barcodes, created subjects, and the word "correspondences" to folder titles of the correspondences for better searching in ArchivesSpace.

H. Bradford Washburn, Jr. Papers Finding Aid
Benjamin Covell (Archives Fellow), 2018; Brittany Contratto (Senior Archivist), April 2022
April 2022
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Processing and finding aid creation generously funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies, 2017-2022.
Edition statement
Second Edition

Repository Details

Part of the Museum of Science, Boston Archives Repository

One Science Park
Boston Massachusetts 02114