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John Rae (1813-1893)

Alumnus who solved the two greatest mysteries of 19th-century Arctic exploration.

John Rae

In 1833 Dr John Rae (1813-1893), native Orcadian and University of Edinburgh Medical graduate, signed on as a surgeon aboard a Hudson's Bay Company ship bound for Moose Factory, at the southern end of Hudson Bay in Canada.

The experience was to prove life-defining, as a single season, turned into 10 years as resident surgeon and a life of exploration and discovery.

Love of the land

Rae spent his spare time at Moose Factory as a student of the land and the native culture. He became an authority in native methods of Arctic survival and travel and learnt a variety of skills, including how to make and maintain snowshoes, how to hunt caribou and how to ice the runners of a sled.

His expertise in snow shoes earned him the Inuit nickname Aglooka - he who takes long strides.

Voyages of discovery

Between 1846 and 1854, Rae travelled more than 37,000 kilometres and charted 2,475 kilometres of what is now Canadian coastline. His most significant discovery was Rae Strait, the final link needed for a Northwest Passage, a sea route through the Arctic Ocean.

He also discovered the fate of the 1845 Franklin expedition for which he earned a £10,000 reward but the resentment of Lady Franklin who objected to the suggestion that her husband had failed in his mission and that his crew had resorted to cannibalism.

Rightful place in history

Franklin and his officers were posthumously knighted whereas John Rae received no recognition or award.

Mathematical Physics alumnus and Director of Orkney International Science Festival, Howie Firth, believes that recognition is long overdue and that his achievements can inspire a new generation.

In his leadership, his concern for others, his fortitude, his warm-heartedness, and the exhilaration with which he approached the toughest challenges that nature could throw at him, he is really an example to inspire us today.

Howie FirthDirector of Orkney International Science Festival


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