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My Early Years with the SHD: People and Places

By Barbara Backus McCorkle, SHD Fellow
Keynote Speaker
49th Annual Meeting of the Society for the History of Discoveries
Arlington, Texas - October 6, 2008



I’m honored to be asked to give you some reflections on my years in SHD, and it gives me great pleasure to do so.  There have been a lot of them since I first joined in 1971.

First, some background. I’m sure you are all familiar with the basics - how, at an international meeting in Lisbon in the summer of 1960, to celebrate the quincentennary of Henry the Navigator, Jack Parker, Steve Slessarev and Tom Goldstein met over a bottle of wine and decided there should be an organization in the US to encourage research into the history of discoveries. Jack put up a notice that December at the American Historical Association annual meeting asking anyone interested in the idea to meet for further discussion. Which is where I first learned of the Society as my late husband, Professor Oswald Backus, was one of a group of seven at that restaurant who launched the Society for the History of Discoveries. Ozzie used a mailing list of colleagues he had to reach out to other possible members, and a fledgling group was assembled. And, to use a hackneyed phrase, “the rest is history.”

Ozzie was a faithful attendant at meetings for the next ten years, so I was very aware of the doings of the Society, and issues of Terrae Incognitae arrived annually. At the 1970 meeting the University of Kansas had been chosen as venue for the 1972 meeting. Ozzie was to be local arrangements chairman together with Tom Smith (a KU professor of geography and fellow SHD member). I knew that meant I would be heavily involved and I’d better find out what was entailed, so I joined the Society in 1971 and went with Ozzie to the meeting at Yale that fall. I had a wonderful time, met interesting people, noted the kinds of receptions, etc. and came back to Lawrence with some ideas. And good thing, too, as Ozzie died in March and I had to pick up the pieces. To my relief the meeting was a success, and that was the start of my SHD life. I’ve missed very few meetings since, this being my thirty-second.

I’ve titled this talk People and Places, because I want to tell you about some of the memorable people I’ve known during these years, and some of the memorable places we’ve met. People first, because it is the people who make the Society what it is. And in the limited time I have, I’m going to talk about six people whom probably few of you remember, but who made a lasting impression on me. The first is Ursula Lamb, with whom I had the pleasure of rooming at several SHD meetings. She grew up in pre-Hitler Germany, came to the United States to pursue graduate studies, and remained for political reasons. Ursula awed me. Not because she had an awesome personality, indeed she was very low-key and friendly, but because she was so brilliant, so knowledgeable. (Like attracts like - her husband, Willis Lamb, won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1955.) She was the first woman I knew who had Scholar writ large upon her. Her accomplishments were many: author of many books, one of them, A Navigator’s Universe: The Libro de Cosmographia of 1538 by Pedro Medina was published in 1972 in the monograph series sponsored by our Society; editor of many books and articles; an authority on colonial Mexico and the history of exploration and discovery; and an active member of SHD. But I remember the woman with a ready wit, with long hair which cascaded down her back until she braided and wound around her head, who was a stimulating person to be with. [1914-1996]

Hildegard Binder Johnson was another. Like Ursula Lamb she was born in Germany - she spoke with a charming Berlin accent of which, I am told, she was quite proud - but she did her undergraduate and graduate work at universities there until in 1934, after disagreement with Nazi policies, she fled, eventually landing at Macalaster College in Minnesota in 1947 where she founded the geography department. She was a giant in her field, a woman geographer when that was a rarity. But more than that, she was a gifted teacher. Her classes were always oversubscribed and she brought an appreciation for geography to hundreds of students. She loved her adopted region and her studies on Germans in the Midwest and on regional geography were seminal. Her interests exceeded the local, reaching Africa and the world. To her fellow members of SHD she is best known for her study of the 1525 Carta Marina of Laurent Fries, but I remember her for her warm personality. [1908-1993]

And Helen Wallis. No one who knew her could ever forget her. An Oxford graduate, she was the first woman to be appointed Keeper of the Map room in the British Museum and she later became Map Librarian when the British Library was created. She was active in many geographic and cartographic societies, was author, editor, frequently consulted expert, and a major figure in the history of cartography. Yet Helen was still completely unpretentious. She trended to speak rapidly, enthusiastically, laughed often, and was fun to be with. To me she always looked like someone’s mum. But behind that ordinary appearance was an extraordinarily sharp mind. [1924-1995]

I’m not just being a feminist, although I chose to speak about these three important women first. Now I would like to mention some of the other sex whom I remember fondly from my years in SHD. Many of you may remember that our Society was deeply involved in the activities of the Columbus Quincentenary, for which preparations had begun long before 1992 as scholars and others raised questions and promulgated theories on Columbus’ route, landing place, even the translations of his Diario. Enter Oliver Dunn, a tall, gentle, unassuming scholarly Purdue librarian, whom I had met at several annual meetings. When I moved to West Lafayette in 1975 to work at the Purdue library, he had just retired as Associate Librarian, and because of our common interests in SHD and libraries we became good friends. In his quiet way, Oliver was passionate about the study of discovery history, and the problems of the Diario piqued his interest. He decided the Diario needed a new translation. And he did it. Together with his friend and fellow SHD member Jim Kelley, an engineer from Philadelphia, in 1989 they brought out a new translation, The Diario of Christopher Columbus’ First Voyage to America, 1492-1493, which has been called the definitive edition. The librarian and the engineer, what a pair!

Mauricio Obregon. I think he was the most elegant, courtly man I’ve ever known. A native of Colombia, Mauricio was a linguist and scholar, author, a friend and fellow sailor/co-author with Samuel Eliot Morrison. He held the Chair of History of Discovery at the University of the Andes in Bogota, where he was also President, and he lectured at universities around the world. Some of you may remember him as the narrator of the TV series Columbus and Age of Discovery. A most distinguished man whose accomplishments I have barely covered here. When I found myself seated beside him at one of our annual dinners I was, frankly, terrified. What could I possibly find to say to such a Presence?  Not to worry. Mauricio opened the conversation easily, we continued to have a lively discussion (don’t ask me about what) and I was thoroughly charmed. [1921-1998]

And I can’t forget Thomas Smith, whom I have already mentioned and who influenced my future career in a way he never expected. TR, as he was familiarly called, taught a course on historical cartography which he facetiously referred to as “hysterical cartography.” I took that course and became fascinated with maps. I was given charge of the historical map collection at the University of Kansas, which gave me the opportunity to continue studying and learning and in time led to my position as Map Curator at Yale University, where I was like a child in a candy store. All because Tom opened my eyes not just to the beauty of maps, but also to the stories behind them of discovery, of the search to turn Terrae Incognitae into Terrae Cognitae.

I’ve left out many other memorable Society members I’d love to reminisce about, but time constrains me, because I still want to recount highlights of some of the memorable places we have met. In 1976 we met in Charleston, South Carolina, a city oozing southern charm where, as the inhabitants put it, the Ashley and Cooper rivers join to form the Atlantic Ocean. I still chuckle over my main memory of that visit. The local arrangements committee had organized a tour of historic houses. I went with Tom Smith’s wife Eleanor, a very elegant Virginian, and David Woodward’s English wife Rosalind.  I’m originally a New Englander, and I have never considered myself a hick. But our guide at one house, a very aristocratic woman, treated us as though we must be culturally ignorant of the fine points of life, as though we obviously knew nothing of fine furniture, paintings, rugs, china. We exchanged looks and stifled our snickers until we had left that particular house.

It was Tucson in 1977. I had never been to that part of the country and the campus of Arizona State University astonished me. With its manicured lawns and handsome buildings it had the look of a country club, unlike other universities I knew. I had a chance to tour the desert museum, for which Tucson is famous, which introduced me to native flora and fauna I found very exotic. Ursula Lamb was the main organizer of our venue, and she had invited the Council members, of which I was luckily one, to her home for our meeting. I saw a side of Ursula I had not known.  She was a charming, relaxed hostess and a good cook who served us a delicious lunch. I can still close my eyes and see Tucson as evening fell, when the mountains became a black backdrop with the remnants of sunset behind them as the first stars came out.

1987, London, England. Organizer Helen Wallis did us proud. Many of us stayed at the Russell Hotel, on Russell Square.  For some reason, although I had nothing to do with making arrangements, the hotel powers-that-be decided I must be important, so I was greeted in my room with a basket of fruit, flowers, and candy!  Probably meant for someone else, but I enjoyed it.  London, of course, had much to offer, and we all took advantage of it, but my best memory there is of the site for our banquet.  A member of Helen’s arrangement committee had connections at Guy’s Hospital.  Our banquet was held there on (I think) the 22nd floor.  I remember standing at the window looking down at the river Thames and all London lit up. It was magical.

We had met once outside the US, in Canada in 1983, but London was our first overseas adventure.  That was so successful we did it again, in 1990, when we went to Jamaica and made our headquarters at Ocho Rios.  Ahhh, the sand, the sea, the mystique of the Caribbean. Of course we did many things “Columbian”, lunched at a coffee estate in the Blue Mountains, where aficionados claim the world’s best coffee is grown, and saw the sights of Kingston. But my best memory is of a little cove behind our hotel in Ocho Rios, away from the main beach and mostly deserted, where Carole Urness, Joyce Lorimer and I met early every morning for a lovely swim.

1994, Mackinac Island. I’d read about the Island and its fabled hotel with a front porch of epic length lined with white rocking chairs, now I was going to go there. For me, it lived up to its reputation. I delighted in everything: the ferry over; the absence of cars; the bicycles and horse-drawn carts; the stores lining the main street, particularly the many special island fudge shops. A group of us topped it off the right way one night by taking a carriage ride to the Grand Hotel where we had made reservations for dinner. The dinner was great, but walking across that vast porch was special.

I hope these brief reminiscences give newer members some knowledge of people they have not known and places they didn’t visit, and also rekindles memories for members lucky enough to have been with me all these years.

(To read more about Barbara Backus McCorkle, see her citation as SHD Fellow by clicking here.)

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