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George Melville: A Survivor, A Rescuer, A National Geographic Founder

The thirty-three founders of the National Geographic Society were an adventurous and accomplished group. They included scientists, explorers, a journalist and a superintendent of the National Zoo. In recognition of the National Geographic Society’s upcoming 125th anniversary this series takes a look at their stories.


In 1879, George Melville was aboard the Jeannette for what would become one of the epic stories in early American Arctic exploration. Departing from San Francisco, the Jeannette sailed through the Bering Strait and into the Arctic Ocean. Expedition leader George W. De Long had hoped to find a warm current that might take them to the North Pole; instead the ship was caught in the polar ice pack and drifted nearly two years before it was crushed. De Long and the crew abandoned her, dragging three lifeboats with provisions until they found open water. Intending to reach Siberia, the boats were separated. Melville, in command of one boat, managed to reach the delta of the Lena River and was rescued. The others perished. Melville then led an expedition that recovered records of the Jeanette expedition as well as the remains of De Long and his companions.

George Wallace Melville was born in New York on January 10, 1841, the son of Alexander and Sarah Melville, and studied at the Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute. In 1861 he was appointed an assistant engineer in the U.S. Navy and served throughout the Civil War, earning high praise for his capture of the Florida in the harbor of Bahia, Brazil. In broad daylight Melville boarded the ship dressed in civilian clothes and ascertained the necessary information to take her the following day. An official assessment by Engineer-in-Chief Loring stated, “…it is no disparagement to his fellows to say that he has not his superior in his corps.”

Almost immediately thereafter, Melville served as chief engineer on the relief expedition, commanded by Winfield Scott Schley that rescued Lieutenant Adolphus W. Greely and the survivors of his Arctic expedition to northern Greenland and Ellesmere Island–the other great survival epic of early American Arctic exploration, played out the other side of the pole from the Jeannette saga. In all, Melville was on three Arctic expeditions and his book, In the Lena Delta, recounted many of these adventures.

In 1887, Melville was appointed Chief Engineer of the Navy. During his tenure, he supervised designs for 120 new ships, essentially ensuring the modernization of the fleet. Such innovations as the triple screw and vertical engines were used for the first time, and Melville himself was the inventor of many mechanical appliances. Perhaps the most successful results were the triple screw ships Columbia and Minneapolis. Amidst all this naval innovation, he somehow found time to join the newly-formed National Geographic Society in January 1888 and served a term as vice president. In 1899, Melville was promoted to rear admiral, and retired with that rank in 1903. He died on March 17, 1912, and a statue to his memory stands in Navy Park at the Philadelphia Naval Base.