Human Journey

The Story of National Geographic Society’s Youngest Founder

The 33 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 130th anniversary this series takes a look at their stories.

By Mark Collins Jenkins

Robert Muldrow II, a geologist, was the youngest man among the National Geographic Society’s founders. He was only 23 on that January night in 1888 when he joined 32 others at the Cosmos Club to discuss the feasibility of establishing an organization for the increase and diffusion of geographic knowledge. Nearly half of these gentlemen were in their 20s or 30s, so it is likely that Muldrow attended with some of his young colleagues from the U.S. Geological Survey.

Muldrow himself was new to the Survey, having just joined in 1887, but he would remain there for 40 years, retiring in 1927. He originally hailed from Octibbcha County, Mississippi, where he was born on June 11, 1864.

Robert Muldrow and the glacier named for him in Denali National Park. Photograph by Tim Rains.

Muldrow won long-lasting fame of a sort by having a glacier named after him. In the 1890s, he was one of the earliest explorers of Mt. McKinley–now Denali–in Alaska. In 1896-97, a gold prospector named William A. Dickey glimpsed the mountain massif, one of the most imposing in the world, named it for presidential candidate William McKinley, and published the first description of it. Within two years the Geological Survey sent Muldrow, then in his early 30s, and George H. Eldridge to make a professional reconnaissance of the nearby Shushitna River area. Using transit instruments set up in various parts of the riverbed, Muldrow shot different lines of sight to the mountain’s summit and by triangulation arrived at various estimates of McKinley’s height, the average of which turned out to be 20,464 feet.* It was the first measurement of McKinley, and for this geographic achievement, the Muldrow Glacier–over 30 miles long and the largest of eight major glaciers descending the mountain’s slopes–was named in his honor.

He also located the site of a helium plant in Amarillo, Texas, in 1927, just prior to his retirement from the Geological Survey. With his son, Robert Muldrow III, he organized the Southwest Elevation Company to supply elevations of wild-cat oil wells to oil companies in Texas.

Robert Muldrow II died on July 28, 1950, at the age of 86–the last of the Society’s founders–and was buried in Arlington Cemetery, Virginia.

 

* The ninth edition of the National Geographic Atlas of the World gives the height as actually 20,320 feet.

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