Author Tags: Biography, Outdoors, Physician Author

As a youth, Peter Steele crossed the Sahara to map and explore by camel the extinct volcanos of Tibesti, then travelled with a donkey across the Atlas Mountains of Morocco. He also climbed Popocatepetl in Mexico. With his wife, Sarah, a St. George's nurse, Peter Steele also drove overland for six months to Nepal where they worked in a hospital in Kathmandu and explored the western end of the Dhaulagiri Range. In 1967, the couple made a six-month family crossing of Bhutan Himalaya with their two children, under the age of four, giving rise to Steele's memoir, Two and Two Halves to Bhutan. Steele and his wife travelled by bus and train through China, Tibet and India in 1986, across southern Africa from Nairobi to Capetown in 1989, and from Antarctica round Patagonia. Steele has also hitch-hiked in South America with his ten-year-old son, giving rise to an unpublished novel about an unscrupulous doctor he met on the Amazon. Steele's enduring love of wilderness, especially mountains, began with climbs in Britain, the Pyrenees and the Alps. He was Medical Officer to the International Everest Expedition in 1971, giving rise to three books; Doctor on Everest, Medical Care for Mountain Climbers and Medical Handbook for Walkers and Climbers. As a freelancer, he has published more than 200 articles on non-medical subjects in the Medical Post and contributed to Peter Gzowski's Morningside Papers and Writing North.

Born in England on May 5, 1935, he received his MA from Cambridge (UK) and qualified in medicine in 1960 at St. George's Hospital in London. Prior to emigrating from England, Steele supplied the Grenfell flying doctor service in Labrador, travelling the Atlantic coast by snowshoe, dog-team and boat. In 1975 he moved from Bristol to Canada where he has lived primarly in Whitehorse as a family doctor and surgeon. He is a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons (Edinburgh) and a Life Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. He speaks English, French, Spanish and Nepali. His books include The Man Who Mapped the Arctic [reviewed below]. When William Mills, librarian of the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge, suggested Peter Steele consider writing about Arctic explorer George Back, Steele didn't have much difficulty relating to such an intrepid character. At age 22, George Back served as a seaman on a brig fitted out by Lieutenant John Franklin for his first voyage of discovery to the Arctic waters around Spitzbergen in 1818. Franklin hired George Back back--to accompany him on an overland expedition from Hudson Bay to the Coppermine River--but they were separated in 1919. For five months George Back traversed over 1100 miles on snowshoes, surviving at 40-below temperatures, describing his remarkable Arctic odyssey in his journal. C. Stuart Houston edited Sir George Back's work as Arctic Artist: The Journal and Paintings of George Back, Midshipman with Franklin, 1819-1822 (McGill-Queen's, 1994).


The Man Who Mapped the Arctic: The Intrepid Life of George Back, Franklin's Lieutenant. Raincoast. 2003.

Eric Shipton - Everest and Beyond. London: Constable. 1998. Winner of the Boardman Tasker international prize for mountain literature

Medical Handbook for Walkers and Climbers. London: Constable. 1998.

Atlin's Gold. Prince George: Caitlin Press. 1995.

Far From Help. Seattle: Cloudcap Press. 1991.

Medical Care for Mountain Climbers. London: Heinemann Medical. 1976.

Doctor on Everest. London: Hodder & Stoughton. 1972; Vancouver: Raincoast 2005.

Two and Two Halves to Bhutan. London: Hodder & Stoughton. 1970.

[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2003] "Biography" "Medicine" "Outdoors" "Arctic"

The Man Who Mapped the Arctic: The Intrepid life of George Back, Franklin’s Lieutenant (Raincoast, $39.95)

George Back was a talented map-maker and copious letter-writer who participated in three expeditions under the doomed and inept Sir John Franklin. Peter Steele’s The Man Who Mapped the Arctic: The Intrepid life of George Back, Franklin’s Lieutenant (Raincoast, $39.95) examines the life and times of one of the most remarkable Arctic explorers.

When Charles Dickens met George Back late in life, after Queen Victoria had knighted him, Dickens addressed him as “Captain Black,” and subsequently wrote to apologize for omitting the “Sir.” It was, Dickens said, because he had followed for so long “the earlier endurances and glories of his great career.”
From his childhood in the North of England, George Back, inspired by the legendary Horatio Nelson, had yearned for life at sea. He joined the navy just before his twelfth birthday, not an unusual step at the time for young boys aspiring to be officers. But the year was 1808, and Europe was embroiled in the Napoleonic wars. The ship Back had joined was captured off the coast of Spain, and he spent the next five years in France as Napoleon’s prisoner.
That misadventure did not curb his seafaring expeditions, and soon after his release, he became a midshipman on an expedition headed by Sir John Franklin. He impressed Franklin so much that he was invited to accompany him on two future expeditions, though happily he did not join the final fatal one. Back’s letters to his brother contain astute assessments of Franklin, who was surprisingly unfit in physique and temperament for a rigourous active life. He was plump, unused to exercise, demanded three square meals a day, lots of tea, and couldn’t walk more than eight miles at one time.

During Franklin’s first Arctic expedition Back, who was notoriously conceited, wrote to his brother in 1820 from ‘Fort Chipewyan Interior of America,’
“There was a wide difference between Franklin and me, and he suffered every evil I have mentioned whilst mine was a slight chafing in the toes occasioned by Snow Shoes, he had never been accustomed to any vigorous exertion; besides his frame is bulky without activity. In fatigue I found my constitution could surpass even the old travelers and as for the climate it has no effect on me but to spur me on in my undertaking.”

The accounts of the Arctic expeditions contain a wealth of information on a variety of subjects, such as the hazards of duck-hunting on the edge of glaciers. On one occasion, the sailors’ gunfire loosened a large piece of the glacier, sparking a tidal wave that stirred up the plankton on the seabed, and caused all the seals and narwhals to leave the surrounding ice-floes and create a huge commotion by diving down to feed on the plankton. On another occasion, the gunfire threw the boat upon a shingle beach and seriously damaged it.

One chapter, Eskimo Affrays, is devoted to meetings and altercations with the Inuit. These are often hilarious, but somewhat marred by the condescending and mocking tone that belongs to Back’s time, and from which Steele has not distanced himself. Some readers may decide it is an editorial misjudgment for the biographer to follow his subject’s habit of referring to the Inuit throughout as Eskimos (a European term which they now reject, meaning ‘eaters of raw flesh’).

Not all Back’s adventures took place on the high seas or in the Arctic regions. Two sections provide contrast and comedy by describing Back’s travels in Europe. The first is a Boswellian account of his grand tour alone to see the cultural landmarks. The section Interlude Ashore contains stories of his scatological adventures and misadventures, as well as some sexual exploits, and one serious love affair with a married woman.

A very different European tour was Back’s honeymoon journey after his active naval career had ended and he married a well-connected and wealthy widow. The account of their post-nuptial travels draws largely on her journals and contrasts amusingly with the hardships of his Arctic adventures, for Theodosia is no hardy companion. She depends heavily on her husband (she refers to him as Sir George, while he refers to her as Theo) for support as she staggers feebly around the various landmarks. A self-declared “sad coward,” she was frightened of horses and mountain roads, squeamish about the effluvia of towns, and wrote of their expedition up Vesuvius, “I fell at every yard, and generally slid back, making a dozen yards to gain one.” They remained married for 18 years. Theodosia died in 1861.

Back’s last years brought many honours, including a position on the Arctic council, a prestigious committee that advised the Admiralty on Northwest Passage matters. He was also made a member of the Royal Geographical Society, and in that capacity he received the reports from many explorers, most notably an account from David Livingston of his discovery of the Zambezi’s Victoria Falls. He lived to age 82, a rare longevity in the nineteenth century, and testimony to his strong constitution and several pieces of good fortune.
One piece of good fortune is that the story of his life has fallen into the hands of an ideal biographer. Peter Steele is no armchair biographer, vicariously experiencing adventures through his more active subject.

A surgeon, mountaineer and explorer, he left England in 1975, and has lived since then primarily in Whitehorse, working there as a family doctor and surgeon. He participated in the ill-fated International Everest Expedition of 1971, in which one climber died, and recorded the experience in Doctor on Everest, the second of his eight books. His preparations for the present book, besides scholarly research, included following his subject’s Arctic journeys by floatplane, going on foot through the Richardson Mountains, and by canoe to the Mackenzie Delta, overland to the shores of Prudhoe Bay in Alaska, and by boat to the northern tip of Labrador. The value of such active involvement in his subject’s travels is evidenced by the vivid descriptions of the Arctic landscape. 1-55192-648-2 --Review by Joan Givner

[BCBW 2003]