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Polar hero Byrd on thin ice? Doubter: Dennis Rawlins' report that explorer Richard Byrd did not fly over the North Pole has put the Baltimore scholar in the middle of controversy.


Dennis Rawlins began his career by picking a fight over Pluto. Conventional wisdom held the planet was nearly the size of Earth. But Rawlins' own calculations showed Pluto was 30 times smaller.

"About the size of a peanut," Rawlins, 59, jokes in his apartment on West University Parkway in Baltimore.

In the nearly three decades since penning that first article, Rawlins has become something of a professional skeptic, taking on ancient astronomers, mind readers and polar explorers in a search for truth and -- his critics insist -- publicity.

His latest report, covered by news organizations around the world, argues that Arctic explorer Richard E. Byrd never reached the North Pole in his legendary flight in 1926.

Relying on navigational calculations drawn from a recently discovered flight diary, Rawlins argues that Byrd not only failed to reach the pole, he erased diary entries and faked official reports to cover up his failure.

Rawlins points to an entry -- later erased -- that appears to contradict the data in the official report. Combined with other evidence, Rawlins concludes Byrd got no closer than 150 miles to the North Pole.

Byrd's heirs and friends dispute the charges, saying that Byrd was, above all, honest. Some scholars familiar with Rawlins' earlier work have also reacted to the recent news with skepticism, although others say the research seems credible.

"Anything I see that he's written I would take with a very, very large dose of salt," said Douglas Davies, a Fairfax, Va., lawyer who along with his late father, a Byrd colleague and friend, has battled Rawlins on other issues.

But whether the report holds up or not, it has put Rawlins where he loves to be: in the middle of a public controversy.

"I'm just basically a big kid," he said. "If you can imagine a 10-year-old getting his mug on Dan Rather's [CBS Evening News], think he'd be happy?"

Rawlins grew up in Baltimore, attending Calvert Hall College and Gilman School before studying physics at Harvard and Boston University. He once taught at the College of Notre Dame and Loyola College, but now fancies himself a free-lance scholar, publishing DIO, an independent journal, out of his apartment.

DIO, named after the Greek word for Dennis, is a curious mixture of science, history and social criticism that appears three times a year. He calls it a "truth-seeking missile."

In the December 1994 issue, Rawlins criticized Richard Byrd, poked fun at Joe DiMaggio and defended Dr. Jack Kevorkian within a span of two pages.

Rawlins' fascination with Byrd dates back to the early '70s, when he published "Peary at the North Pole: Fact or Fiction?," a book disputing the claims of both Byrd and Robert E. Peary, who claimed the first visit to the North Pole, by dogsled in 1909.

In his research, Rawlins relied on journal entries, public statements and his own navigational calculations. In doing so, he took on two of the giants of 20th-century exploration and the National Geographic Society, which validated both claims.

At first, the charges about Peary drew the most attention. National Geographic devoted several articles in the September 1988 issue to a reconsideration of the trip. The society also commissioned a study by a private institute.

Davies, the Fairfax lawyer, wrote that report in conjunction with his father, retired Adm. Thomas D. Davies. Together, they discovered an error that the younger Davies says is so grievous that it casts doubts on Rawlins' reliability even now.

Rawlins misinterpreted a document he found in the National Archives. The Davieses found that the paper did not even concern Peary's North Pole expedition. Furthermore, Rawlins mistook the scrawled numbers from a timepiece for compass readings.

Davies said he was not familiar with Rawlins' recent report on Byrd but he cautioned skepticism: "He distorts things, and he sees importance in things that nobody else would see."

Rawlins freely admits that error in his Peary research. Acknowledging it openly after the Davieses' discovery is a point of pride for Rawlins, but he bristles at the suggestion that a mistake eight years ago clouds his credibility now.

"That's gross," Rawlins said. "I think that's unworthy for even a lawyer, which is what he is."

No similar problems have emerged about Rawlins' recent report about Byrd. In fact, in the few days since news organizations reported the story last week, the small community of polar scholars has begun to accept the research, particularly since Byrd's claim has long been suspect.

"It's generally been regarded as doubtful," said Robert Headland of the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge, England, "but Dennis Rawlins has clinched it."

Raimund Goerler, archivist at the Byrd Polar Research Center in Columbus, Ohio, discovered the long-lost Byrd diary and invited Rawlins to review it because he was well-known as a skeptic.

Goerler doubts one of Rawlins' claims -- that Byrd knew he hadn't made it to the North Pole during the flight itself -- but he reluctantly accepts the other important points.

"Assuming that Dennis is correct, it actually becomes much more of a human interest story," Goerler said. "How many of us, in the face of ticker-tape parades, medals, etcetera, would step forward and say, 'I goofed'?"

Such logic doesn't console the Byrd family, which has tired of the doubts about Richard Byrd's trip to the pole. They support Goerler's plan to convene a panel to review the case yet again.

But Rawlins is convinced the Byrd case is finally closed, relegated to the land of lost mythology.

Myths "add poetry to life," he said, "but you can't confuse poetry with reality."

Pub Date: 5/15/96

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