Abington student research leads to memorial for Arctic explorer

A decade of research unearths illustrious past of Philadelphia's Elisha Kent Kane.
State historical marker

Penn State Abington professor P.J. Capelotti and former students Kevin Drew, Andrew Notarfrancesco, Jacqueline Lanning, and Janet Stock unveiled a state historical marker honoring Philadelphia-born Arctic explorer Elisha Kent Kane.

Credit: Pam Brobst

ABINGTON, Pa. — A decade of research spanning two generations of Penn State Abington students concluded last week when they unveiled a historical marker dedicated to a legendary Philadelphia-born Arctic explorer.

The students, along with P.J. Capelotti, professor of anthropology at the Abington campus, and other dignitaries gathered at the tomb of Elisha Kent Kane in the city's historic Laurel Hill Cemetery. The surgeon's accomplishments earned him international fame in the mid-19th century, and he is considered the most influential of the American explorers of the Arctic.

“Kane was a brilliant writer, great explorer and respected scientist,” said Capelotti. “If you look at mid-19th century maps, the North Pole was every bit as blank as the back side of the moon was before 1968.”

The marker developed from a seminar course, The American Way to the Pole, taught by Capelotti. The students searched for the final resting places of three Pennsylvania-born Arctic explorers — Kane, Edwin de Haven, and Isaac Israel Hayes — and the birthplace of another, Robert Peary.

The hunt for Hayes’ grave began in 2006 with Abington student Kevin Drew (history, 2006), but without success. Seven years later, Janet Stock (psychological and social sciences, 2013) developed a lead and found Hayes buried in the Oakland Friends Burial Ground in the Philadelphia suburb of West Goshen.

“Elisha Kent Kane was a brilliant writer, great explorer, and respected scientist. If you look at mid-19th century maps, the North Pole was every bit as blank as the back side of the moon was before 1968."

-- P.J. Capelotti, professor of anthropology, Penn State Abington

Kane's gravesite proved elusive, too, even though Laurel Hill is only 10 miles from Abington. The Kane family mausoleum sits outside the fenced area of the cemetery under a stone overhang dug into a steep hill. Jacqueline Lanning (art and anthropology, 2016), who traveled to Norway for polar research with Capelotti, said the steps leading down to the crypt and busy Kelly Drive were covered in ivy when she first saw the site. 

The students conceived, wrote and ushered the marker through to its final approval by the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission. Stock wrote the initial proposal for the marker, which was funded by the Ronald and Marcia J. Rubin Endowment in Psychological and Social Sciences at Penn State Abington.

Arctic explorer Kane

Although he isn't a household name today, Arctic explorer Elisha Kent Kane's accomplishments earned a commemorative U.S. postage stamp. 

Credit: Penn State

Born in 1820, Kane graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and entered the Navy. He led the search for a lost British explorer, but his ship became icebound. The crew abandoned ship and marched across northwestern Greenland, conducting geographic and other scientific research along the way.

Russell Potter of Rhode Island College, who spoke at the dedication, said the historical marker is one of several tributes to Kane.

"There is a Kane crater on the moon," he told the audience at Laurel Hill. "It is quite close but not at the moon’s North Pole.”

Penn State Abington's link to Pennsylvania's polar explorers

Modern Pennsylvania’s involvement with the Arctic stems from its long history in the region, P.J. Capelotti writes in a post for the U.S. Department of State blog, Our Arctic Nation.

Pennsylvania is the birthplace of four of the most significant Arctic explorers in American history: Edwin De Haven (1816–1865), Elisha Kent Kane (1820–1857), Isaac Israel Hayes (1832–1881) and Robert Peary (1856–1920). Their explorations both inaugurated and concluded the American push to discover the geographic North Pole between 1850 and 1909.

Capelotti, who has been to the North Pole twice, writes about the state's connection to the Arctic in his new book, "The Greatest Show in the Arctic: The American Exploration of Franz Josef Land, 1898–1905." In addition, his work with Abington student Jacqueline Lanning culminated in a National Science Foundation workshop in Oslo last year.