Richard Evelyn Byrd was born in Winchester, Virginia
, on 25 October 1888
to a well-known family. At the age of 20, he entered the United States
Naval Academy for four years, and then served on ships until a smashed ankle
(acquired falling down a hatch) made him retire for medical reasons. He was later called back to active duty, where he organized training camps for World War I
and later became a naval aviator
. Considered an unusually talented flyer, he pioneered night seaplane landings. After the war, he was made responsible for navigational preparations for transatlantic
flights, and also became a successful lobbyist
In 1924 he was made the navigator for the Navy's planned attempt to fly a dirigible across the Arctic Ocean. That was canceled, and Byrd joined the Navy's forces with those of an expedition sponsored by National Geographic; he made the first airplane flights over Ellesmere Island and the interior of Greenland on this expedition. It whetted his appetite for more and in 1926 Byrd took time off from the Navy. His next expedition got sponsorship from Henry Ford's son Edsel, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., the New York Times, and others. Byrd and Floyd Bennett said they'd flown over the North Pole on 9 May 1926, although later this claim was disputed. Not at the time, though; Byrd's achievement was cheered by all and he had no trouble getting further sponsorship.
Next he participated in the transatlatic flight in a multi-engine plane (about a month after Charles Lindbergh's flight), but his interests seemed to lie at the poles, and he set his sights on Antarctica. A plane (named the Floyd Bennett after his comrade on the North Pole flight, who had since died) carrying Byrd and four others set off on Thanksgiving Day 1929; they ended up having to jettison everything not tied down to clear the Queen Maud mountain range, but at 1:14 a.m. on November 29, Byrd reported by radio that they had overflown the South Pole. (He received the Navy Cross for these two historic flights, to add to his lifetime count of twenty-two citations and special commendations, nine of which were for bravery and two for extraordinary heroism in saving the lives of others and such honors as the Congressional Medal of Honor, the Congressional Life Saving Medal, the Distinguished Service Medal, and the Flying Cross. He eventually reached the rank of Rear Admiral.)
Byrd continued being involved in Antarctic exploration. The next expedition started in 1933. An advance base 120 miles from the expedition's main base was supposed to be manned by three men, but circumstances were such that Byrd stayed there by himself for months, and nearly died from carbon monoxide poisoning from a leaking heater. He later wrote about this experience in the best-selling book Alone.
The U.S government took a greater interest in Antarctic exploration after this, and under Franklin D. Roosevelt the U.S. Antarctic Service was formed. Given the chance to stop having to raise private funds, Byrd joined forces with the government and was involved in three more expeditions, though his ego became bruised when the Navy downplayed his involvement toward the end. He died on 11 May 1957 in Boston, slightly over a year after his last departure from Antarctica. In 1987 Ohio State University renamed the "Institute of Polar Studies" to the "Byrd Polar Research Center" after him.