The woman who shaped National Geographic

Pioneering journalist Eliza Scidmore was the magazine's first official female writer, photographer, and board member.

In 1883, Eliza Scidmore hopped on a mail steamer to Alaska. Tired of society life in Washington, D.C., she was inspired by the dramatic scenery described by naturalist John Muir in the San Francisco Bulletin. The uncharted northern tundra had been purchased from Russia in the 1860s, but few Americans had yet visited it. The intrepid 27-year-old writer and photographer decided to see it for herself.

Every morning Scidmore would rise at 6 for coffee and rolls, then spend the day viewing auroras and writing letters. “It’s a watercolor country,” she later described it to an interviewer.

The articles about Alaska that she published in American newspapers captivated the public and impressed the day’s great explorers. When she compiled them into a book of travelogues—perhaps the first ever written about Alaska—a reviewer called her “one of the best women correspondents in the country.”

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