Edward Israel was born in Kalamazoo on 1 July 1859. He died almost 25 years later on 27 May 1884 in a tent at Cape Sabine on Ellesmere Island far to the north of the Arctic Circle. The story of how he came to die so young in such a forsaken place is a long and fascinating one. In fact, two full length books have been written on the subject of the Greely Expedition, of which Israel was a member. Here there is only space for a brief sketch of the life of Kalamazoo's own Arctic explorer and the part he played in the ill-fated expedition that, for a brief time, captured the attention of the world.
An Unlikely Arctic Explorer
Mannes Israel, Edward's father, was the first Jewish citizen to reside in the village of Kalamazoo. He arrived in 1844 and established a dry goods store on the corner of Michigan Avenue and Rose Street. Edward's mother was Tillie Israel. She raised the children and continued the family business after the death of her husband. Edward attended the Kalamazoo Public Schools and then continued his education at the University of Michigan. It was there, just a few months before he was to graduate in 1881, that Israel was nominated by one of his professors for a position as the astronomer on a United States government expedition to the Arctic. Israel excitedly accepted the nomination, was granted his diploma by the university, and returned home to Kalamazoo to bid farewell to his family. On 28 April 1881 Israel left Kalamazoo for Washington. He would not return alive.
The Lady Franklin Bay Expedition
The Lady Franklin Bay Expedition (also commonly called the Greely Expedition after its leader Lieutenant Adolphus Greely) was chartered by the federal government as part of a worldwide plan to send groups to the polar regions to conduct scientific experiments and measurements. Greely, Israel, and twenty three other men set out from Washington, D.C., for Newfoundland on 9 June 1881. From there they boarded a special ship that took them to their final destination at Lady Franklin Bay, well north of the Arctic Circle. From a base they christened Fort Conger, the men spent two lonely years conducting their measurements and experiments in about as much comfort as one could expect in such a frozen and barren place. Israel was responsible for taking hundreds of readings each day, including astronomical, pendulum, magnetic, and meteorological observations. The men had plenty of food, a sturdy structure to keep the elements at bay, and even some luxuries (each man was given a quart of rum on his birthday).