The Bowdoin Polar Bear

The tradition of the polar bear as a symbol for Bowdoin College can be traced to the discovery of the North Pole on April 6, 1909, by Admiral Robert E. Peary of the Bowdoin Class of 1877. The identification of the College with the Arctic and exploration has been consistent since that date. Even the College color — white — relates to the Arctic. Bowdoin varsity teams are known as the Polar Bears.

Bowdoin’s identification with Arctic exploration does not revolve around one individual alone, but is interwoven in the overlapping careers of several Bowdoin graduates. General Thomas Hamlin Hubbard (Class of 1857) was president of the Arctic Club which provided financial backing for Peary’s expedition. Admiral Donald B. MacMillan (Class of 1898) was a member of the Peary expedition and continued his work in the Arctic throughout the next half century. Countless numbers of Bowdoin graduates served under MacMillan in his more than 30 trips into Arctic waters.

The polar bear was chosen as the mascot of Bowdoin College in 1913 at the forty-third annual banquet of the Bowdoin College Alumni Association at the Sherman Square Hotel in New York City. MacMillan, who was present at the dinner, was asked to secure a polar bear on his next expedition to the Arctic. This he did on May 13, 1915, and shortly thereafter presented it to the College with the words: “May his spirit be the Guardian Spirit not only of Bowdoin Athletics but of every Bowdoin [person.]”

The Class of 1912 presented a sculpture of the polar bear to the College in 1937. It is a life size granite statue designed by Frederic George Richard Roth. The figure stands in front of the entrance to Sargent Gymnasium, and has for many years symbolized Bowdoin College to alumni and to the public .

The polar bear has long been identified with Bowdoin publications either in the title or by means of illustrations. The first known use as a title was “The Bowdoin Bear Skin,” a campus humor publication that appeared in 1922-27. Early copies of the alumni newsletter were called “The Explorer.” The polar bear appeared on the cover of the 1915 edition of the College yearbook, the Bowdoin Bugle, where it has regularly appeared as an overall decorative motif, sometimes in caricature.

Today, Bowdoin is home to the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum and the Arctic Studies Program. Established in 1967, the Museum is located in Hubbard Hall named in honor of Peary benefactor General Thomas H. Hubbard. The Museum collections include Arctic exploration gear, natural history specimens, and art and anthropological material, produced primarily by the Inuit cultures of Labrador and Greenland. The museum also has large holdings of historic and anthropological photographs and motion picture film. A concentration in Arctic studies provides students with opportunities to explore cultural, social, and environmental issues involving Arctic lands and peoples.

In the summer of 2008, exactly 100 years after Peary embarked from New York City on his successful expedition to the North Pole, Bowdoin unveiled a new official depiction of the polar bear to be used in athletic facilities, on clothing, in printed materials, and on the Bowdoin Web site. The polar bear was chosen with input and participation from current students, alumni, faculty, and staff.