In 1881, as Israel was completing his degree, one of his professors nominated him to serve as astronomer on the Lady Franklin Bay Polar Expedition, a scientific journey sponsored by the United States government. Although Israel was young, his professor was impressed by his intelligence.
The expedition, which was led by Lieutenant Adolphus Greely, began well. Leaving Washington, D.C. on June 9, 1881, they eventually set up camp (which they named Fort Conger) far north of the Arctic Circle at Lady Franklin Bay. They spent the next two years there running various scientific experiments.
The expedition had begun with enough supplies for two years. When the planned annual supply ship did not arrive in 1882, perhaps they should have been concerned. When the 1883 supply ship did not arrive, however, the 25 man crew knew they were in trouble.
The expedition team deserted Fort Conger and, using Israel’s astronomical expertise to guide them, headed toward Canada’s Cape Sabine, where they found that the supply ship had sunk. They waited to be rescued, but the fierce arctic winter and the lack of food took a devastating toll. Out of 25 men, 19 succumbed to exposure, frostbite and starvation. Edward Israel perished on May 27, 1884, approximately three weeks before the survivors were rescued.
Israel’s body was buried in the Jewish section of Kalamazoo’s Mountain Home Cemetery. Three thousand people escorted their hometown hero to his grave. His fellow explorer, Sergeant David Brainard said of him: “Everyone was his friend. He had no enemies. His frankness, his honesty, and his noble generosity had won the hearts of all his companions.”
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