With a Winston dangling from his thin lips and his seat belt dangling by the door, Bradley eased his car from the parking lot of the Grand Canyon Village Motel he had shared with fellow professor William Topmoeller, S.J., and headed for their rendezvous with the pilot. At the same time, a woman in a station wagon towing a trailer was barreling down the road, heading north.
When Topmoeller pointed out the spot where they were to meet the pilot on the other side of the road, Bradley whipped the car left, sending it hurtling eastward and directly into the path of the oncoming station wagon.
“Ed, look out,” Topmoeller screamed. He pushed himself against the back of his seat, bracing for the inevitable impact. “I absolve you, Ed,” he shouted as the sounds of scraping metal, shattering glass and scrunching gravel filled the air. The impact sent the car spinning. Topmoeller’s collar bone snapped with the impact. Bradley’s head slammed hard on the window, leaving him senseless.
Topmoeller recovered from his injuries, but for two weeks, Bradley lay in a coma in a Phoenix hospital, unaware of what happened. As he slowly regained consciousness, his brother, Bill, brought him back to Good Samaritan Hospital in Cincinnati, where neurologists did what they could, trying to undo the damage and restore the capacity that once was. But it was too late. He would eventually regain his motor abilities—he could talk and walked with effort—but much of the knowledge he’d spent a lifetime learning was gone.
For 18 years, Bradley had been one of the University’s most ambitious and adventurous Jesuit scientists, operating a state-of-the-art seismology station and challenging students in the classroom, all the while regaling everyone with stories of his adventures—particularly of his trip to Antarctica and his explorations at the bottom of the world.
“He lived for 25 years after that horrible accident, and he was half a man, and it’s a pity,” says his brother, Bill. “He was a really intelligent scientist.”
He had to give up driving, and Topmoeller and the other Jesuits had to sneak off to play bridge without him because he could no longer follow the game. At Xavier, he was relieved—reluctantly—of his teaching duties and his beloved seismograph station. With no other seismographers on staff, the station in Milford, Ohio, was shut down and relocated to John Carroll University in Cleveland. Until his death in 1996, his life was shrunk to a litany of vague memories and visits with his doting sister on Sundays, followed by years of existence in the Jesuit retirement center in Clarkston, Mich.
Occasionally, though, his spark would return, specifically when someone brought up his trip to Antarctica—a trip that in many ways defined who he was and briefly made him famous.
It was November 1957 when Bradley set out on a journey across the frigid Atlantic seas to study and live in the harsh conditions of the world’s most extreme continent. There, he wrote letters and compiled data while taking hundreds of pictures of a world most never see—items that briefly brightened the darkened last years of his life and today serve as a lifeline to his past.
Now tucked away in the University’s library archives, his letters and other documents tell of a different time, when technology was new and the world was hungry for scientific knowledge. Though the Cold War was under way, science was a global common ground, and it was in the late 1950s that the world’s nations set aside their differences and agreed to collaborate on an unprecedented series of fact-gathering expeditions known as the International Geophysical Year.
The effort by 67 countries to participate in these coordinated observations of earth and space actually spanned three years and incorporated studies of cosmic radiation, geomagnetism, glaciology, seismology, the atmosphere and solar activity. The IGY, as it was called, was overseen by an independent group of international scientific unions.
The adventure for Bradley began a month after the Soviets beat the U.S. into space by sending a small satellite sailing into orbit. As the beeping Sputnik circled overhead, Bradley and nine other scientists aboard the U.S.S. Wyandot steamed southward, unaware of the scientific, cultural and political significance of the satellite arcing above. The scientists were focused only on what lay ahead for them: a year of unparalleled research at the bottom of the world. They were to probe a hostile, unexplored, ice-covered land mass and gather an unprecedented volume of data about the earth.
Bradley, then a 34-year-old seismologist recently assigned to teach physics at Xavier, filled his letters home with details of his days at sea—crossing the Equator, weathering a storm, the falling temperatures, the sea life and his first sighting of an iceberg.
“This morning we sighted some whales, but by the time I was ready to get a picture of them, they were too far away,” he wrote on Jan. 1. “We spotted our first iceberg last night and there is one on the horizon.”
Two days later, he wrote: “The days now are 24 hours long but almost completely overcast. For the last two days, icebergs were so common that I didn’t even bother going out on deck to look at them. Today, though, we haven’t seen any bergs, but sea ice is beginning to appear, an indication that the ice pack may not be very far off…. We have been travelling about 300 miles a day since we left Capetown and the only life we have seen has been birds and a school of whales.”
Following a U.S. Coast Guard ice cutter through the ice pack, they put in on Jan. 8 at Halley Bay on the northwest coast of Antarctica. Bradley’s first outing on the ice was to snap shots of the Emperor penguins, which soon became his favorite subjects.
“They have a rookery right where our boats put in and it was quite a sight to see several hundred men chasing penguins all over the ice. We caught four of them and brought them on board. We are going to take them down to the station with us and keep them as pets.”
As Bradley was moving into Ellsworth Station, John Behrendt was moving out. Bradley was replacing Behrendt as chief seismologist at Ellsworth, and the two met briefly as their paths crossed. Behrendt, now a research scientist at the University of Colorado who recently published a book about his Antarctic experiences, spent 1957 with the team that built the Ellsworth station and made the first traverses across the Filchner Ice Shelf.
“It was unexplored when we went,” Behrendt says. “We didn’t know anything about the ice shelf or the islands. No one had been there before. And Bradley and his team were the first people to see those areas. We had to be explorers as well as geophysicists.”
Much of today’s knowledge of earth and space is built on what was learned during those years. The information contributed to understanding weather conditions globally, including the knowledge that as global warming continues, the potential rise in sea level from melting Antarctic ice could flood coastal cities under up to 20 feet of water.
The 5,000 scientists and support personnel who poured over the land from 1957 to 1958 also opened up the rarely visited continent to the world. Their work led to the historic Antarctic Treaty of 1961. Today, the 44 nations that abide by the treaty’s policies conduct research under strict environmental standards to learn about and protect a continent that has no ownership.
The decision to let Bradley be one of those early scientists, however, didn’t come easily. The Jesuits, known for their expertise in seismology, contributed three seismologists to the project. Bradley was still studying for his master’s degree in physics, and his leaving meant he would not only have to delay his studies, but it also meant Xavier would have to find a replacement. In the end, the benefits of publicity and renown for the order, the Church and the University outweighed the negatives, and Bradley found himself heading southward.
Bradley’s pictures reveal the challenges, the wonder—and the dangers—of life in the Antarctic. Family, friends and former students remember his slide shows and his stories. To them, he was a devoted Jesuit who adored celebrating Mass and may have loved the seismology station at Milford more than teaching. He could be a bit gruff and bristly when challenged—he had no trouble ignoring a Jesuit directive to stop smoking. He craved adventure and capturing it on film. He once tried to return to Antarctica, but his superiors said no, so he threw himself into teaching and seismology.
But the explorer within him couldn’t resist digging out his slides, which gained him some renown when National Geographic ran three of them in the October 1959 issue. One is a rare shot of the red Aurora Australis lights that bathed the Antarctic nights—the first such photo ever taken. The others are of the yawning crevasses that threatened to swallow the men and their machines.
One of his favorite slides, says Theodore Thepe, S.J., professor emeritus of chemistry and one of Bradley’s closest friends, was of a penguin he shot with a zoom lens. Only when he got the slide processed did he realize he had a perfect shot of a urinating bird. Later, when Thepe would visit Bradley at the retirement center, they’d share a laugh about the peeing penguin. Bradley’s memory may have been shot, says Thepe, but he always knew he’d been to Antarctica.
“It’s difficult to describe Antarctica,” Bradley told a Cincinnati newspaper in 1959. “You’re impressed by the size, by the ice that goes on and on, by the fact that you can be 500 miles from any living thing besides yourself and your party.”
Life in the Antarctic was hard. When the sun set for the last time on April 23, easing the station into four months of winter with its 50-below zero temperatures, Bradley filled his time with work and odd jobs. He was the station’s barber, ham radio operator and farmer. He grew vegetables—radishes, lettuce, peas and carrots—in soil from the States. And he led Mass almost daily.
But in the spring, with temperatures rising toward an average summertime 24 degrees, he and his team of 11 men set out for a three-month journey that took them to the center of the continent, traversing slowly in their Sno-Cats and stopping every 20 miles to make a sounding. Bradley would drill a hole in the ice, insert dynamite and use his portable seismograph to record the time it took the sound waves from the explosion to travel through the ice, bounce off the solid ground below and return to the surface. The greatest depth he recorded was 12,000 feet.
By January 1959, after traversing 1,250 miles in 67 days, Bradley’s party reached Byrd Station, ready for the trip home to begin analyzing their data. Though he never returned to the land of ice, his legacy remains in the knowledge gained from the work he completed. But Bradley had something else as well. As a result of his work, his team discovered a mountain range under the ice with peaks, known as nunataks, more than 7,000 feet high. The highest peak is named the Bradley Nunatak. It’s a fitting tribute to the man—and the mind—who found it.