Recipient Biography

Melvin M. Payne

Melvin M. Payne (1911-1990) received the Pugsley Medal in 1971 "for his contributions to man's knowledge of earth and preservation of its natural resources." He served as president, executive vice president, and secretary of the National Geographic Society. He arrived at the society in 1932 at the age of 21 as a secretary to Thomas W. McKnew. It was the beginning of an adventurous, international career for the son of a railroad freight conductor, who was an orphan at the age of 10.
After his parents died, he was raised by an aunt and uncle. In his early years, he worked a newspaper route and briefly wrote features for the New York Sun. Later, while holding a day job, he attended night classes at the National University Law School (now part of George Washington University). He completed his law course at the old Southeastern University while working for National Geographic, fighting off a debilitating illness in the process. He became a member of the district bar.
Young Payne's first major assignment made him eyewitness to the nation's early ventures into space, the epochal flights of the stratosphere balloons Explorer I and II from Rapid City, South Dakota. His chief duty was to help set up and maintain tent cities for the technicians, scientists, and military personnel assembled for those early manned flights, cosponsored by National Geographic. Explorer II set an altitude record of 13.71 miles that stood for 21 years. After the balloon mission, Payne was closely associated with National Geographic expeditions, spending many months "under canvas" in the field.
"Mel was very bright, had a great sense of humor, and was totally committed to the National Geographic Society," observed President and Chairman Gilbert M. Grosvenor. "He clearly built the Committee for Research and Exploration over the last 30 to 40 years." As president of the National Geographic Society, Payne drew upon a wealth of scientific, legal, and business experience to guide the far-flung activities of the world's largest scientific and educational institution.
As chairman of the committee from 1975 to 1989, Payne guided $50 million in grants to more than 2,500 scientists. Over the years he was a strong supporter of such projects as Capt. Jacques-Yves Cousteau's underwater explorations, the first American ascent of Mount Everest, the Leakey family's search for early man in East Africa, and Jane Goodall's study of wild chimpanzees. "I learned to love those animals," he once said of the chimps. His support of these now celebrated scientists came "at crucial moments in their careers," as Grosvenor pointed out, when "Mel recognized the promise of their work and spoke out for funding their projects."
In 1958, Payne was elected to a newly-created vice presidency and made associate secretary in charge of administration. Later that year, he was elected to the Society's Board of Trustees. Payne was named executive vice president and secretary in 1962, taking responsibility for all the Society's membership, corporate, and legal affairs. He became president and chief executive officer of the National Geographic Society on August 1, 1967, succeeding Melville Bell Grosvenor.
Payne was instrumental in leading the Society into network television by launching the hour-long television specials, which are now produced in-house for public television. He headed the committee that created Explorers Hall, and wrote 10 National Geographic articles, including "American and Geographic Flags Top Everest." Payne also was editor-in-chief of two books produced as a public service by the Society: We, the People: The Story of the United States Capitol, and Equal Justic Under Law: The Supreme Court in American Life.
Payne was dedicated in his efforts outside the Society, too. He served several years as chairman of the Advisory Board on National Parks, Historic Sites, Buildings and Monuments, for which he received the US Department of the Interior's highest honor the Conservation Service Award in 1974. Payne was director and chairman of the Board of Directors of the White House Historical Association, was a vice president and trustee of the US Capitol Historical Society and the Supreme Court Historical Society and was on the board of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. For his scientific efforts, he was honored in 1962 with a doctorate in science from the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology and a doctor of science degree from Iowa Wesleyan College in 1970. The University of Miami conferred an honorary doctor of laws upon him in 1973.
Payne's story about the first US team's conquest of Everest, funded in part by the Society, reveals his philosophy as clearly as it described the achievement. The article, which was cabled from Katmandu, appeared in the August 1963 National Geographic.
While violent winds tore at the flag, [Barry] Bishop raised it in his own salute to the Society's three and a half million members, and to his teammates whose selfless dedication had helped him to the summit. Two more hours, and they could descend no farther in darkness. They faced the ultimate terror of high-altitude mountaineering -- a night in the open without protection. The temperature leveled off at 18 below zero. By morning, Bishop's and Unsoeld's toes and parts of their feet and finger tips were frozen hard [After being carried down to the base camp on the backs of Sherpas, the climbers were helicoptered to a hospital in the Nepalese capital]. Two days later I arrived in Katmandu with Dr. Eldred Mudth, frostbite specialist from the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, who brought a new drug. Both Bishop and Unsoeld have responded well to initial treatment. Barry Bishop has spent his days in the hospital working on the story of the great climb. Last night I asked Barry what had carried him up that tortuous slope to final victory. "Desire, I guess, and determination," he smiled. "I'd have crawled on hands and knees to put the Society's flag beside Old Glory where Jim Whittaker had left it snapping in the gale."
(1990, November).Insider. 20-21.