Our Dora the Real-Life Explorer

An indomitable Philly spirit that tackled mountain tops around the world, and broke glass ceilings wherever she went. 

America’s first brain surgeon, William W. Keen, lived at 1729 Chestnut Street, where he and his wife raised four daughters. The one named Dora would win international acclaim as the first person to summit Alaska’s formidable Mount Blackburn in 1912. Her zest for adventure would take her around the world, from one ambitious expedition to the next. This is the Philadelphia Story of a famous global trailblazer, Philly’s own Dora the Explorer.

As you’d expect, Dora’s life as a brain surgeon’s daughter was quite comfortable by late 19th century standards. She and her sisters enjoyed parties, private schooling, and lavish vacations. Tragically, on one of these holidays – to the seaside town of Barnstable, MA – Dora’s mother ate a bad oyster and died. Dora was 15 years old at the time, and it’s easy to see how such a random and catastrophic event might’ve triggered a compulsion to fearlessly live life to its fullest.

Whatever the reason, after graduating Bryn Mawr College in 1896, Dora immediately started pushing limits. As school director of Philadelphia’s 9th Ward (an elected position), she fought for compulsory education, free lunches, special ed, student health care – even shoes for children in need. She fell in love with mountain climbing on a summer trip to France, where she scaled Mont Blanc, the highest peak in the Alps. Within two years, she made eight more Alpine summits, including the Matterhorn in Switzerland.

Researching a solo Alaskan trip for her 40th birthday, Dora read in a tour book that no one had ever reached the top of Mount Blackburn, the highest peak in the Wrengell mountain range (5th highest in all the US). What better way to commemorate this milestone life event? She pulled together guides, supplies, equipment – everything needed for this monumental endeavor. Unfortunately, they missed the seasonal window for safe climbing, and had to retreat before they reached the top. Dora was undaunted by the setback, vowing to return the next year and accomplish her goal.

The following April, she and a crew of men and sled dogs began their ascent of Mount Blackburn. The weather was especially cruel that year, extra cold and snowy, with temps falling well below zero. Dora and her team sheltered in snow caves, enduring frequent avalanches. Every day seemed someone would quit, until finally just one man, George Hardy, and his dog remained to provide crucial support in the treacherous conditions.

On May 19, 1912, after 27 days of climbing, Dora (one month shy of her 41st birthday) became the first person to reach the top of Mount Blackburn. 🎉🍾✨ When she got home, people flocked to her lectures and photo presentations about her climb. She used her platform to advocate for women’s rights and philanthropic causes. She was feted alongside renown explorers like Robert Peary and Ernest Shackleton – and her life was just beginning.

Dora & George in Alaska via NPS

Dora returned to Alaska in the summer of 1916 to marry the lone man who stayed by her side on Mount Blackburn, who helped her keep her footing and her focus, who was there to witness her great achievement (and partake of it with her). The new Mr. & Mrs. George Hardy honeymooned for two months in the Alaskan wilds, then bought a dairy farm in Vermont. Unfortunately, they did not live happily ever after: after almost 17 years of marriage, Dora divorced George for cruelty, and moved on.

She’d spend the next decade summering on her farm and spending winters in the Germantown/Mt Airy section of Philadelphia, in the then-posh Upsal Garden Apartments (still operating today). A natural people-person with wealthy connections, Dora earned a very comfortable living during this time selling insurance. Instead of retiring, she financed extended trips to exotic locations.

Throughout her 70’s and 80’s, Dora spent three months of every year traveling solo to remote lands, meeting new people, and exploring other cultures. On a world tour in December 1962, she was en route to China when she fell ill and was told to turn back in Hawaii. “Go home and rest,” her doctors urged.

Nice try. Eager to resume her trip, Dora hopped the next plane to Hong Kong. She died there on January 31, 1963, and was cremated on the spot as per the instructions in her will. She was 91 years old.

END NOTE: In the 1960’s, USGS determined that the highest summit of Mount Blackburn wasn’t actually the eastern side that Dora (and George) climbed but the Western peak which is taller by 200 feet. However, the eastern route is much longer and harder, so many guides today still give her credit for this first ascent.

Get the Whole Story! 

Please click through to read about Dora Keen’s incredible life of adventure.

This post is a brief summary based on an excellent article researched and written by the wonderful Bob McNulty. Originally published May 18, 2014, updated January 2023.

Read Bob’s last Local column HERE

For more great tales from local history, follow @PhiladelphiaStoriesbyBobMcNulty on Facebook. 

Thoughts? Questions? Please leave your comments below, or email editor@nwlocalpaper.com.

About Philadelphia Stories By Bob McNulty 21 Articles
Philadelphia Stories by Bob McNulty. Lifelong Philadelphian Bob McNulty tells fascinating tales about ordinary citizens and extraordinary events from the city’s long history. Ranging from whimsical to tragic (sometimes in the same story!), Bob’s tales are meticulously researched and bring to life figures and events largely forgotten today. Philadelphia Stories is a dramatic archive that spotlights everyday Philadelphians of all kinds -- men and women, Black and white, immigrant and native-born, many of whom, in Bob’s words, “didn’t have anyone to tell their story.”

2 Comments

  1. Are we able to advertise a virtual community event on this paper? Our event is Saturday, March 25.

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