Published: August 2006
A Geographic Life
Some people dream of exotic adventures with National Geographic. Thomas J. Abercrombie lived that dream.
By Don Belt
National Geographic Senior Editor

"Shortly after the National Geographic Society began publishing its journal more than a century ago, founder Alexander Graham Bell was asked what subject matter his new periodical would include. His reply: 'The world and all that is in it'—a tantalizingly broad mandate. Down through the years Lynn and I tried hard to follow it. We worked on every one of the continents and left wakes across the seven seas. The Geographic was witness to a century—arguably the most telling in human history—and we were fortunate to have spent nearly half of it there. Ours is a story—a picture story—of two people before whom was spread out the greatest of treasures: our planet Earth. For four decades we traveled aboard that magic carpet with the yellow border.

"Much of that world has changed since our days in the field—not always for the better. Many of the smiles we captured are no more—bleached by tourism, stricken with war, and battered by revolution. Multi-faith Lebanon is torn by sectarian anger; Saudi Arabia is constrained more than ever, as a government of wealthy princes faces off against its more fanatic citizens; Cambodia struggles to rid itself of a decades-long nightmare; Afghanistan bleeds from foreign invasions and its own medieval fundamentalists; Iran remains at loggerheads with the West; and Iraq lies in ashes. So, in a sense, my work records history as much as geography. As has often been said: The past is another country."

—Tom Abercrombie
May 2005

Sixty years ago, a 15-year-old boy in Stillwater, Minnesota, accompanied his older brother to the town's Lumberjack Days parade. A pilot just back from World War II, the older brother, whose name was Bruce, brought along the Leica camera he'd purchased in Italy, and began taking pictures of the floats. His younger brother watched for a while, got bored, and wandered off in search of something more interesting. He noticed a boy on the curb, making faces at the girls on the floats. "Hey, Bruce," called the younger brother, “that’s what you should be taking pictures of!" Later he borrowed his brother's Leica, made a drawing of it, and built a camera out of mirrors, a discarded lens, and scraps of plastic. His first photograph was of his girlfriend, Lynn.

Thus began the journalistic passion of Thomas J. Abercrombie, who died recently at age 75, after retiring in 1994 from a monumental National Geographic career that took him to every continent, taught him four languages, brought him near death more times than he cared to count, and yielded 43 articles for this magazine, including some of the most ambitious ever published. During his 38 years on the staff, Abercrombie reported as a writer and photographer from Japan and Cambodia, Tibet and Venezuela, Spain and Australia, Alaska and Brazil, and as the first photojournalist ever from the South Pole. But his most significant and enduring contribution surely lies in the 16 articles he produced on the Muslim world between 1956 and 1994, which guided Geographic's readers through the glorious and tangled geography of what may be, now as then, the closest thing the Western world has to terra incognita.

Abercrombie came to the Society in 1956, after a brief stint in the Army (scuttled by a foot fungus, which he'd picked up lifeguarding) and work as a photographer for two midwestern newspapers, the Fargo Forum and the Milwaukee Journal. Hard news coverage earned him Newspaper Photographer of the Year honors at the Journal, but it was a picture of a backyard bird—a robin tugging at a worm—that won the heart of Geographic’s Melville Bell Grosvenor, who said the picture could only have been taken by another robin. Abercrombie flunked his Geographic physical—those feet again—but Editorial overruled Medical, and Tom was hired.

He had never traveled outside the United States, but on his first overseas assignment, to Lebanon, he found that a short, gruff, good-natured man from Minnesota could strike up a conversation with just about anybody. He interviewed Lebanon's president, Camille Chamoun, and made the notoriously stiff Chamoun so comfortable that he invited Tom to photograph him and his wife sprawled under a tree. And in a Lebanese town, Qabb Ilyas, he made his first visit to a mosque, an epiphany of sorts that he later described in the article: "After the service I mingled with the people, drifting with the human current out the door past a long line of beggars and down the narrow street. Walking and talking with them, I had a warm feeling of belonging; they seemed to accept me as one of their own."

That moment, or something like it, played out thousands of times during Tom Abercrombie's career, which brought him into close and welcome contact with the people of more than 80 nations. He often likened himself to a one-man army when he set off into the field—in a customized Land Rover with metal gas cans lashed to the roof, a dozen or more hard cases, water jugs, sleeping bags, books, duct tape, baling wire, topographic maps, shrink-wrapped rations, mounds of pipe tobacco, and, depending on local circumstances, a firearm or two—but humanity was his secret weapon.

"Abercrombie was tough as nails, but he was incredibly gentle with people," says retired Geographic photographer Jim Stanfield, who traveled the Sahara with Tom in a 400-camel caravan. "He was a world-class listener. He'd spend hours talking to some guy in a coffee shop, smoking his pipe and yakking about this and that. He had a great mind, and infinite curiosity. He took his time with people, and they trusted him. Even when he didn't speak their language, he always found a way to connect."

In eastern Afghanistan, for example, he fell in with a group of men playing buzkashi, the traditional Afghan sport of galloping horses, calf carcasses, and bloody, horse-to-horse combat. "The way I got chummy with the players, who are not a real chummy bunch, was that I was photographing and a horse chewed one of these guy's ears right off," Abercrombie, who cursed like a sailor, told a reporter in 1998. "I had this hell of a first aid kit I carried around. I had damn near a hospital, this huge fishing tackle box full of morphine and sharpened scalpels. So I fixed this guy's ear up and made him feel a little better."

Abercrombie's medical exploits were legendary. There was the amputation, with a pocketknife, of a pilgrim's gangrenous toes in Tibet, his emergency care of survivors after an earthquake in Iran, his one-man triage and field surgery after a speeding truck piled high with passengers flipped over on a highway in Nigeria.

His expense accounts, too, elicited gasps from his colleagues, especially those in Accounting. Yet the man who listed two AK-47s as "auto insurance" on his expense report from Yemen, presented the occasional gift of a sheep or goat to a Bedouin host, or bought a Cessna 185 to fly himself around Alaska was merely being practical. An early audit of his accounts by headquarters revealed a miserly average daily expenditure on meals and hotels of $17.52. Tom, of Scottish blood, thought that a bit high. This was, after all, a man who wrote his stories on the backs of earlier manuscripts, and wore his pencils down to the nub. His home woodworking shop is a monument to thrift, littered with hoarded wood scraps and illuminated by handmade shop lights with shades of recycled aluminum pie plates.

Favored by genetics—he hailed from a line of civil engineers—Abercrombie also made his mark as a field mechanic. Once, at the Milwaukee Journal, he designed and built a waterproof housing for his camera out of Plexiglas and used it to photograph a Lake Michigan shipwreck for the newspaper. His boss in Milwaukee, Bob Gilka (who later became Geographic's director of photography), recalls that Tom and his wife, Lynn, drove their car as close to the water's edge as possible. "Then Tom tied one end of a long rope to the bumper, the other end around his waist, and waded out into the lake with his homemade underwater camera to test it. He and Lynn had worked out a plan: If there was trouble, he would signal by pulling on the rope—Lynn's cue to start the car and pull Tom out of the lake."

He liked being married. In the Empty Quarter of Arabia, Tom and Lynn were traveling together when a local sheikh decided to claim Lynn, a tall, striking brunette he assumed to be Tom's daughter, as wife number four. He offered 30 camels for her. Tom countered with 50, and the pair, who were married in 1952, stayed together. "I really needed Lynn," Tom later explained. "And what would I do with 50 camels?"

Such trips together were rare in the early years. Though a Geographic photographer herself, Lynn was busy raising their daughter, Mari, and son, Bruce, at the couple's waterfront home in Maryland. So Tom often traveled alone, thousands of miles from home for months at a time. Yet whatever spare time he had went to writing long, tender letters to his "Rabbits" back home, or filling his suitcases with exotic knickknacks from the local suq to spring on them when he came through the front door.

By the mid-1960s, Tom was spending so much time in the Middle East that it was clear he'd found his niche. He mastered Arabic (along with German, French, and Spanish), read the Koran, and adopted an Arabic name, Omar, on his travels. But he was not, to anyone's knowledge, religious, and few anticipated the news that arrived in a letter to Editor in Chief Melville Grosvenor, dated April 17, 1965. It was Tom, writing from Mecca: "Greetings and best wishes from Islam’s holiest city. I’ve just had the singular honor to witness, to cover photographically, and to participate in one of the most moving experiences known to man, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca and Arafat. It has been an unforgettable personal experience and, without a doubt, the climax of our coverage of Saudi Arabia."

Tom was intensely private about his conversion to Islam and making the hajj to Mecca. But there's no doubt that his faith was genuine, and that it connected him personally to the world's Muslims. It also inspired him, through his work, to build bridges of understanding between the Islamic world and the West. Tom once said that his proudest professional accomplishment was writing and photographing "The Sword and the Sermon," his epic journey through the history and culture of the Muslim world that appeared in the July 1972 issue. The article took him to Kazakhstan, where he visited a mosque in Alma Ata and attended Friday prayers. In a letter home he described it, with typical understatement, as one of the most emotional experiences of his life.

"I introduced myself to the sheikh, and as we talked in Arabic the growing congregation of old Kazakhs, magnificent in their costumes and manners, began to gather around. When I showed them pictures of Mecca and the pilgrimage they were damn near crying. Many rubbed their hands on my clothes and then on their face for what blessing a hajji might bring. I was pretty choked up."

Crowned with such experiences, Tom's Geographic career came to a close in 1994, and his family prepared, with some anxiety, for his homecoming. "Tom was never happier than when he was getting ready for an assignment—packing, studying maps, making plans," Lynn said, "so I didn't know what to expect when he retired. But he never looked back. He loved being home, building his boats, having lunch with his buddies. He was still a wanderer, of course. He'd go off on a walk and be gone for two or three hours, because he'd gotten caught up talking to a neighbor, or some perfect stranger he'd met on the road. But in general, he just went native."

Tom toiled over his memoirs, a PG-rated version of the long, hilarious, self-deprecating tales he'd been telling over the lunch table for decades—although writing them down, a lonely business, wasn't nearly as much fun as telling them. His sagas did find a new audience at George Washington University, where he taught "geography with its boots on," and at the National Geographic office, where the next generation of writers and photographers always greeted his arrival as cause for celebration. Tom was a generous mentor, and on my own trips to the Middle East I followed his trail into deserts and back alleys from Jalalabad to Damascus. There I often found people who knew him and were his friends, and who welcomed me, Tom's tribesman, as if I were his son.

The last few months of his life he spent pursuing his latest passion—stargazing—with the enthusiasm of a kid watching a parade. Even in the dead of winter, Tom, in his beret, was out in the backyard practically every night, studying the heavens through a telescope Lynn bought him for Christmas. The engineer in him, typically, spotted ways to improve the machinery, and he'd soon jury-rigged a new mount for it using parts from another telescope. Just before his own machinery gave out, he was scanning the sky charts and reading every book about the cosmos he could find.

Knowing Tom Abercrombie, I'd say he was just plotting his next expedition.