Brendan O'Shaughnessy | April 19, 2018
Teddy Roosevelt lay nearly dead on the bank of an unexplored river deep in the heart of the Amazon rainforest. It was 1914, and the Bull Moose had malaria, a raging fever and a badly infected leg wound. His field cot sat in the mud, unprotected from rain or biting insects — not to mention cannibal natives — and impossibly far from hope.
Roosevelt held a lethal capsule of morphine in his hand, intending to spare his exploration party, which had already lost several canoes and one life, from the burden of hauling him through the jungle. Falling in and out of delirium, the former U.S. president kept repeating the opening line from a poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge: “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure-dome decree.”
Roosevelt’s son Kermit knew his father well and told him he refused to leave his body in the Amazon if the elder Roosevelt died. Convinced that he’d be a greater burden dead than alive, TR rallied. But the perils of the expedition continued. Of the 22 Brazilians and Americans who had started down the infamous River of Doubt, only 19 would limp out of the jungle two months later.
The man who had launched this daring expedition was not among them. Rev. John Augustine Zahm, CSC, a friend of Roosevelt’s and a former vice president of the University of Notre Dame, had convinced the Rough Rider to travel to South America, then supervised the outfitting of the trip. But Roosevelt — at 55, the younger of the two men by seven years — later insisted on a more dangerous journey than Zahm had planned. Having reached the end of a two-month trek deep into the Brazilian jungle just to reach the known source of the uncharted river, Roosevelt deemed Zahm too old for the difficult final leg — the descent by canoe toward the Amazon River itself.
Chronicled in Candice Millard’s excellent 2005 bestseller, The River of Doubt, the tale of the ill-fated Roosevelt-Rondon Scientific Expedition is but one of many extraordinary stories involving Zahm, possibly the least known of Notre Dame’s early founding fathers. Yet in his prime, Zahm was a renowned scientist, academic and explorer, a man of broad interests and deep insight, far ahead of his time.