Frederick Albert Cook, son of Dr. Theodore A. and Magdalena Koch, was born at Callicoon Depot, New York, on June 10, 1865. He successively became a physician, polar explorer, and Texas oil promoter. He attended Columbia and New York universities and received his M.D. in 1890 from the latter. In 1889 he married Mary Elizabeth "Libby" Forbes, who died in childbirth in 1890. On June 10, 1902, he married Mary Fidell Hunt; they had one daughter and were divorced in 1923. Cook served as a surgeon with the Arctic expedition of Robert E. Peary in 1891–92 and the Belgian Antarctic expedition in 1897–99. He led expeditions to Mount McKinley between 1903 and 1906 and achieved a modest reputation as an explorer, despite charges, subsequently well documented, that his claim to the first ascent of Mount McKinley in 1906 was fraudulent.
Cook started one of the most publicized controversies in the early part of the century after his 1907–09 "race" to the North Pole against Peary. After returning to claim he had reached the pole on April 21, 1908, besting Peary's achievement by a year, Cook was at first acclaimed, then questioned when Peary and others charged him with fakery. Most observers eventually concurred with the University of Copenhagen's finding that Cook's evidence did not substantiate his claims. Cook disappeared from public view for a year, then emerged to write and lecture in defense of his record. As World War I neared, however, the number of speaking engagements offered to him dwindled. In 1917 Frank G. Curtis, president of New York Oil Company, organized the Cook Oil Company and made Cook its president. Cook resigned this position in 1918 to work as a geologist in the Texas oilfields. In 1922 he organized the Petroleum Producers Association at Fort Worth; it consolidated several financially weak companies and sold stock to subsidize field operations. Cook attracted investors through intense promotional campaigns utilizing the writing and salesmanship of S. E. J. Cox and H. O. Stephens. In 1923 his extravagant assurances of future oil production caught the attention of journalist Don H. Biggers and federal district attorneys investigating widespread reports of fraud committed by the Petroleum Producers Association and other oil-lease promoters. A federal grand jury at Fort Worth indicted 400 individuals after hearing evidence for seven months.
The trial, at Fort Worth, of Cook and other PPA officers began on October 16, 1923. Defense attorneys included former United States senator Joseph W. Bailey and William (Wild Bill) McLean, Jr. A carefully presented case by the prosecution, including 283 witnesses, convinced jurors that Cook, Cox, and others had committed fraud by dispersing stock-sales revenues as dividends, claiming income from nonproducing wells, and otherwise misrepresenting the company's position. Cook's stiff sentence-fourteen years, nine months, and a $12,000 fine-expressed the court's disdain for him and, perhaps, for the insulting, unscrupulous tactics of Bailey and the drunkenness of several other defense attorneys. Cook was paroled from Leavenworth in 1930 and pardoned by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1940 as an act of mercy for a dying man. Cook died in New Rochelle, New York, on August 5, 1940, and was buried there.