Carolyn Bennett Patterson, 82, a senior editor at National Geographic magazine who for 20 years directed the writing of its picture captions and texts for its supplement maps, died of cirrhosis of the liver July 7 at her home in Washington.
Mrs. Patterson, who retired from the National Geographic in 1986, was the first woman to become a senior editor of the magazine and the first woman whose name appeared on the magazine's masthead. She was known as "the Grande Dame of the Geographic."
She also wrote articles for National Geographic, including an account of Winston Churchill's 1965 funeral in London and the annual "Grand Reunion" at the Neshoba County Fair in Mississippi. In 1978, 100 years after the fact, she wrote about retracing Robert Louis Stevenson's "Travels With a Donkey in the Cevennes" through France. Traveling once in a river canoe in the jungles of Brazil, she dodged the poison arrows and spears of hostile tribesmen for another article.
When she reached her sixties, she hiked the rugged terrain of southeastern Tasmania and white-water rafted on the wild Franklin River for a descriptive story on that uninhabited region off the southern coast of Australia. She trained for her Tasmanian assignment by walking three miles to work every day, with a backpack, from her home in Cleveland Park to her downtown office, Mrs. Patterson told writer Barbara Raskin for a 1986 article in Washington Woman.
But it was as editor of photo captions -- or legends, as they are known at National Geographic -- that Mrs. Patterson left her primary mark on the magazine. She was named to that position in 1962 as senior assistant editor in charge of legends, and she remained there until retiring.
There were two legend writers when she took the job; there were 10 and two researchers when she retired.
The legend writers were expected to have independently and thoroughly researched their subjects. The legends were expected to be bright and interesting, enough so that a reader, on checking out a photograph, would be sufficiently captivated by the legend to read the entire article. Sometimes -- but not always -- this meant a trip overseas for firsthand research by the legend writer.
As chief of the legends unit, Mrs. Patterson was known as a supportive and encouraging mentor but an exacting boss. In the lilting drawl of her native Mississippi, she'd tell a subordinate, "Dahlin', these are fine legends, but there are just a few little mysteries," her replacement as legends editor, Betsy Moize, recalled in an internal National Geographic newsletter this week.
Mrs. Patterson attended Blue Mountain College in Mississippi, Mississippi State College and the University of Missouri and graduated from Louisiana State University.
During World War II, she was a police reporter for the New Orleans States newspaper, where she chased after firetrucks and wrote about murders and robberies. Later, she worked for the Red Cross, then, after World War II, moved to Washington with her husband, Frederick Gillis "Pat" Patterson. He died in 2001.
She saw an advertisement in The Washington Post for file clerks at National Geographic, applied for the job and was hired instead in an editorial position with unspecified duties. In 1952, she began writing legends. Ten years later, she became legends editor.
There was a culture and tradition at National Geographic in the early years of Mrs. Patterson's career that care should be taken not to offend or disparage the subjects of any article. Raskin wrote of Mrs. Patterson in Washington Woman that she was once called on the carpet in the office of Geographic Editor Gilbert H. Grosvenor for having referred to a group of Arabs in a legend as "poor."
"In this magazine, Mrs. Patterson, we do not call anybody poor. It offends the dignity," she quoted Grosvenor as saying. On examining the picture, Grosvenor noticed the Arabs were cooking and eating out of tin cans. "They are thrifty," he declared. The legend was changed to, "The thrifty Arabs use tin cans for cooking."
At times during her years as legends chief, Mrs. Patterson's unit edited and sometimes revised the text of magazine articles. For new hires, she devised a system of practice legend writing.
In retirement, she wrote an autobiographical account of her years with National Geographic, "Of Lands, Legends and Laughter: The Search for Adventure with National Geographic."
She was a former president of the Society of American Travel Writers and a member of the Society of Women Geographers.
Survivors include two children, Lansdale Patterson of Portsmouth, R.I., and Frederick G. Patterson Jr. of Silver Spring; and a granddaughter.