Fridtjof Nansen 10 October 1861 – 13 May 1930 was a Norwegian explorer, scientist, diplomat, humanitarian, and Nobel Peace Prize laureate. In his youth he was a champion skier and ice skater. He led the team that made the first crossing of the Greenland interior in 1888, traversing the island on cross-country skis. He won international fame after reaching a record northern latitude of 86°14′ during his North Pole expedition of 1893–96. Although he retired from exploration after his return to Norway, his techniques of polar travel and his innovations in equipment and clothing influenced a generation of subsequent Arctic and Antarctic expeditions.
Nansen studied zoology at the Royal Frederick University in Christiania (renamed Oslo in 1925), and later worked as a curator at the Bergen Museum where his research on the central nervous system of lower marine creatures earned him a doctorate and helped establish modern theories of neurology. After 1896 his main scientific interest switched to oceanography; in the course of his research he made many scientific cruises, mainly in the North Atlantic, and contributed to the development of modern oceanographic equipment. As one of his country’s leading citizens, in 1905 Nansen spoke out for the ending of Norway’s union with Sweden, and was instrumental in persuading Prince Carl of Denmark to accept the throne of the newly independent Norway. Between 1906 and 1908 he served as the Norwegian representative in London, where he helped negotiate the Integrity Treaty that guaranteed Norway’s independent status.
In the final decade of his life, Nansen devoted himself primarily to the League of Nations, following his appointment in 1921 as the League’s High Commissioner for Refugees. In 1922 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on behalf of the displaced victims of the First World War and related conflicts. Among the initiatives he introduced was the “Nansen passport” for stateless persons, a certificate recognised by more than 50 countries. He worked on behalf of refugees until his sudden death in 1930, after which the League established the Nansen International Office for Refugees to ensure that his work continued. This office received the Nobel Peace Prize for 1938. His name is commemorated in numerous geographical features, particularly in the polar regions.
Family background and childhood
an unsmiling fair-haired child stands upright, his left hand resting on a stool, in front of an ornate fireplace.
The Nansen family originated in Denmark. Hans Nansen (1598–1667), a trader, was an early explorer of the White Sea region of the Arctic Ocean. In later life he settled in Copenhagen, becoming the city’s borgmester in 1654. Later generations of the family lived in Copenhagen until the mid-18th century, when Ancher Antoni Nansen moved to Norway (then ruled by Denmark). His son, Hans Leierdahl Nansen (1764–1821), was a magistrate first in the Trondheim district, later in Jæren. After Norway’s separation from Denmark in 1814, he entered national political life as the representative for Stavanger in the first Storting, and became a strong advocate of union with Sweden. After suffering a paralytic stroke in 1821 Hans Leierdahl Nansen died, leaving a four-year-old son, Baldur Fridtjof Nansen, the explorer’s father.
Baldur was a lawyer without ambitions for public life, who became Reporter to the Supreme Court of Norway. He married twice, the second time to Adelaide Johanne Thekla Isidore Bølling Wedel-Jarlsberg from Bærum, a niece of Herman Wedel-Jarlsberg who had helped frame the Norwegian constitution of 1814 and was later the Swedish king’s Norwegian Viceroy. Baldur and Adelaide settled at Store Frøen, an estate at Aker, a few kilometres north of Norway’s capital city, Christiania (since renamed Oslo). The couple had three children; the first died in infancy, the second, born 10 October 1861, was Fridtjof Nansen.
Student and adventurer
Nansen as a student in Christiania (1880, age 19).
In 1880 Nansen passed his university entrance examination, the examen artium. He decided to study zoology, claiming later that he chose the subject because he thought it offered the chance of a life in the open air. He began his studies at the Royal Frederick University in Christiania early in 1881
Early in 1882 Nansen took “…the first fatal step that led me astray from the quiet life of science.”Professor Robert Collett of the university’s zoology department proposed that Nansen take a sea voyage, to study Arctic zoology at first hand. Nansen was enthusiastic, and made arrangements through a recent acquaintance, Captain Axel Krefting, commander of the sealer Viking. The voyage began on 11 March 1882 and extended over the following five months. In the weeks before sealing started, Nansen was able to concentrate on scientific studies. From water samples he showed that, contrary to previous assumption, sea ice forms on the surface of the water rather than below. His readings also demonstrated that the Gulf Stream flows beneath a cold layer of surface water Through the spring and early summer Viking roamed between Greenland and Spitsbergen in search of seal herds. Nansen became an expert marksman, and on one day proudly recorded that his team had shot 200 seal. In July, Viking became trapped in the ice close to an unexplored section of the Greenland coast; Nansen longed to go ashore, but this was impossibleHowever, he began to develop the idea that the Greenland icecap might be explored, or even crossed.On 17 July the ship broke free from the ice, and early in August was back in Norwegian waters
Crossing of Greenland
Head and shoulders portrait of a middle-aged man, facing half-left. He has dark, neatly brushed hair, a heavy moustache, and is wearing a dark, formal jacket.
Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld, whose 1883 expedition had penetrated 160 kilometres (100 mi; 90 nmi) into the Greenland icecap.
The idea of an expedition across the Greenland icecap grew in Nansen’s mind throughout his Bergen years. In 1887, after the submission of his doctoral thesis, he finally began organising this project. Before then, the two most significant penetrations of the Greenland interior had been those of Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld in 1883, and Robert Peary in 1886. Both had set out from Disko Bay on the western coast, and had travelled about 160 kilometres (100 mi) eastward before turning back.By contrast, Nansen proposed to travel from east to west, ending rather than beginning his trek at Disko Bay. A party setting out from the inhabited west coast would, he reasoned, have to make a return trip, as no ship could be certain of reaching the dangerous east coast and picking them up.By starting from the east—assuming that a landing could be made there—Nansen’s would be a one-way journey towards a populated area. The party would have no line of retreat to a safe base; the only way to go would be forward, a situation that fitted Nansen’s philosophy completely.
Hvidbjørnen reached Copenhagen on 21 May 1889. News of the crossing had preceded its arrival, and Nansen and his companions were feted as heroes. This welcome, however, was dwarfed by the reception in Christiania a week later, when crowds of between thirty and forty thousand—a third of the city’s population—thronged the streets as the party made its way to the first of a series of receptions. The interest and enthusiasm generated by the expedition’s achievement led directly to the formation that year of the Norwegian Geographical Society.
Nansen first began to consider the possibility of reaching the North Pole by using the natural drift of the polar ice when, in 1884, he read the theories of Henrik Mohn, the distinguished Norwegian meteorologist. Artifacts found on the Greenland coast had been identified as coming from the lost US Arctic exploration vessel Jeannette, which had been crushed and sunk in June 1881 on the opposite side of the Arctic Ocean, off the Siberian coast. Mohn surmised that the location of the artefacts indicated the existence of an ocean current, flowing from east to west all the way across the polar sea, possibly over the pole itself. A strong enough ship might therefore enter the frozen Siberian sea, and drift to the Greenland coast via the pole.
This idea remained with Nansen during following years. After his triumphant return from Greenland he began to develop a detailed plan for a polar venture, which he made public in February 1890 at a meeting of the recently formed Norwegian Geographical Society. Previous expeditions, he argued, had approached the North Pole from the west, and had failed because they were working against the prevailing east-west current. The secret of success was to work with this current. A workable plan, Nansen said, would require a small, strong and manoeuvrable ship capable of carrying fuel and provisions for twelve men for five years. The ship would sail to the approximate location of Jeannette’s sinking, and would enter the ice. It would then drift west with the current towards the pole and beyond it, eventually reaching the sea between Greenland and Spitsbergen
Many experienced polar hands were dismissive of Nansen’s plans. The retired American explorer Adolphus Greely called the idea “an illogical scheme of self-destruction”.Sir Allen Young, a veteran of the searches for Sir John Franklin’s lost expedition,and Sir Joseph Hooker, who had sailed south with James Clark Ross in 1839–43, were equally dismissive.However, after an impassioned speech Nansen secured the support of the Norwegian parliament, which voted him a grant. The balance of funding was met by private donations and from a national appeal.
Photograph showing part of a ship’s curved hull, bearing the name FRAM. A small lifeboat has been slung above the ship’s rail.
Modern photograph of the Fram’s rounded hull.
Nansen chose Colin Archer, Norway’s leading shipbuilder and naval architect, to design and build a suitable ship for the planned expedition. Using the toughest oak timbers available, and an intricate system of crossbeams and braces throughout its length, Archer built a vessel of extraordinary strength. Its rounded hull was designed so that it would slip upwards out of the grip of packing ice. Speed and sailing performance were secondary to the requirement of making the ship a safe and warm shelter during a predicted lengthy confinement. With an overall length of 39 metres (128 ft) and a beam of 11 metres (36 ft), the length-to-beam ratio of just over three gave the ship its stubby appearance, justified by Archer thus: “A ship that is built with exclusive regard to its suitability for object must differ essentially from any known vessel.” The ship was launched by Eva Nansen at Archer’s yard at Larvik, on 6 October 1892, and was named Fram, in English “Forward”.
Dash for the pole
A group of men pose on the ice with dogs and sledges, with the ship’s outline visible in the background
Nansen and Johansen prepare to depart Fram for their polar trek, 14 March 1895. Nansen is the figure second from left, Johansen second from right.
On 14 March 1895, after two false starts and with the ship’s position at 84°4′NNansen and Johansen began their journey.Nansen had allowed 50 days to cover the 356 nautical miles (660 km; 410 mi) to the pole, an average daily journey of seven nautical miles (13 km; 8.1 mi). After a week of travel a sextant observation indicated that they were averaging nine nautical miles a day, (17 km; 10 mi), putting them ahead of schedule.However, uneven surfaces made skiing more difficult, and their speeds slowed. They also realised that they were marching against a southerly drift, and that distances travelled did not necessarily equate to northerly progression. On 3 April Nansen began to wonder whether the pole was, indeed, attainable. Unless their speed improved, their food would not last them to the pole and then on to Franz Josef Land.He confided in his diary: “I have become more and more convinced we ought to turn before time.”On 7 April, after making camp and observing that the way ahead was “a veritable chaos of iceblocks stretching as far as the horizon”, Nansen decided to turn south. He recorded the latitude of the final northerly camp as 86°13.6′N, almost three degrees beyond the previous Farthest North mark.
Rescue and return
On 17 June, during a stop for repairs after the kayaks had been attacked by a walrus, Nansen thought he heard sounds of a dog barking, and of voices. He went to investigate, and a few minutes later saw the figure of a man approaching It was the British explorer Frederick Jackson, who was leading an expedition to Franz Josef Land and was camped at Cape Flora on the nearby Northbrook Island. The two were equally astonished by their encounter; after some awkward hesitation Jackson asked: “You are Nansen, aren’t you?”, and received the reply “Yes, I am Nansen.”Johansen was soon picked up, and the pair were taken to Cape Flora where, during the following weeks, they recuperated from their ordeal. Nansen later wrote that he could “still scarcely grasp” the sudden change of fortune;had itnot been for the walrus attack that caused the delay, the two parties might have been unaware of each other’s existence.
Scientist and polar oracle
Nansen’s first task on his return was to write his account of the voyage. This he did remarkably quickly, producing 300,000 words of Norwegian text by November 1896; the English translation, titled Farthest North, was ready in January 1897. The book was an instant success, and secured Nansen’s long-term financial future. Nansen included without comment the one significant adverse criticism of his conduct, that of Greely, who had written in Harper’s Weekly on Nansen’s decision to leave Fram and strike for the pole: “It passes comprehension how Nansen could have thus deviated from the most sacred duty devolving on the commander of a naval expedition.
Politician and diplomat
An elderly, bearded man in ornate robes, wearing a jewelled crown surmounted by a cross, looks straight out of the picture.
King Oscar II, last king of the union of Sweden and Norway. He remained Sweden’s king after Norway’s independence in 1905.
The union between Norway and Sweden, imposed by the Great Powers in 1814, had been under considerable strain through the 1890s, the chief issue in question being Norway’s rights to its own consular serviceNansen, although not by inclination a politician, had spoken out on the issue on several occasions in defence of Norway’s interests. It seemed, early in the 20th century that agreement between the two countries might be possible, but hopes were dashed when negotiations broke down in February 1905. The Norwegian government fell, and was replaced by one led by Christian Michelsen, whose programme was one of separation from Sweden.
Oceanographer and traveller
Diagram of the component parts of the Nansen bottle; a large main unit is shown with six smaller pieces.
An illustration of the workings of the Nansen bottle
After a period of mourning, Nansen returned to London. He had been persuaded by his government to rescind his resignation until after King Edward’s state visit to Norway in April 1908. His formal retirement from the diplomatic service was dated 1 May 1908, the same day on which his university professorship was changed from zoology to oceanography. This new designation reflected the general character of Nansen’s more recent scientific interests. In 1905 he had supplied the Swedish physicist Walfrid Ekman with the data which established the principle in oceanography known as the Ekman spiral. Based on Nansen’s observations of ocean currents recorded during the Fram expedition, Ekman concluded that the effect of wind on the sea’s surface produced currents which “formed something like a spiral staircase, down towards the depths”. In 1909 Nansen combined with Bjørn Helland-Hansen to publish an academic paper, The Norwegian Sea: its Physical Oceanography, based on the Michael Sars voyage of 1900.
Statesman and humanitarian
Nansen raised funds to help the famine in Russia by taking photographs and selling postcards of the disaster.
On the outbreak of war in 1914 Norway declared its neutrality, alongside Sweden and Denmark. Nansen was appointed president of the Norwegian Union of Defence, but had few official duties, and continued with his professional work as far as circumstances permitted. As the war progressed, the loss of Norway’s overseas trade led to acute shortages of food in the country, which became critical in April 1917 when the United States entered the war and placed extra restrictions on international trade. Nansen was dispatched to Washington by the Norwegian government; after months of discussion he secured food and other supplies in return for the introduction of a rationing system. When his government hesitated over the deal, he signed the agreement on his own initiative.
On 17 January 1919 Nansen married Sigrun Munthe, a long-time friend with whom he had had a love affair in 1905, while Eva was still alive. The marriage was resented by the Nansen children, and proved unhappy; an acquaintance writing of them in the 1920s said Nansen appeared unbearably miserable and Sigrun steeped in hate
Nansen’s League of Nations commitments through the 1920s meant that he was mostly absent from Norway, and was able to devote little time to scientific work. Nevertheless, he continued to publish occasional papers. He entertained the hope that he might travel to the North Pole by airship, but could not raise sufficient funding. In any event he was forestalled in this ambition by Amundsen, who flew over the pole in Umberto Nobile’s airship Norge in May 1926.Two years later Nansen broadcast a memorial oration to Amundsen, who had disappeared in the Arctic while organising a rescue party for Nobile whose airship had crashed during a second polar voyage. Nansen said of Amundsen: “He found an unknown grave under the clear sky of the icy world, with the whirring of the wings of eternity through space.”
In 1926 Nansen was elected Rector of the University of St Andrews in Scotland, the first foreigner to hold this largely honorary position. He used the occasion of his inaugural address to review his life and philosophy, and to deliver a call to the youth of the next generation.
Death and legacy
Image of moon crater Nansen from Clementine b/w data
Nansen died of a heart attack, at home, on 13 May 1930. He was given a non-religious state funeral before cremation, after which his ashes were laid under a tree at Polhøgda. Nansen’s daughter Liv recorded that there were no speeches, just music: Schubert’s Death and the Maiden, which Eva used to sing. Among the many tributes paid to him subsequently was that of Lord Robert Cecil, a fellow League of Nations delegate, who spoke of the range of Nansen’s work, done with no regard for his own interests or health: “Every good cause had his support. He was a fearless peacemaker, a friend of justice, an advocate always for the weak and suffering.
In his lifetime and thereafter, Nansen received honours and recognition from many countries. Nansen Ski Club, the oldest continually operated ski club in the United States, located in Berlin, New Hampshire, is named in his honour. Numerous geographical features are named after him: the Nansen Basin and the Nansen-Gakkel Ridge in the Arctic OceanMount Nansen in the Yukon region of Canada;Mount Nansen,Mount Fridtjof Nansenand Nansen Island,all in Antarctica. Polhøgda is now home to the Fridtjof Nansen Institute, an independent foundation which engages in research on environmental, energy and resource management politics. In 1968 a film of Nansen’s life, Bare et liv – Historien om Fridtjof Nansen was released, directed by Sergei Mikaelyan, with Knut Wigert as Nansen.In 2004 the Royal Norwegian Navy launched the first of a series of five Fridtjof Nansen-class frigates. The lead ship of the group is HNoMS Fridtjof Nansen; two others are named after Roald Amundsen and Otto Sverdrup.In the ocean, Nansen is commemorated by Nansenia, small mesopelagic fishes of family Microstomatidae.In space, he is commemorated by asteroid 853 Nansenia. In 1964, the IAU adopted the name Nansen for an impact crater at the Lunar north pole, after the Norwegian explorer.