Fridtjof Nansen

The Norwegian polar explorer, scientist, and statesman Fridtjof Nansen (1861-1930) was a pioneer of oceanography and achieved world stature as a vital force in the League of Nations.

Fridtjof Nansen was born on Oct. 10, 1861, on an estate near Christiania (Oslo), the son of Baldur Nansen, a lawyer, and Adelaide Wedel-Jarlsberg Nansen. In 1880 Nansen entered Christiania University. A promising student of zoology, he was encouraged to do research aboard an Arctic sealer, and in 1882 he sailed for Greenland waters, where his first interest in the Arctic was probably awakened. Returning to Norway, he became curator of the zoological collection at the Bergen Museum and continued his research there and in Italy. In 1888 Nansen received his doctorate in zoology from Christiania University.

Explorer and Scientist

As early as 1884 Nansen conceived the idea of crossing Greenland on skis from the rugged, uninhabited east coast to the west, but it was not until 1887 that he felt able to proceed with his plan. The Norwegian government refused funds for his expedition, but a wealthy Danish citizen agreed to finance him. Having built the necessary equipment in the spring, he left Norway with five companions in May 1888. After great difficulty and delay in landing because of ice conditions, they began the trek across the ice cap on August 16. In early October the six men reached the village of Godthaab on the west coast. The last ship of the season had already sailed, forcing the expedition to winter at Godthaab, where Nansen used the time to study Eskimo life and survival skills. Back in Norway in May 1889, Nansen found himself a national hero and, although the public acclaimed the exploit itself, the expedition also made a solid contribution to the understanding of the Greenland interior. Perhaps more important, it confirmed Nansen's theories on Arctic exploration techniques.

After the Greenland success, Nansen had comparatively less difficulty attracting support for a long-standing and more ambitious project, an attempt to reach the North Pole. While elaborating his plans for a polar expedition, he married Eva Sars, wrote two books on Greenland, and lectured in several large European cities. In February 1890 he presented his plan publically for the first time to the Norwegian Geographical Society. He again outlined his plan in 1892 and, although many were skeptical, he found support in the government and in the Norwegian people, who subscribed nearly $125,000 to defray his expenses. Together with the naval architect Colin Archer, Nansen designed and built the Fram ("Forward"). The specially strengthened hull was constructed in such a way that the pressure exerted on the sides of the hull by the ice would force the ship upward, thus preventing it from being crushed. The Fram was launched in late 1892, and on June 24, 1893, Nansen and a crew of 12 departed.

Northeast of Cape Chelyuskin at 77° 43'N, 134° E, the Fram was made fast to an ice floe, and on Sept. 22, 1893, the 3-year voyage began. In the summer of 1894 Nansen's impatience and the fact that the Fram's drift seemed unlikely to take them as near to the pole as they had first calculated led to his decision to strike out for the pole on skis. Nansen left the ship with a single companion in the following spring. Ice conditions made the march impossibly difficult, and on April 8, having reached 86° 14'N, they were forced to turn back. The return trek across the ice covered nearly 700 miles; it was late August before the men reached the western islands of Franz Josef Land, where they decided to spend the winter of 1895-1896. In 1896 they encountered a British expedition, and by August they were back in Norway.

Nansen planned other explorations, particularly to the South Pole, but these were never brought to fruition. From this point on, his commitment to scientific research and writing, his involvement in the crisis of Norwegian independence, and, later, his engagement in the problems of World War I and its aftermath occupied all of his time.

International Statesman and Humanitarian

In 1917 Norway, dependent on American food supplies, was in danger of severe shortages, for when the United States entered World War I it had placed an embargo on the export of foodstuffs. Nansen was appointed head of a commission to negotiate with the United States for the release of supplies. In May 1918 he obtained an agreement which also served as a model for treaties with other neutral countries. When he returned from America, he became embroiled in domestic politics and was approached on several occasions to lead a coalition government of the bourgeois parties. In the mid-1920s he supported a new patriotic society to unite the Norwegian people in the face of postwar dangers. Paradoxically, though Nansen was committed to peace, he also led an organization to promote Norwegian military preparedness. The Defense League was necessary, he felt, because peace was threatened by the Great Powers' designs on the small nations, not by the arms of the small nations themselves.

Once the war was over, Nansen undertook his most significant work. In 1919 he presided over the Norwegian Union for the League of Nations; in 1920 he served as a delegate to the League itself. Then he was offered the post of director of prisoner-of-war repatriation. Reluctantly, he accepted, even though he realized that it meant sacrificing much of his scientific research. But he understood the work of repatriation as being vital, not only as a humanitarian duty but also as a means of strengthening the League of Nations and of reconciling former enemies. The League, to Nansen, was the best hope of ensuring the small nations security and of guaranteeing future peace. The relief and rehabilitation of refugees occupied Nansen's attention throughout the remainder of his life, and he served as League high commissioner for refugees from 1921 until his death. However, he was concerned not only with displaced persons but also with the effects of war on resident populations.

In December 1922 Nansen was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In acknowledging the honor, he stated: "The soul of the world is sick unto death, courage has failed, ideals have grown dim, the desire to live is destroyed…. To whom shall we turn for a remedy?" His answer was to turn to the people rather than the "political speculators," to the cooperation and goodwill of nations as a whole. He died at his home in Norway, Polhögda, on May 13, 1930.

Further Reading on Fridtjof Nansen

Many of Nansen's books are available in English. A primary source is Hjalmar Johansen, With Nansen to the North (1899), an eyewitness account by Nansen's companion in the attempt to reach the pole on skis. Most of the recent books on Nansen are not in English. One of the best in English is Jon Sörensen, The Saga of Fridtjof Nansen, translated by J. B. C. Watkins (1932), which is perhaps uncritical of Nansen but is sensitively written and draws upon numerous sources not readily available. Of less value and more limited in scope is Edward Shackleton, Nansen the Explorer (1959).