Vilhjalmur Stefansson

The Canadian-American Arctic explorer, scientist, and author Vilhjalmur Stefansson (1879-1962) discovered new lands and became an authority on Eskimo life and language.

Vilhjalmur Stefansson was born near Arnes, Manitoba, on Nov. 3, 1879, of Icelandic parents recently settled in Canada. The family soon moved to North Dakota, where Stefansson grew up. A brilliant student despite little formal schooling, he entered the University of North Dakota but was expelled in 1902 for excessive absences. Transferring to the University of Iowa, within a year Stefansson received credit by examination for 4 years of college, after which he studied religious folklore and anthropology at Harvard University.

Stefansson's fieldwork began with trips in 1904 and 1905 to study the language and dietary habits of the Icelanders. In 1906 he signed on the Leffingwell-Mikkelsen Arctic expedition as its ethnologist. He arranged to meet the expedition in the North, but it failed to reach Stefansson at the Mackenzie River delta, so he spent the winter among the Eskimo, learning much of their way of life. From 1908 until 1912 Stefansson led an expedition back to the Arctic, exploring northern Alaska and the Canadian archipelago. This trip led to his discovery of the Copper (blond) Eskimo. From 1913 to 1918 he headed a Canadian government-sponsored expedition in the Arctic, during which he tested his controversial theories on diet and survival: he believed that explorers could live off the wildlife in the Arctic, even on the polar ice floes, by adapting Eskimo ways. Despite dissension among some of his subordinates and the loss of one ship, Stefansson and two companions traveled 500 miles across the moving ice of Beaufort Sea to Banks Island in dramatic proof of these ideas.

Upon returning to the United States in 1918, Stefansson made several lecture tours and began to establish himself as an expert on polar subjects through his numerous writings. His first major work was My Life with the Eskimo (1913), and he amplified his unconventional views of the North as he discussed his 5-year sojourn in The Friendly Arctic (1921). He stressed the economic potential of the Arctic and predicted transpolar trips by both airplanes and submarines. He also developed at this time what had started as a hobby—a collection of polar literature now considered the finest in the world.

From 1932 to 1945 Stefansson served as an adviser on northern operations to Pan-American Airways, and he performed similar services for the military during World War II. He prepared Arctic manuals and language guides and demonstrated survival techniques.

Stefansson, who married Evelyn Schwartz Baird in 1941, spent the last 15 years of his life in Hanover, N.H., where he served as Arctic consultant to the Northern Studies program at Dartmouth College and continued lecturing, teaching, and writing. A witty, gifted, and inspiring conversationalist and teacher, the iconoclastic Stefansson was as effective in assisting others and furthering Arctic knowledge as he had been as an explorer and scientist. The author of more than a score of books and several hundred articles, Stefansson died in Hanover on Aug. 26, 1962.

Further Reading on Vilhjalmur Stefansson

The best source on Stefansson's life is his brilliant Discovery: The Autobiography of Vilhjalmur Stefansson (1964), completed just weeks before his death. An excellent study of Stefansson and his expeditions is Leslie H. Neatby, Conquest of the Last Frontier (1966). His exploits are recounted in Laurence Patrick Kirwan, A History of Polar Exploration (1960).

Additional Biography Sources

Diubaldo, Richard J., Stefansson and the Canadian Arctic, Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1978.

Hunt, William R., Stef: a biography of Vilhjalmur Stefansson, Canadian Arctic explorer, Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1986.

Vilhjalmur Stefansson and the development of Arctic terrestrial science, Iowa City, Iowa: University of Iowa, 1984.