Fridtjof Nansen. Image courtesy of the Fram Museum website.

Fridtjof Nansen: Arctic Explorer, Scientist, Author, Diplomat, Winner of the Nobel Peace Prize

 By   James D. West                       

Fridtjof Nansen (1861-1930) was an Arctic explorer. Also a skiing enthusiast who was a 12-time cross country champion in his native Norway. A scientist who made early discoveries in the field we now call neurobiology. An oceanographer, an accomplished author, a famed diplomat and advocate for refugees after World War I. Plus he received the Nobel Peace Prize. His early renown was based on his Arctic adventures. Those successes in exploration and his leadership abilities led to his opportunities in diplomacy and international politics.

Nansen was born in October 1861 in Christiana (Oslo) Norway. He became an accomplished skater and skier who was a pioneer in the sport of cross-country skiing and developed several technical improvements in skiing equipment. He studied zoology at the Royal Frederick University in Christiana, where he specialized in lower marine creatures. He had a greater interest in mathematics and engineering at the time, but he believed zoology would offer him more opportunity to be outdoors. In March 1882 he took leave from university to work as a scientist with the responsibility of collecting specimens of marine life while aboard the sealer, Viking, bound for Arctic waters. On that voyage near Iceland and Jan Mayen Island, 370 miles northeast of Iceland, the ship was caught in the ice several times and drifted with it while looking for seals. Significantly for its bearing on later expeditions, not only did the ship drift with the ice but he found a piece of driftwood that Nansen believed could only have come from Siberia. Upon returning to Norway he accepted a position as curator in the zoological department at the Bergen Museum which had become a center for scientific research and education. He stayed there six years where he studied neuroanatomy, specifically the central nervous system of lower marine animals. He published on the subject in 1886 and 1887 and eventually was awarded his doctorate based on that publication which posited that the brain consists of individual, separate nerve cells [1]. That publication established him as one of the three co-founders of the modern view of the nervous system[2].

During his time at the Bergen Museum he devised a plan for an expedition to cross Greenland from east to west. The crossing of Greenland had been attempted unsuccessfully twice before, once by A. E. Nordenskiöld in 1883 and most recently by Robert Peary in 1886. Nansen planned the expedition in great detail, including designing a new lighter sledge and adopting the Lapp practice of reindeer hide for sleeping bags. Funding was a problem but eventually he was able to set out for Greenland in June 1888. His plan was that he and 5 other men would land at Sermilik Fjord and traverse Greenland ending in Christianhaab (Qasigiannguit). However, during the event, they were blocked by the ice and did not land to begin their trek until they were 120 miles farther south at Umivik Bay.  Eventually, given their more southerly start and the difficulties of the ice, they changed their destination to Godthaab (Nuuk), also on the west coast of Greenland. His innovation was the use of skis although they still had to man-haul sleds (see Figure 1) as opposed to using dogs as he would later do. One of the men on that expedition was Otto Sverdrup, who would later play a major role in Nansen’s most daring expedition.

Figure 1:  Man-hauling across Greenland. Image from “The First Crossing of Greenland” by F. Nansen.

The story of the Greenland expedition is very well told in Nansen’s Paa ski over Grønland: en skildring af den norske Grønlands-ekspedition 1888-1890 (1890) (The First Crossing of Greenland (1890 English translation))[3]. As one might expect it was harder and took longer than planned but the team did reach their goal and, missing the last boat from the west coast back to Europe, he and his comrades stayed the winter in Godthaab. Nansen did not waste his time there but rather studied the local Eskimo and their culture. He subsequently published Eskimoliv (1891), (Eskimo Life 1893 English translation), an ethnographic study of life among the Eskimo. (NB: this article uses the then current term, “Eskimo”. “Inuit”, or “Native peoples” would be the modern preferred terms for these peoples.) “Nansen’s crossing of Greenland had introduced new methods into polar exploration. Stripped of the baggage common to previous expeditions – the weighty equipment and support ships that never arrived – it had shown that a great deal more could be achieved by a small independent group of fit, experienced and determined men, carrying a minimum of carefully chosen supplies.”[4].

Upon his return, Nansen and his men were much celebrated and there was great demand for Nansen’s subsequent speaking engagements. He accepted invitations to speak including those from The Royal Geographical Society in London, and The Royal Scottish Geographical Society in Edinburgh.

After this adventure in Greenland, Nansen was not satisfied with returning to scientific research at the Bergen Museum; rather, Nansen accepted the position of curator of the Royal Frederick University’s zoology collection, a post which carried a salary but involved no duties. This allowed him the time and financial stability to write up his account of the expedition and then to begin planning his next expedition.

He recalled his experience on the sealer of being trapped briefly in the ice and drifting south with the current and that he had found driftwood on the coast of Greenland which he believed originated in Siberia. He also knew that in 1884, artifacts from the tragic Jeanette expedition which sank in 1881, well to the north of the Lena delta in Siberia, appeared on the southwestern coast of Greenland. He was not the first to propose the idea of Arctic ice drift and its potential relevance to reaching the North Pole (Carl Lytzen, the Danish governor of Julienhåb (Qaqortoq), who had discovered the Jeanette artifacts wrote an article on the subject), but Nansen was the one to develop the scientific theory of how it worked, its speed and direction and to advocate the idea as a possible path to the pole given a properly constructed ship. He calculated that the path the material took to reach Greenland’s shores must have taken it near to the North Pole. Consequently, Nansen proposed an expedition which was to intentionally freeze a ship into the ice as far north off the coast of Siberia as possible and to let the ice drift them over the pole. In an address to the Christiana Geographical Society in February 1890, after reviewing various attempts at the pole, he stated (italics as in the original):

I believe if we pay attention to the actually existent forces of nature, and seek to work with and not against them, we shall thus find the safest and easiest method of reaching the Pole. It is useless, as previous expeditions have done, to work against the current; we should see if there is not a current we can work with. The Jeanette expedition is the only one, in my opinion, that started on the right track, though it may have been unwittingly and unwillingly.[5]

Nansen went on to describe other scientific evidence of the drift of the ice he believed to run from Siberia north and ultimately west. He continues (italics as in the original):

It thus appears that, from whatever side we consider this question, even apart from the specially cogent evidences above cited, we cannot escape the conclusion that a current passes across or very near to the Pole into the sea between Greenland and Spitzbergen. This being so, it seems to me that the plain thing for us to do is to make our way into the current on that side of the Pole where it flows northward, and by its help to penetrate into those regions which all who have hitherto worked against it have sought in vain to reach. My plan is, briefly, as follows: I propose to have a ship built as small and as strong as possible – just big enough to contain supplies of coals and provisions for twelve men for five years…the main point in this vessel is that it be built on such principles as to enable it to withstand the pressure of the ice. The sides must slope sufficiently to prevent the ice when it presses together, from getting firm hold of the hull, as was the case with the Jeanette and other vessels. Instead of nipping the ship, the ice must raise it up out of the water.[6]

Nansen continued to give lectures regarding this venture in an effort to raise money for the expedition and expose the idea to scientific discussion. He proposed, as he did in the address to the Christiana Geographical Society, a purpose-built ship carrying just 12 men, 35 dogs, and
provisions for 5 years. The ship would be designed to rise up out of the ice when squeezed by ice formation so that it would not be crushed. The scientific and exploration communities outside of Norway found the idea preposterous, for the most part. Most of them believed that no such ship could be built and that the ship would inevitably be crushed. Others did not believe the current existed and therefore the ice drift did not exist and that the Jeanette artifacts were from some other ship or had arrived there in some other fashion.

Nansen spoke on this subject at the Royal Geographical Society in London in November 1892.  Various Arctic explorers and scientists attended. As Nansen states, “After the lecture a discussion took place, which plainly showed how greatly I was at variance with the generally accepted opinions as to the conditions in the interior of the Polar Sea, the principles of ice navigation, and the methods that a polar expedition ought to pursue.”[7]. That lecture and the subsequent comments were published in The Geographical Journal, London, 1893 Vol. I, pp 1-32. In the Discussion portion of the article Admiral Sir Leopold M’Clintock, who led several Arctic expeditions most notably the one which in 1859 found the first definitive evidence of the fate of Sir John Franklin’s expedition, remarked that, “I think I may say that this is the most adventurous programme ever brought under the notice of the Royal Geographical Society.”[8] M’Clintock agreed with Nansen that the ocean current existed, and that it would carry his expedition towards the pole, and then back down. However, he deemed it unlikely that a ship could make it through being frozen into the ice in winter. “The possibility of sliding up on to the ice is then [as Nansen proposes his ship will do], I think, very remote.”[9] Admiral Sir George Nares, who led an Arctic expedition to Greenland and Ellesmere Island in 1875-76 where they reached a new farthest north at 83°10.5’N, stated, “The adopted Arctic axioms for successfully navigating in ice regions are, that it is absolutely necessary to keep close to a coastline…” “… when once frozen into the Polar pack the form of the vessel goes for nothing.” [10] Nares also thought that the wind was the primary factor affecting the drift of the ice and therefore would not take the Fram as Nansen planned.

However, Nansen’s Norwegian, and Swedish countrymen were supporters and through private and public subscription, sufficient funds were raised to begin the planning in earnest. Even the Royal Geographical Society contributed £300 at the urging of Clements Markham, who will be discussed later. The first task was to get a ship designed and built to his specifications.

FOR THE COMPLETE ARTICLE of Nansen’s extra ordinary search for the North Pole Click Here.

James West’s article of Fridtjof Bansen: Arctic Explorer, Scientist, Author, Diplomat, Winner of the Nobel Peace Prize is one of three articles in Volume 72, Number 3, Summer 2020 of Manuscripts. Manuscripts is the quarterly journal published by the Manuscript Society and is one benefit of membership. This issue includes articles: “FDR: Arctitect of Duchess County” by Peter Forman, and “What Does a (Victorian) Woman want?” by Barton Smith. Plus books review, “Autograph Dealing and the Forensic Imperative” by William Butts and Beverly Hill’s interview with Leslie Morris, Gore Vidal Curator of Modern Books and Manuscripts at Harvard’s Houghton Library.