On a simple grave in a quiet garden outside Oslo a name is
inscribed, Fridtjof Nansen. There are no dates upon the stone and somehow
this is fitting. For there is a timelessness about great men; and in
Norway, and indeed the world, Nansen must be numbered among the foremost.
The sheer range of his accomplishments was astonishing. He was
explorer, author, athlete, scientist, statesman, and a laureate of the
Nobel Peace Prize. In addition, he saved the lives of countless thousands
through his humanitarian work after the first World War
By Linn Ryne
The world claimed Fridtjof Nansen, but he was firmly rooted in Norway.
He was born into a family with a distinguished record of public service.
The outstanding qualities of leadership and the compelling urge to probe
the unknown had already been strongly evident in his ancestors. On the
maternal side of his family was Count Wedel Jarlsberg, commander-in-chief
of the Norwegian army at the time when Christian V was king of both
Denmark and Norway. On his father's side was Hans Nansen, one-time mayor
of Copenhagen, who also explored the White Sea. In character Fridtjof
Nansen is said to have resembled most of all his mother; a capable,
industrious woman, who ran the large household efficiently while still
finding time to study and improve her mind. His gentler qualities, which
came more to the forefront in later life, came perhaps from his quieter,
more ascetic father, a lawyer of repute and a man of unswerving integrity.
By most standards, and certainly by those of his times, Fridtjof Nansen
had a privileged childhood, from his birth in October 1861. His family was
never troubled by the spectre of poverty which haunted so many at that
time. In his formative years he had many opportunities to pursue his
innumerable interests. In the spacious farmhouse at Store Frøen,
near Christiania (now Oslo), he spent a happy boyhood, together with his
brother Alexander and a number of half-brothers and sisters. Though
urbanized now, Store Frøen was at that time a rural paradise.
Immediately behind it lay Nordmarka, the extensive forested area north of
Christiania. Here the young Nansen's love of the outdoors was born, among
the solitude of the endless stands of stream-laced pine and spruce.
Although his family was relatively wealthy, Nansen was taught the value
of hard work and discipline at an early age. Plain food and simple living
characterized the family at Store Frøen.
A man of many talents
Nansen's budding ability in many fields of activity soon became
apparent. As a boy his thirst for knowledge and determination to see
things through singled him out from his contemporaries. As a young man he
was an outstanding skater and skier. His sporting activities gave him the
physique, stamina and endurance that were to serve him so well during
Fridtjof Nansen's interests and talents were so diverse that it was no
easy task to select a course of study when he entered the University of
Christiania. Although he greatly preferred physics and mathematics, he
believed that zoology studies would allow him to spend more time outdoors;
so that was the course of study he selected. The subject he was later to
probe so deeply, oceanography, was still in its infancy.
The call of the north
Nansen's lifelong passion for the far north was kindled during student
days, when at a tutor's suggestion, in 1882, he took passage aboard a
sealing vessel to the Arctic Ocean. On board the "Viking" he was
to make notes on winds, ocean currents, ice movements, and animal life.
Nansen did his job well. Second best was never good enough for his
uncompromising nature. He made thorough scientific observations; copious
notes that were illustrated by sketches.
At this time too he started to write the many diaries that have given
posterity such interesting glimpses into the inner recesses of his mind.
Apart from the scientific aspects, a significant result of the voyage
with the "Viking" was not just that it marked the beginning of
Nansen's commitment to the north. It had also set his inquisitive mind on
the track of fresh theories. A piece of driftwood on the ice sparked a
train of thought which finally culminated in the voyage of the "Fram".
Nansen was intrigued at the presence of the driftwood and puzzled as to
which direction it could have come from. His final theory that it could
only have drifted from Siberia was later fully substantiated by the
findings aboard the "Fram".
Before this event, however, Nansen was to undertake the journey that
first brought his name to pution. Aboard the "Viking" he had
caught tantalizing glimpses of the eastern coast of Greenland, a seaboard
shrouded in mystery at that time. No one but the Inuit had set foot on the
eastern coast. No European had penetrated far into the inland snowfields.
The idea of crossing the inland icecap took root in Nansen at that time,
though he was not to undertake the journey until 1888.
The academic life
On his return from his voyage on board the "Viking", Nansen
was offered the post of curator of the natural history collection at the
Bergen Museum, a flattering offer for a man of only twenty; fresh out of
The six years Nansen spent in Bergen were devoted to hard study, not
outdoors as he had hoped, but in the laboratory. The transition from the
rugged days aboard the Arctic sealer to the quiet daily routine of the
laboratory, painstakingly studying minute animals through microscopes, was
abrupt. His chosen theme of study was among the most difficult and
exacting in zoology; the central nervous system. One of his papers, "The
Structure and Combination of Histological Elements of the Central Nervous
System" (1887), earned him his doctorate. It contained so many novel
interpretations that the examining committee accepted it with a degree of
scepticism. Today it is regarded as a classic.
On ski across Greenland
At the back of Nansen's mind all the time he was studying in Bergen was
his project to cross the Greenland icecap, and in 1887, he embarked on the
preparations for the journey. His plan was daring and original; foolhardy
in the opinion of many. Instead of landing on the inhabited west coast,
and striking inland from there, he planned to land on the east coast and
move west. He reasoned that by starting from the west the team would have
to make the return trip by the same route, as no ships would await it on
the inhospitable east coast. That meant double the distance to cover
compared with an east-west trek. Starting on the east coast meant that
there would be no retreat; there was only one way to go - forward. This
was a philosophy that suited Nansen's all-or-nothing attitude perfectly.
Burning bridges behind him was a strategy that he was later to employ
again, and with equal success.
The task facing the team was formidable. The east coast was almost
permanently barred by a belt of drifting ice, packed and driven by the
powerful polar current. Ships and men had been lost in its grip. Huge
icebergs drifted in the few sheltered bays, and overhanging glaciers
threatened to break off at any moment. Immediately behind this grim
barrier lay the chain of mountains that rimmed the coast.
Finance was another obstacle. Despite the University's recommendation,
the national assembly was loath to grant money to such a hazardous
project; one whose benefit to science seemed dubious. However, one
thousand dollars from a well-to-do merchant in Copenhagen was sufficient
to set the ball rolling.
The painstaking manner that the expedition was planned characterized
Nansen's work, both then and later. Every move was carefully planned, and
the ultimate success of the venture was largely dependent upon his devoted
attention to detail.
The six-man expedition set out in June 1888. On July 17th the men left
the safety of the ship, expecting to row to land in their open boats
within 2 - 3 hours. It took 12 days. Not until July 29th were they able to
set foot on land, and then only at a point 300 miles to the south of their
original goal. Adverse winds and currents swept them far to the south.
When ice floes closed in around them they were forced to drag the boats
over them until they reached open water again. Finally, almost one month
after leaving the ship they were able to start the actual trek across the
ice cap, having successfully scaled the precipitous cliffs that bordered
it. The trek across the icecap along a route well south of the one
originally planned, lasted until late September, when after almost
superhuman effort in temperatures that fell to 50 below zero, they finally
reached the west coast. Nansen, still only 27 years of age, had led his
team, without mishap, where no man had trod before. Throughout the
back-breaking journey the team had also made careful record of
meteorological conditions, and other important scientific facts.
No boats were due to leave Greenland until the following spring, so
Nansen spent the enforced winter there, studying the Inuits and gathering
material for his subsequent book "Eskimo Life" (1891).
In May 1889 Nansen and his men returned in triumph to Norway, to a
reception befitting national heroes.
The "Fram" quest takes shape
But Nansen did not rest on his laurels. His mind was still wrestling
with the question of the driftwood he had observed on the ice floe off
Greenland. Further evidence of an east-west ocean current had come to
light when pieces of equipment belonging to the "Jeanette", an
American vessel that had foundered north of Siberia in 1879, were
discovered off Greenland. Nansen was convinced that these too had followed
the drift of an arctic current that must flow from Siberia, towards the
North Pole and from there down to Greenland. His plan was to build a ship
strong enough to withstand the ice pressure, to sail it north from Siberia
until it froze in the ice pack, and to remain in the ship while it drifted
west towards the Pole and to Greenland. He expounded his theory to the
Norwegian Geographical Society and the Royal Geographical Society of
London. His plan met head-shaking scepticism from scholars, who did not
believe that such a ship could be built, and who said that the voyage was
tantamount to suicide.
The Norwegians, however, believed in their new young hero. The Storting
granted a large part of the necessary expenses for the expedition.
Subscriptions from the King, and from private individuals provided the
The next three years were spent on preparations. A ship was to be built
and Nansen collaborated with famous shipbuilder Colin Archer to design it.
The result was the "Fram" (Forward).
The "Fram" was no beauty. Visitors viewing it today in its
special museum outside Oslo may consider it squat and ugly. But it was
supremely suited to its task. The three-layered hull, of oak and
greenheart was immensely strong, braced as it was with heavy beams in all
directions. Its rounded shape gave the ice nothing to grip. When the ice
started to exert its tremendous pressure the "Fram" would simply
be pushed upwards. Fore and aft it was iron-clad. The living quarters were
warm and cosy. There was a well-stocked library, and games and musical
instruments that would help the men pass the many weary months they were
to spend on board.
Nansen chose twelve men to accompany him on the journey, including Otto
Sverdrup, who had crossed Greenland with him, and who was to captain the
ship. In June 1893 the expedition left Christiania, with provisions for
six years and fuel oil for eight. Nansen believed the trip would take two
to three years. But he took no chances with other peoples' lives. He was
leaving behind his wife Eva (formerly Eva Sars), a promising young singer,
and a six-month old daughter, Liv.
After the voyage up the coast of Norway, "Fram" struck east,
moving far along the coast of Siberia. The course was changed to north and
on September 20 the "Fram" reached the pack ice, the rudder and
propeller were pulled in and the "Fram" was prepared for its
long drift westwards with the ice.
Alone in the ice
The ship proved fully adequate to its task. During the three years that
the team was completely isolated from the outside world, she was a safe
and comfortable haven. Even when the dreaded pressure ridges of ice
threatened to crush the tiny, 400-ton vessel, beneath their enormous
weight, the "Fram" stood the test, and emerged as watertight and
secure as when she had been built.
The dangers were not only physical, but also mental. Boredom, and the
sapping of energy that accompanied it, was a constant threat. Nansen
countered it with careful plans to keep the men constantly occupied with
useful work on a fixed schedule. Scientific observations were an important
part of this.
Progress was painfully slow, and after many frustrating months the "Fram"
had moved only slightly. Nansen's restless spirit found it hard to cope
with the monotony of life on board. The "Fram" did not appear to
be drifting as close to the Pole as he had hoped. He decided to make a
dash for the Pole, taking with him one of the strongest and most stalwart
of his men, Hjalmar Johansen. Finding the ship again would be impossible,
so Nansen planned to make for Spitsbergen, or Franz Josef Land after
reaching the Pole, leaving the "Fram" in the capable hands of
The bid for the Pole
On March 14th 1895 Nansen and Johansen left the ship With dogs, kayaks
and sledges they made a desperate bid for the Pole. But once again their
progress was pitifully slow, and the conditions worse than expected.
Finally, at 86 degrees 14 minutes north, the closest to the Pole any man
had come, they decided to turn back, and to make for Franz Josef Land.
The three-hundred mile journey cost five months of exhausting labour.
Finally Nansen and Johansen arrived at the island which Nansen later named
Jackson Island, after the British explorer. There they spent the nine
months of winter in a tiny hut which they built from stones. In May of the
following year the two men broke camp and started their journey south. In
mid June, however, they had the almost unbelievable good fortune to meet
on the ice Frederick Jackson, leader of a British scientific and
exploratory expedition working in Franz Josef Land. The two Norwegians
returned with him to the British headquarters.
An account of Nansen and Johansen's gruelling sled journey in the
Arctic has very recently come to light in the shape of a diary written by
Nansen. An associate made a fair copy of Nansen's 599 neatly hand-written
pages and these were recently put on display at the Polar Museum in Tromsø,
Two months after the two men's arrival at the British headquarters - on
August 13th 1896 - Jackson's expedition vessel deposited Nansen and
Johansen at the port of Vardø in north Norway. Unbeknown to them
the "Fram" had on the same day shaken off the last of the pack
ice near Spitsbergen and was steaming south for the first time in three
years. Only one week after Nansen and Johansen's arrival the "Fram"
cast anchor in the far north port of Skjervøy. As Nansen had
correctly predicted, it had drifted west with the currents.
Home in triumph
Nansen and his 12 man-team made a triumphal progress down the coast of
Norway, reaching Christiania on September 9th. They were ecstatically
received. The nation that had so long been subservient to the Danes and
the Swedes was locked in a crisis with Sweden over the issue of the union.
War threatened. Norway needed national leaders, and here was one cast in a
mighty mould. At the age of only 35, Nansen had more accomplishments to
his credit than many distinguished older men.
In all the clamour and the adulation for the heroic aspects of Nansen's
journey it was perhaps easy to overlook its scientific significance. His
research had provided invaluable new knowledge. It had proved beyond doubt
that there was no land close to the Pole on the Eurasian side , but a
deep, ice-covered ocean. The men had discovered a current of warm,
Atlantic water at some depth below the polar ice, and compiled information
on currents, winds, and temperatures that scientists would use for many
years. For the new science of oceanography, the voyage of the "Fram"
was of major significance. For Nansen himself it marked the turning point
in his scientific work. Oceanography became the focus of his research.
A studious interlude
For many years Professor Nansen, as he had then become, devoted his
attention to the study of the oceans. Alternating work at the University
of Christiania with field expeditions, he cruised extensively in both the
Norwegian Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. There he compiled scientific data
and dredged for plant and animal life. His findings showed the influence
of the sea on land climates more clearly than had ever been shown before.
A new role
For Nansen the step from explorer and scientist to statesmen was not a
long one. His qualities of leadership had been clearly demonstrated. He
was respected and esteemed by his countrymen
By 1905 the disagreement on the union between Norway and Sweden had
deepened into a crisis. Norway was insisting on its own government. It
wished its foreign policy to be put in the hands of the king, and not the
Swedish foreign minister, as the Swedes had decided in 1885. By August
1905 matters had come to a head, and the Norwegian people had voted for a
total split with Sweden. During the tense period when war seemed imminent,
Fridtjof Nansen sought to instill bravery into his countrymen, calling on
them to "Go forward, forward to a free Norway".
When the Swedes made demands that were totally unacceptable to the
Norwegians, Nansen was hastily despatched,first to Copenhagen, and then to
Britain, where he spent almost a month convincing the British of the
justice of the Norwegian cause. Gradually the demands were tempered, on
both sides, and by mid October a treaty was signed releasing Norway from
Nansen's standing among the Norwegians was such that in 1905 he was
asked to act as Norway's prime minister. Reportedly, he was also secretly
requested to become either president or king, when the new form of
government was decided. He declined both offers, on the grounds that he
was " a scientist and explorer". However, he played a personal
part in bringing to the vacant Norwegian throne the Danish Prince Carl,
who took the Norwegian name Haakon VII.
The years in London
In spite of his strong wish to remain a scientist, Nansen did not
decline when King Haakon asked him to become Norway's ambassador in
London, where he served from 1906 - 1908. The mid year of this period,
1907, had been a sad one for Nansen. His wife, Eva, died suddenly, and
previous to that he had relinquished all hopes of leading an expedition to
the South Pole. He had planned in detail a major expedition to this
unknown continent. However,the young explorer Roald Amundsen had asked him
for the "Fram", for a lengthy voyage north of Siberia that might
yield valuable oceanic discoveries.
Nansen's South Pole expedition was to be his life's achievement. He
might need the "Fram" to carry out what would probably be the
crowning scientific achievement of his career. He pondered the question,
and with characteristic unselfishness, but a heavy heart, decided to hand
the "Fram" over to Roald Amundsen.
Pleading for Norway
World War I brought an abrupt end to oceanic research and exploration
for more than four years. Norway remained neutral, but encountered serious
difficulties when the USA, entering the war in 1917, placed restrictions
on the export of food. A commission was despatched to Washington, with
Fridtjof Nansen at its head. For more than a year he led the long and
often exasperating fight to secure food for Norway without giving up the
country's neutrality. Finally, cutting through the bureaucratic jungle, he
took matters into his own hands, and signed an agreement giving Norway
yearly shipments of essential supplies in return for certain concessions.
World War I aroused in Fridtjof Nansen an abhorrence for the senseless
slaughter of warfare. When the League of Nations began to take shape after
the war he worked tirelessly for its success, and was for many years
Norway's delegate at its assemblies. In the negotiations prior to its
establishment, the small, neutral nations had been virtually forgotten.
The major nations dictated the terms. The small ones looked on.
Nevertheless, Nansen saw in the League a new hope for mankind and he
persuaded not only Norway, but also the other Scandinavian countries to
apply for membership as soon as this was permitted; and Norway duly
Work for the forgotten men
His work in this field completed, Nansen planned to devote the rest of
his life to his chosen vocation, science. He had been a reluctant
statesman and diplomat. He was entitled to retire from the international
field with a clear conscience.
But the new League of Nations thought otherwise. Suffering in prison
camps in Europe and Asia were half a million forgotten men; prisoners of
war, who had fought for Germany and its allies. Locked in the grip of the
Revolution, the Russians were largely indifferent to their fate. Many of
the prisoners no longer had a homeland. They knew nothing of their
families and little of what had occurred, and they were dying in thousands
from cold and hunger.
The League of Nations faced the enormous task of repatriating these men
or giving them a new homeland. Obviously the work must be led by a man of
special calibre; one who could act quickly and resolutely, and who
commanded the trust and respect of the international community. The choice
fell on Fridtjof Nansen.
Though Nansen at first said "no" to the request, the repeated
persuasions of the League soon had their effect. In April 1920 he left
Christiania to start his difficult mission. The Soviet government would
not recognize the League of Nations, and there were virtually no funds
available for the task of feeding, clothing and transporting the men from
Though Nansen's prime wish was to continue his scientific work, he saw
in the task now facing him great possibilities. He could help prove that
the League of Nations was a practical tool for improving the lot of
mankind, and not just an idealistic vision. Also he could help the men
whose sufferings touched him profoundly.
Such was the stature of Fridtjof Nansen, that the Soviet authorities
agreed to negotiate with him personally. Funds were somehow raised, and
the gigantic task put in hand. By September of 1922 Nansen was able to
tell the League of Nations that the mission had been accomplished. The
Nansen Relief organization had succeeded. Well over 400,000 prisoners of
war had been repatriated, not only quickly, but at amazingly low cost.
Help for the starving
By now more than 60 years old, Nansen still yearned most of all to
return to Norway to pursue his scientific interests and spend time with
his family. But his talents were needed by the world. Even before the last
of the prisoners of war had been repatriated or relocated in new
homelands, another crisis had struck. A failure of the crops in the
Russian grain growing areas brought famine to 20 million people. Epidemics
followed in its wake. The International Committee of the Red Cross
appealed to Nansen to lead a project to help the people of the
famine-stricken areas. Once again he put his own interests aside to come
to the aid of others. He made an agreement with the Soviets authorizing
him to open in Moscow an office of the International Russian Relief
Executive. But his appeals to the League of Nations for funds to finance
the work met deaf ears. The League was unwilling to aid a Communist
Through fund-raising tours Nansen succeeded in raising some finances,
though not sufficient to save all of the starving people, and thousands of
them died. This partial defeat affected him deeply. Nansen was a stranger
to failure, at least in most of his quests, and the adamant refusal of the
League of Nations was a blow to his vision of its potential. However, he
was able to bring help to many people, particularly in the Ukraine and the
Parallel to the famine project Nansen also organized and led another
major one; that of aiding the 2 million hapless Russians who had fled both
revolution, and counter-revolution and were being shuttled from country to
country like cattle. So many countries close to the USSR were involved
that a central leader was needed who could negotiate with many different
governments. The League asked Nansen to act as High Commissioner for
Refugees, with the task of coordinating all the relief organizations
The cardinal task was to provide the refugees with an accepted means of
identification. This would not only give them status, but the possibility
of procuring a passport. Nansen proposed that certificates be issued
giving the most important information on the holder. Many governments
agreed to recognize the "Nansen Passport". The greatest single
achievement in Nansen's refugee work was probably the resettlement of
several hundred thousand Greeks and Turks who fled to Greece in 1922 from
eastern Thrace and Asia Minor following the defeat of the Greek Army by
the Turks. Poverty- stricken Greece was unable to receive them. Nansen
devised an unprecedented scheme. An exchange of populations would be
effected between Greece and Turkey. Half a million Turks would be returned
from Greece to Asia Minor; receiving full compensation for their financial
losses. Further, a League of Nations loan would enable the Greek
government to provide new villages and industries for the homecoming
Greeks, who would take the place of the Turks. The ambitious plan took
eight years to complete, but it worked perfectly.
In recognition of his work for refugees and the famine-stricken, the
Nobel Committee in Christiania decided to honour Fridtjof Nansen with the
1922 Nobel Prize for Peace. He was only the second Norwegian to gain this
distinction. Typically, he donated the money to international relief
From 1925 onwards, Nansen devoted much of his time to aiding Armenian
refugees. Then , as now, they were a troubled people. After the Turkish
massacres they had been driven into the desert to die. Nansen argued their
cause. He worked incessantly to provide them with a homeland, or to raise
funds to help them develop irrigated areas in the deserts. His aid plans
were turned down by the League of Nations. His requests for funds met
little response. These setbacks affected him deeply. He tendered his
resignation as High Commissioner for Refugees - but the League refused to
accept it. Despite this failure Nansen's work for the Armenians increased
his standing to such a degree that, even today, his name is highly revered
Nansen continued his work in the League of Nations. In the Assemblies
of 1925 to 1929 he played a major role in securing the adoption of a
convention against forced labour in colonial territories, and in
preparations for a disarmament conference.
A quiet end
Despite his keen interest in national defence - Nansen became the
president of the defence association of Norway in 1915 - disarmament was
an issue of burning importance to him. The final resolution to convene a
disarmament conference in 1932, was made at the eleventh Assembly of the
League in 1930. But Nansen's place was vacant. On May 13th, he had died
quietly, at his beloved home, Polhøgda, near Oslo.
The clarity of Nansen's vision, and his ability to cut through petty
detail to arrive at a lofty goal were precious qualities in troubled
times. The world needed Nansen then. It needs people of his calibre now,
and indeed at all times.
Produced for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs by Nytt fra Norge. The author is responsible for the contents of the article. Printed in August 1998.
Reproduced with permission from the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The Nansen passport
The Nansen Refugee Award
The First Crossing of Greenland,
Farthest North by Fridjtof Nansen. The long out-of-print Farthest North, one of the first titles in The Modern Library's Exploration series, recounts Dr. Fridtjof Nansen's epic 1893 pursuit of the North Pole. Nansen was the chronicler of one his age's most sensational adventures. But he was also much more: statesman and explorer, scientist and sex symbol, Nansen's singular character and remarkable spirit demand attention and respect. The good doctor entered the limelight after his landmark first crossing of Greenland in 1888. Shortly after, he concocted a brilliant (or lunatic, depending on whom you asked) scheme to conquer the pole. He and a small crew would freeze a specially designed boat in the ice and drift with the Arctic current, which he believed would carry him from the coast of Siberia northwest to the pole. In mid-voyage, he realized that the current would not carry him far enough. Undaunted, he and a companion set out across the ice with a dogsled. Nansen was left for dead, but when he stumbled upon another exploration team more than a year later--having reached farther north than anyone before him--he returned to Norway an international sensation.
Fridtjof Nansen in the Frozen World: The Fram Expedition by Fridtjof Nansen. To quote the lengthy title page when this book was originally published in 1897: "The 'Fram' Expedition, Nansen in the Frozen World, preceded by a biography of the great explorer and copious extracts from Nansen's First Crossing of Greenland; also an account by Elvind Astrup of life among people near the pole, and his journey across northern Greenland with Lieutenant Robert E. Peary, United States Navy, arranged and edited by S. L. Berens, Cand. Ph.D. Followed by a brief history of the principal earlier arctic explorations from the Ninth Century to the Peary Expedition..."
||In Northern Mists: Arctic Exploration in Early Times
In Northern Mists: Arctic Exploration in Early Times by Fridtjof Nansen (Hardcover). This almost century-old book by the famous explorer and statesman Fridtjof Nansen has not got the attention it deserves. It was probably forgotten due to the outbreak of war in 1914. Therefore it is highly welcomed that a translation appears into the English language. In fact, the book is still very relevant, due to Mr Nansen's very detailed research and his profound knowledge of the Northern Waters. There are, of course, some details that have later been proved to be inaccurate, but some of his arguments seem convincing even today.