Fridtjof Nansen

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(b. Store-Fröen, near Oslo, Norway, 10 October 1861; d. Oslo, 13 May 1930)

zoology, oceanography.

Nansen was the son of Baldur Fridtjof Nansen, a lawyer, and Adelaide Johanne Thekla Isidore wedel-Jarlsberg. An avid outdoorsman from an early age, he excelled at skiing and won several prizes in Norwegian competitions. Although interested in mathematics and physics when he entrolled at the University of Christiania (now Oslo) in 1880, he decided to specialize in zoology, believing that this discipline would afford greater opportunity for outdoor work. In 1882, on the advice of Robert collett, professor of zoology at the university, Nansen joined the four-and-a-half-month expedition of the sealer viking. The trip was of seminal influence. He was introduced to the harsh condition of the Arctic as the ship sailed north almost to Svalbard and then west, where it froze fast in the ice and drifted south for several weeks along the eastern shore of Greenland. Nansen’s diary of the voyage eloquently describes the regions, and many of his drawings and sketches were later used to illustrate his works.

In 1882 Collect obtained for Nansen the post of curator at the Bergen Museum. He first took up the study of myzostomes, a small group of parasitic worms of unusual appearance. His results, published in 1885, are still a basic reference and in 1886 earned Nansen the Joachim Friele Gold Medal of the Bergen Museum. The following year he traveled to Germany and Italy, visiting the newly established marine biological station at Naples and Golgi’s laboratory in Pavia, where he observed the technique of silver impregnation of nerve cells. In 1888 Nansen received the Ph.D. at Oslo for a thesis on the central nervous system in which he demonstrated how the nerve fibers, after entering the lower root of the spinal column, divide into T formations. Although this finding was of great importtance for the study of nerve fibers, some of his other observations proved to have been based on artificial products that arose from the coloring and fixing processes that he had used.

Nansen’s fascination with the unknown interior behind the ice-covered coast of Greenland was sparked by Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld’s return in 1883 from an expedition to its west coast. Two Lapps who had accompanied him ascended to the high interior plateau, describing it as an endless snowfield. Many others, however, believed that the interior was ice-free and that temperatures were relaively high; there was even talk of oases. Nordenskiöld himself believed that the Lapps had seen only a snow belt and that the interior was mainly ice, free of snow. Nansen, who had shortly before established himself as a pioneer of high-mountain skiing on a three-day trip from Bergen to Oslo, conceived the idea that it should be possible to skiacross Greenland.

On 17 July 1888 a Norwegian sealer carried Nansen and his five-man party as near the east coast of Greenland as the ice permitted, and the group set off in their boats. Driven by adverse currents, they were unable to land until 16 August. After an extremely difficult ascent to the plateau, which reaches a height of almost 9,000 feet, they journeyed across the ice through arduous snow conditions, night temperatures as low as -50°C., snowstorms, and fog, until they reached the village of Godthaab, on the west coast, on 3 October. Having missed the last ship home, the group spent the winter there, making friends with the Eskimos and learning their way of life. The expedition confirmed that Greenland is completely covered with ice, and its meticulous meteorological observations have remained basic to an understanding of the influence of weather conditions in northern Europe and the United States. On his return to Norway in 1889, Nansen married Eva Sars, daughter of the zoologist Michael Sars, and was appointed curator at the University of Christiania.

Nansen subsequently developed a theory that there exists a current from Siberia, across the Archtic Sea, to Greenland. This conjecture was based on his observation that much of the driftwood found in Greenland came from Siberian trees and from the discovery in Greenland of wreckage of the Jeanette expedition (1879-1880), which had been trapped north of the Chukchi Sea. In his proposal to the Norwegian Geographic Society and the Royal Geographic Society of London, Nansen planned to drift with the ice current in a specially constructed ship-rather than fighting it, as all polar explorers had previously done. Although his theory was criticized by many, financing was obtained for the Fram (“Forwar”), the first vessel expressly constructed to withstand the pressure of ice.

Short and broad, the three-master had a powerful engine and a twelve-man crew. On 24 June 1893 it sailed eastward from Oslofjord, skirting the ice packs along the Siberian coast. On 10 September it passed Cape Chelyuskin, the northernmost point on the Siberian coast. Nine days later it set course straight north in open water; but on 22 September the ice closed in, and the Fram was made fast at 78°50’ N. lat. After drifting north to 85°55’ N. lat., Nansen and F. Hjalmar Johansen left the Fram on 14 March 1895, hoping to make a dash for the North Pole. The way proved more difficult than anticipated, and they were forced to turn back at 86°14’ N. lat., 268 miles from their goal but the farthest north ever attained by an explorer. A malfunctioning chronometer and an inaccurate map obliged them to halt for the winter. For the next nine months they lived in a small hut that they had built of whalebones, bearskins, and sleds, shooting polar bears and walrus for food before being rescued by an English expedition. In the meantime, on 19 May 1896 the Fram started south. It became free of the ice north of Svalbard and reached Norway on 19 June, after almost three years at sea. On his return Nansen received a nonteaching chair in zoology at the University of Christiania. The Fram is still preserved in the Fram Museum, Oslo.

The most important contributions of the Fram expedition were the discoveries of the great depth of the Arctic Ocean and of the locations of land and water masses; and publication of the results provided an important stimulus to physical oceanography. Nansen also discovered that the ice was drifting not in the direction of the wind but about 45° to the right of it. He explained this as an effect of the rotation of the earth. Lacking the mathematical background to work out the problem, he suggested to Vagn Walfrid Ekman that he investigate it, and the resulting Ekman spiral is a basic tenet of theoretical oceanography. From a study of the temperatures and salinity of the Arctic and Norwegian seas, Nansen surmised the existence of an underwater ridge between Greenland and Svalbard. Later investigated by oceanographic expeditions, it is now called the Nansen ridge.

On the basis of his experiences on the Fram, Nansen devised an improved water bottle consisting of an insulated bottle and a pair of specially designed thermometers attached directly to the reversing frame. The so-called Nansen bottle was in general use until the recent developement of electronic methods for determining the salinity of seawater. He also constructed an unusually sensitive pendulum-type current meter and a deep-sea bottom sampler.

Nansen explained the dead-water phenomenon on the basis of many samples taken at various depths to measure temperature and salinity. He discovered a sharp dividing line between the top layer of brackish water, which had melted from the ice, and the underlying seawater; and he described the boundary wave between the layers engendered by the motion of a vessel through the upper layer. The mathematical treatment of this work was also turned over to Ekman.

Nansen and his assitant Bjørn Helland-Hansen constructed graphs based on their own determinations of water densities, as well as on Vilhelm Bjerknes’ work in the theory of hydrodynamic forces and Knudsen’s experiments on seawater. Ekman worked out a set of equations for calculating ocean currents, later called geostrophic currents. A new study of the Norwegian Sea was initiated, and a voyage of the Michael Sars was planned and begun by Nansen and continued by Helland-Hansen. Their monograph on the Norwegian Sea became a model for oceanographic studies.

In 1908, reflecting his change of interest, Nansen was appointed to the newly established chair of oceanography at Oslo. He subsequently made various other research voyages and, in 1913, an extensive journey through Siberia. His wife died in 1907, and in 1919 he married Sigrid Sandberg Munthe.

With the outbreak of World War I, Nansen turned to humanitarian work, and in 1920 he became the first Norwegian delegate to the League of Nations, a post he held until his death. In 1921 he was appointed commissioner for refugees for the League and during this period also worked with Herbert Hoover’s American Relief Administration. In 1924 he was charged by the League of Nations with finding a solution for “the Armenian question” and recommended resettlement of the Armenians in a new Armenian republic, now a part of the Soviet Union. In recognition of his humanitarian work Nansen received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1922.


I. Original Works. For an annotated list of Nansen’s works on the polar region, see Arctic Bibliography, II (Washington, D.C., 1953), 1780–1788. A more extensive list of his publications related to research and travel can be compiled from Dartmouth College Library, Dictionary Catalog of the Stefansson Collection on the Polar Regions, VI (Boston, 1967), 150–160. There is a list of Nansen’s articles and lectures for the Norwegian Academy of Sciences in Oslo in Leiv Amundsen, Det Norske Videnskaps-akademi i Oslo, 1857–1957 (Oslo,1957), 529–531.

Nansen’s publications include Bidrag til myzostomernes anatomi og histori (Bergen, 1885), with summary in English; “The Structure and Combination of the Histological Elements of the Central Nervous System,” in Bergens museums arsberetning(1886), 27—215, his Ph.D. diss,; Eskinolir (Oslo, 1891), also in English (London, 1893); On the Development and Structure of the Whale. Part I, in On the Development of the Dolphin (Bergen, 1894), written with Gustav A. Guldberg; The Norwegian North Polar Expedition, 1893–1896, 6 vols. (Oslo, 1900–1906) ;The Norwegian Sea, Its Physical Oceanography Based Upon the Norwegian Researches, 1900–1904 (Oslo, 1909), written with B. Helland-Hansen ; “The Sea West of Spitsbergen and isostasy”, in Skrifter utgitl av det Norske videnskaps-akademi i Oslo, Math.-naturv.Kl., no. 11 (1921), 1–313: “The Eastern North Atlantic,” in Norske videnskaps-akademi i Oslo . Geolvsiske publikasjoner, 4, no. 2 (1925), 1–76, written with B . Helland-Hansen; and Steinar Kjaerheim, ed ., Fridtjof Nansen. Brev, 4 vols. (Oslo, 1961–1963), Nansen’s correspondence in Norwegian, English, and German.

II. Secondary Literature. On Nansen and his work, see Per Vogt et al., Fridtjof Nansen, liv og gjerning (Oslo, 1961), trans. as Fridtjof Nansen, Explorer, Scientist, Humanitarian (Oslo, 1961)—the English ed . includes several additional articles.

Lettie S. Multhauf

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Nansen, Fridtjof

Norwegian Arctic Explorer and Oceanographer 18611930

The science of oceanography was in its infancy in 1893 when Fridtjof Nansen, a 32-year-old Norwegian, purposely allowed his ship, the Fram, to be captured in an Arctic ice pack. Through this deliberate act, Nansen hoped to prove his theory that the Arctic current flowed from Siberia towards the North Pole and then southward to Greenland. The way to show this to be true, Nansen reasoned, was to create a specially built ship that would not be crushed by ice so that he could drift in the ship wherever the ice pack moved. If the Fram (meaning "Forward") was carried close enough, Nansen also hoped to become the first person to reach the North Pole.

Greenland Ice Cap

Nansen thought in original ways. While a university student in Christiana (now Oslo, Norway), he took a voyage in 1882 to Arctic regions aboard a seal-hunting ship. Nansen kept records of winds, ice movements, and animal life. On this voyage, he became intrigued with the idea of ocean currents while observing the eastern coast of Greenland. He decided to attempt to cross Greenland's inland ice cap in order to study more closely continental glaciers .

With a team of five, Nansen accomplished this trek in 1888. One of the more unusual aspects of the expedition was the direction he chose to travel; the team went from east to west across Greenland instead of the more usual west-to-east direction. Nansen decided that because it was impossible for a ship to wait off the inhospitable east coast once his team had disembarked, he and his men would be forced to move toward the inhabited west coast, where their ship could safely meet them.

It was a plan that worked. Nansen had become the first person to cross Greenland's ice cap. His observations on this trip demonstrated that continental glaciers are thick and heavy enough to depress the Earth's crust beneath their weight. His work provided support for the theory of isostatic reboundthe idea that when the Earth's crust sinks under a heavy weight, it will slowly return to its original position when that weight is removed.

The Fram Expedition

By the time he returned home to Norway, Nansen was famous. Yet people thought him foolish in planning his next voyageone in which he would purposely let his ship be caught up in the Arctic ice. They reasoned that the Fram would be crushed; or, if by some miracle the vessel escaped destruction, then his crew would become insane by virtue of being trapped on a ship for several years without any contact with the outside world.

But attention to detail was Nansen's strength. He found a shipbuilder who designed the Fram as an iron-clad, three-hulled ship able to be thrust up and not crushed by the pressure of ice. The propeller and rudder would be built into the ship to protect them.

Nansen knew his team would be constantly busy making scientific observations. But for the infrequent off-hours, he put a library, musical instruments, and games onboard to entertain the crew. To captain the ship, Nansen chose Otto Sverdrup, one of the men who had crossed Greenland with him.

Successful Journey.

Nansen's meticulous planning paid off. His trip was successful, and had a most unusual finale. Because the Fram did not drift as close to the North Pole as he had hoped, Nansen decided to make an overland dash for it. With one companion, dogs, sleds, and kayaks, he left the Fram under the capable care of Sverdrup and, in March 1895, headed for the Pole. Conditions forced the two men to turn back, but they had gotten closer than anyone as of that date. After a demanding journey of 483 kilometers (300 miles), they made it to a safe wintering place, an island in Franz Josef Land.

After breaking camp in the spring, Nansen and his companion headed south and had a wonderful piece of luck. On the ice and in the middle of nowhere, they met the leader of a British scientific expedition who sent them home to Norway in one of his ships. They arrived in their country on August 13, 1896, the same day the Fram finally became free of pack ice and also headed home. The ship had done exactly what Nansen predicteddrifted with the Arctic current. His work provided enormous knowledge about the currents, climate, and marine life of the Arctic Ocean.

Later in Life

From 1896 to 1917, Nansen served as a professor at the University of Christiania, where he performed research in oceanography. He published a sixvolume report of the Fram expedition that remains a major reference on the Arctic Ocean. He also designed several instruments still in common use, including the Nansen bottle, a device used to collect pure samples of sea water at given depths. Several scientific voyages to the North Atlantic added to his knowledge.

As a statesman, Nansen worked for the peaceful separation of Norway from Sweden. His efforts were rewarded by an appointment as Norway's first minister to Great Britain from 1906 to 1908.

Toward the end of World War I, Nansen became internationally known for his service to famine-stricken Russia as well as for his work in returning prisoners of war to their homes. His contributions won him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1922.

see also Glaciers and Ice Sheets; Ice Ages; Ice at Sea; Ocean Currents; Oceans, Polar.

Barbara Johnston Adams


Huntford, Roland. Nansen: The Explorer as Hero. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1997.

Nansen, Fridtjof. Farthest North. New York: Modern Library, 1999.

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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

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). □

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Nansen, Fridtjof (1861–1930) Norwegian explorer and statesman. After a pioneering crossing of Greenland in 1888, Nansen built a ship that would withstand ice in the hope that currents would carry her to the North Pole. She did not reach the Pole, but crossed the Arctic Ocean in the ice undamaged (1893–96). Nansen attempted to reach the Pole with skis and kayaks. He failed but set a record for farthest north. After 1918 Nansen was involved in international humanitarian work. He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1922.

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Fridtjof Nansen


Norwegian explorer best known for deliberately freezing his ship into Arctic pack ice in an attempt to reach the North Pole. Nansen also journeyed across Greenland and led an arctic voyage of discovery in the sealing vessel Viking. Nansen was appointed keeper of the Oslo Natural History Museum after this voyage and was later the first Norwegian ambassador to Britain. In 1922 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his relief work in Russia following the revolution.

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(b. Fröen, Norway, 10 October 1861; d. Oslo, Norway, 13 May 1930)


For a detailed study of his life and work, see Supplement.