Skip to main content
Select Source:

Vilhjalmur Stefansson

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

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 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. □

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Vilhjalmur Stefansson." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 17 Oct. 2018 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Vilhjalmur Stefansson." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 17, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/vilhjalmur-stefansson

"Vilhjalmur Stefansson." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved October 17, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/vilhjalmur-stefansson

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.

Stefansson, Vilhjalmur

Vilhjalmur Stefansson (vĬl´hyoulmər stĕf´ənsən), 1879–1962, Arctic explorer, b. Canada, of Icelandic parents, educated at the Univ. of North Dakota, the State Univ. of Iowa, and Harvard. He led several expeditions of exploration and of ethnological and archaeological investigation in the Arctic. For supplies he relied heavily on local resources, and he adopted the Eskimo way of living, thus successfully demonstrating his theory that the rigors of existence in the Arctic are much reduced by the use of such techniques. He made two expeditions (1906–7, 1908–12) to the delta of the Mackenzie River. Later he undertook (1913–18) the most prolonged polar exploration in history by remaining N of the Arctic Circle for an unbroken period of more than five years while exploring the Canadian and Alaskan sectors of the Arctic. In 1952, Stefansson Island, at the tip of Victoria Island, was named for him. He was the curator of the Stefansson Collection at Dartmouth College, to which he gave his library of polar material. His many books include My Life with the Eskimo (1913), The Friendly Arctic (1915, new enl. ed. 1943), Iceland (1939), Greenland (1942), and Northwest to Fortune (1958). He edited Great Adventures and Explorations (1947).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Stefansson, Vilhjalmur." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 17 Oct. 2018 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Stefansson, Vilhjalmur." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 17, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/stefansson-vilhjalmur

"Stefansson, Vilhjalmur." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved October 17, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/stefansson-vilhjalmur

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.

Vilhjalmur Stefansson

Vilhjalmur Stefansson

1879-1962

Canadian anthropologist who studied the Inuit language and spent many years on the south side of Victoria Island living among and observing a group of so-called Copper Inuit. He moved to the United States when he was two, eventually attending the University of North Dakota and later studying anthropology. His interest in the Inuit people began when he joined an Arctic expedition led by Ejnar Mikkelsen in 1906, and continued with other expeditions, including the first Canadian Arctic Expedition in 1913.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Vilhjalmur Stefansson." Science and Its Times: Understanding the Social Significance of Scientific Discovery. . Encyclopedia.com. 17 Oct. 2018 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Vilhjalmur Stefansson." Science and Its Times: Understanding the Social Significance of Scientific Discovery. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 17, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/science/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/vilhjalmur-stefansson

"Vilhjalmur Stefansson." Science and Its Times: Understanding the Social Significance of Scientific Discovery. . Retrieved October 17, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/science/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/vilhjalmur-stefansson

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.