Nordenskiöld, (Nils) Adolf Erik

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(b. Helsinki, Finland, 18 November 1832; d. Dalbyö, Sweden, 12 August 1901) geography, geology, mineralogy, history of cartography.

Nordenskiöld came from a distinguished family of soldiers, administrators, and scientists who, originally Swedish, had long been settled in southern Finland. He was educated at the University of Helsinki, where his outspoken liberalism brought him into conflict with the Russian administration of the country; he was therefore compelled to leave Finland shortly after his graduation. In 1858 he departed for Sweden, where a reputation based upon his first publications in mineralogy had preceded him. In the same year, at the age of twenty-six, he was appointed chief of the mineralogy division of Sweden’s National Museum, a post that he held for the rest of his life.

Nordenskiöld’s career as an Arctic explorer had begun even earlier. In 1857 he made his first Arctic voyage, accompanying Otto Torrell to Spitsbergen. He either participated in or led four more voyages to Spitsbergen in the course of the next fifteen years, as well as leading eight other expeditions between 1864 and 1886. His explorations culminated in the voyage of the Vega; this expedition, carried out under his command in 1878–1879, penetrated the seas north of Asia to reach the Pacific, thus achieving the long-sought northeastern passage to the Orient. (For this accomplishment, King Oscar of Sweden created Nordenskiöld a baron.)

Nordenskiöld was responsible for making scientific work an integral part of Arctic exploration. The expeditions that he conducted were distinguished by careful planning; scientific equipment was meticulously prepared and a well-qualified staff selected to aid in the collection of data and observations. Nordenskiöld himself contributed to the extensive series of papers that resulted from these voyages; that of the Vega was reported in five volumes that dealt with the zoological, botanical, geodetic, geomagnetic, geophysical, oceanographic, and anthropological aspects of the regions investigated. These volumes marked the beginning of serious polar studies.

Nordenskiöld also wrote on a wide range of subjects within his chief fields of interest, geology and mineralogy. Many of his descriptive publications remain valuable but, for the most part, his theoretical contributions are now of only historical interest. He did more important work in the history of science. He was interested in Swedish science of the eighteenth century from an early age, and the preparations for his Arctic voyages led him to study historic maps. He published a fundamental work on Scheele, then the two magnificent folio volumes, published simultaneously in Swedish and English, that laid the foundations of the history of cartography. These were Facsimile-atlas to the Early History of Cartography (1889) and Periplus—An Essay on the Early History of Charts and Sailing Directions (1897).

The Facsimile-atlas is a survey of map making, from the Alexandrine cartographer Ptolemy to the beginnings of scientific surveying and mapping in the seventeenth century. Periplus, its companion piece, offered a collection of historically important charts and documents, assembled for the first time. While there had been attempts to compose histories of cartography earlier in the nineteenth century—most notably the works of Santarém and Jomard—they had not met the criteria of careful, truly scientific inquiry; it was Nordenskiöld who first applied the critical approach of the historian to this field of study.

Nordenskiöld exerted considerable influence on two generations of Scandinavian natural scientists, offering them ample field experience and generous support. He helped to establish the study of the earth sciences and promoted polar research in northern Europe, and was persuasive in urging others to report their findings in these fields.


The basic bibliography of Nordenskiöld’s complete works was published in Ymer, 21, no. 2 (1902), 277–302. The same issue contains extensive accounts of Nordenskiöld’s life and statements on his work as a polar explorer, geologist, mineralogist, and historian of geography and cartography. His successor at the Swedish National Museum, H. Sjögren, published a detailed memorial of Nordenskiöld’s scientific accomplishments in Geologiska Föreningens i Stockholm Förhandlingar, 34 (1912), 45–100. Popular biographies were published by Sven Hedin, Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld—en levnadsbeskrivning (Stockholm, 1926); and Henrik Ramsay, Nordenskiöld Sjöfararen (Stockholm, 1950). An extensive biography in English is George Kish, Northeast Passage: Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld, His Life and Times (Amsterdam, 1973).

George Kish

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Nordenskiöld, (Nils) Adolf Erik

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