Pettersson, Sven Otto

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(b. Gothenburg, Sweden, 12 February 1848; d. 16 January 1941),

chemistry, physical chemistry, oceanography.

Pettersson is mostly remembered for his organizational capacity, especially in the founding and running of the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES). But Pettersson’s scientific interests and executive skills embraced a wide range of fields. In addition to the physics of the ocean, he contributed in chemistry, especially physical chemistry, and he was a skilled inventor of scientific instruments.

Otto Pettersson was born in Gothenburg on the western coast of Sweden. He was the son of wealthy merchant Johan Fredrik Pettersson and Emelie Leontine Borgman, who both came from villages in the county of Bohuslän. The wealth of the paternal family partly originated from the herring-fisheries in Bohuslän. Pettersson grew up in Gothenburg and spent his summers on the coast of Bohuslän, a landscape that remained beloved to him. In 1875 Pettersson married Agnes Irgens, daughter of the Norwegian Major General and cabinet minister Nils C. Irgens and Louise F. Linaae. They had two daughters and three sons. Pettersson was eager to educate his sons in oceanography, and he had success in so far as the youngest son, Hans Pettersson, became a physicist and professor in oceanography at the University of Gothenburg.

Academic Career From 1866 to 1872 Pettersson studied chemistry at the University of Uppsala. After having earned a doctoral degree with a thesis on selenium alums, Pettersson spent two years (1872–1874) in the laboratory of Carl Remigus Fresenius in Wiesbaden, Germany, specializing in analytical chemistry. He returned to Sweden and obtained a post as assistant professor (docent) in physical chemistry at the University of Uppsala from 1874 to 1884.

Pettersson grew critical of what he considered insufficient and old-fashioned training in the disciplines of chemistry and physics, and so he shifted to the newly founded Stockholms høgskola as a temporary teacher. Høgskola was a non-degree-granting private, polytechnic institution established in 1878; the training was primarily oriented toward pursuit of scientific knowledge rather than teaching and examinations for civil services. In 1884 he got the first chair in chemistry at the institution and kept the professorship until his retirement in 1909. In the years 1893–1896 Pettersson served as the rector of the school, and in this function sought to secure its financial basis by private donations and to restructure Stockholms høgskola into a degree-giving institution after the model of the universities. At the school Pettersson was eager to foster the career of outstanding natural researchers like the young Norwegian physicist and founder of modern meteorology Vilhelm Bjerknes, and the physicist and chemist Svante Arrhenius, best known for the molecular dissociation theory. From 1900 to 1912 Pettersson was the chairman of the Nobel Committee in Chemistry.

In 1909, at the age of sixty-one, Pettersson moved back to Bohuslän and settled down at the Fiord of Gull-marn. Already in 1892 he had bought an estate, Holma Manor, not far from the town of Lysekil. His family moved to the manor and ran the farm. In 1902 on the small island of Bornö, which belong to the estate, Pettersson had built a private marine research station for oceano-graphic investigations.

Beside the work and duties at Stockholms högskola, Pettersson was, from its founding in 1896, one of three members of the board of the Svenska Hydrografiska Kommissionen (the Swedish Hydrographic Commission) and its successor Svenska Hydrografisk-Biologiska Kommission (the Swedish Hydrographic-Biological Commission) from 1901 to 1930. The commission was set up by the Royal Academy of Sweden and was submitted to the Ministry of Agriculture by reorganization in 1901. The commission was primarily set up to investigate physical and chemical aspects of the waters around Sweden, but soon biological oceanography and fisheries biology investigations were added. From 1902 Pettersson’s professional life was largely devoted to building and securing the existence of ICES. He served as a member of its board (the Bureau) from 1902 to his death in 1941 and acted as vice president from 1902 to 1915. As it became vital to save the existence of ICES during World War I, Pettersson (from neutral Sweden) became president in March 1915 and guided the council until March 1920 when he was released from the duty.

Chemistry and Oceanography In chemistry Pettersson wrote numerous works mainly on inorganic elements and compounds; several of the works dealt with the chemical compositions of rare metals. He often worked with a colleague at the University of Uppsala, Lars F. Nilsson, with whom he also published in 1878 his probably best-known article in chemistry, titled “Über die Darstellung und Valenz des Berylliums.” The research of Nilsson and Pettersson helped to clarify and define the placement of the element beryllium in the periodic table.

In the same year, 1878, Pettersson published the first of numerous works on chemical aspects of the ocean, namely on the properties of water and ice. That the inorganic constituents of sea water were in constant proportion relative to one another had been confirmed around 1860; Pettersson now investigated whether the constituents of sea water behaved likewise in sea ice. In the first article he discussed the latent heat of water at temperatures below 0 degrees Celsius, and also included comments on the formation of ice in the sea. He enlarged his interest in ice and ice-melting in broader views, and around 1900 they were gradually developed into a hypothesis that melting ice forms oceanic deep water. Pettersson held that water from melting ice in polar regions provided the motive forces for the manner in which deep and bottom water is formed. The Norwegian oceanographer Fridtjof Nansen contested Pettersson’s ice-melting mechanism, claiming that that cooling of the atmosphere and/or ice formation are the primary forces. In the dispute Nansen formulated one of his lasting contributions to oceanography.

Pettersson’s publication on the properties on ice and water from 1878 led the polar explorer Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld, and led him to invite Pettersson to report on the oceanographic observations made during the Vega expedition north of Europe and Asia from 1878 to 1880. In the early 1880s at the time he worked up the report from the Vega expedition, Pettersson became aware of a possible connection between the sudden occurrence of herring (Clupea harengus) on the coast of Bohuslän and the salinity in the waters in Skagerrak. A fellow chemist and friend Gustaf Ekman had late in 1877 discovered that herring seemed to prefer layers of water with high salinity and a certain temperature. Ekman was a distant relative of a pioneer in Swedish oceanography (named hydrography at the time), Fredrik Laurentz Ekman. Following the death of F. L. Ekman, Pettersson was asked to finalize the report of the first overall investigations of waters around Sweden’s coast in 1877. The efforts to complete F. L. Ekman’s investigations of physics of the ocean and the search for an explanation of the particular and periodical phenomena of appearance of winter herring at the coast of Bohuslän encouraged Pettersson’s interest in oceanography. Gustaf Ekman became Pettersson’s faithful partner and accomplished many of the practical tasks linked to seagoing and working up material. Around 1890 the two of them began making systematic observations in the strait of Kattegat and in the strait of Skagerrak, which connects the Baltic Sea to the North Sea. Pettersson decided to undertake temperature and current observations from different vessels at the same time. Ekman and Pettersson aimed to establish a plan for a network of fixed stations that would operate at virtually the same time, with observations made at a number of standard depths. Pettersson’s investigations were small-scale studies of delimited areas with the aim to enable the establishment of synoptic charts. In 1891 nearby Denmark adopted the Swedish method and Pettersson’s program. In 1892 following the meeting of Scandinavian natural researchers (the skandinaviske naturforskermøter) he proposed formally inviting scientists from Denmark, Norway, Germany, England, and Scotland to join cooperative surveys to take place in 1893 and 1894. The cooperation enlarged the areas of investigations to the North Sea and sections of the North Atlantic. In his 1894 article “A Review of Swedish Hydrographic Research in the Baltic and the North Seas,” Pettersson summed up the investigations so far, and he advocated continuing his program and furthering oceanography as an international field of science. Another important hallmark of Pettersson’s investigations as well as other Scandinavian natural researchers was an understanding of relationships between the chemistry and the physics of the ocean and the biology of fishes including the significance of biological oceanography.

During the 1890s Pettersson stood in the forefront of a small group of Scandinavians who committed themselves to found an international body for scientific fisheries investigations in the North Sea, the Baltic Sea, and Atlantic waters. In the group were many of the scientists who constituted the modern field of oceanography: zoologist, oceanographer, polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen, zoologist Johan Hjort, physical oceanographer Bjørn Helland-Hansen, biological oceanographer Haaken Hasberg Gran, and physicist Martin Knudsen. With his organizational skills Pettersson led the move from informal arrangements to the formally organized ICES in 1902. The council was a leading force in Europe and in North American fisheries biology and adjacent fields until World War II. In ICES the Swedish style of intensive area studies was continued. Pettersson embraced Bjerknes’s hydrodynamic circulation theorem in 1897 as a possible theoretical breakthrough for the ocean. He had Helland-Hansen invited to Stockholm to learn to apply Bjerknes’s model on the ocean. Helland-Hansen in cooperation with Nansen and the renowned oceanographer Vagn Walfrid Ekman (son of F. L. Ekman) formulated the foundation for today’s understanding of the physical structure and dynamics of the ocean.

A common standard for measurements and reliable instruments were important factors in Pettersson’s contributions to establishing the field of oceanography. He himself was a competent inventor of instruments and constructed in the 1890s an insulated water bottle and a current meter. This sampler was used by Nansen during his Fram expedition (1893–1896); after the return Nansen suggested improvements to Pettersson, the most important being to mount a thermometer into the water bottle. V. W. Ekman at ICES’s Central Laboratory around 1905 constructed a current meter and a new reversing water bottle, devices that were superior to Pettersson’s constructions.

Pettersson pursued several lines in his research. After 1909 he concentrated on tidal movements in the deeper water layers and the relationship between oceanographic and meteorological phenomena. Pettersson was considered an esteemed chemist and researcher even though some of the late publications contained hypotheses that have been superseded. Pettersson stimulated scientific discussions, and in a formative period of Scandinavian science and modern international oceanography from 1880 to 1910, the amiable, pragmatic, and energetic Pettersson played a crucial role with his large intellectual capacity and desire for scientific entrepreneurship.



“Bidrag til kännedom om de selen-syrade alunarterne.” PhD diss., University of Uppsala, Sweden, 1872.

With L. F. Nilson. “Über die Darstellung und Valenz des Berylliums.” Annalen der Physik und Chemie 4 (1878): 554–585.

“Om vattens latenta värme vid temperaturer under Oo jemte några anmärkningar om isbildningen i hafvet.” Öfversigt af KVA [Kunglega Vetenskapsakademiens] förhandlingar, N:03 (1878): 53–61 and fig. III.

“Striden om undervisningen i naturvetenskap vid Uppsala Universitet.” Stockholms Dagblad, several articles in April and May 1881.

“On the Properties of Water and Ice.” In Vega-expeditionens vetenskapliga iakttagelser. Bearbetade af deltagere i resan och andre forskare, vol. 2, edited by Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld. Stockholm: Beijer, 1883.

“Contributions to the Hydrography of the Siberian Sea.” In Vega-expeditionens vetenskapliga iakttagelser. Bearbetade af deltagere i resan och andre forskare, vol. 2, edited by Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld. Stockholm: Beijer, 1883.

With Gustaf Ekman. “Grunddragen af Skageracks och Kattegats hydrografi enligt den svenska vinterexpeditionens 1890 iakttagelser samt föregående arbeten.” KVA Handlingar 24, no. 1 (1891): 1–162.

“Några allmänna drag af Nord- och Östersjöens hydrografi.” Forhandlingerne ved de skandinaviske naturforskeres 14. møde(København 4–9 July 1892): 78–87.

With F. L. Ekman. “Den svenska hydrografiska expeditionen år 1877 under ledning af FLE.” KVA Handlingar 25, no. 1 (1893): 1–163. Pettersson wrote the second part of the report beginning on page 73.

“A Review of Swedish Hydrographic Research in the Baltic and the North Seas.” Scottish Geographical Magazine 10 (1894): part I 281–302, part II 352–359, part III 414–427, part IV 449–462, part V 525–539, part VI 617–624, part VII 623–634, part VIII 631–635.

“The International Conference for Marine Research in Stockholm 1899.” Scottish Geographical Magazine (1900): 299–312.

“On the Influence of Ice-Melting upon Oceanic Circulation.” Geographical Journal 24 (1904): 285–333.

“On the Influence of Ice-Melting upon Oceanic Circulation.” Geographical Journal 27 (1907): 273–295.

En självbiografi. Göteborg: Göteborgslitografen, 1938.


Department of Foreign Affairs, Ministerial Cabinet Meetings. UD:0–6. Swedish National Archive.

Gustaf Ekman’s Archive Box 15 and 16 and Archival Files from the Station at Bornö. A360. Regional Archives in Gothenburg.

Ekman, Vagn Walfrid. “Otto Pettersson 12/2 1848–17/1 1941.” Svensk Geografisk årsbok(1941): 85–92.

Johan Hjort’s Archive. Ms. 29911. Norwegian National Library in Oslo, Department of Manuscripts.

ICES Archive. 10.649. Danish National Archive.

Letters to Otto Pettersson. AccH 1985:25 and AccH1993:12. University Library in Gothenburg, Sweden.

Fridtjof Nansen’s Archive. Ms. 48 and Ms. Fol. 1924. Norwegian National Library in Oslo, Department of Manuscripts.

Rozwadowski, Helen M. The Sea Knows No Boundaries: A Century of Marine Science under ICES. Copenhagen and Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002. The most extensive study in English about Pettersson and founding of ICES.

Skottsberg, Carl. “Minnesteckning Sven Otto Pettersson.” In Minnestal hållna i Kungl. Vetenskaps- och vitterhetssamhället i Göteborg, edited by J. V. Johansson. Göteborg, 1942.

Svansson, Artur. “Otto Pettersson.” In Svenskt biografisk leksikon, no. 142, edited by Göran Nilzén. Stockholm: A. Bonnier, 1995. The article includes an extensive bibliography.

———, and Elisabeth Crawford, eds. Neptun och Mammon. Brev från Otto Pettersson til Gustaf Ekman 1884–1929. Göteborg: Tre Böcker, 2003.

Vera Schwach