On 10 October, 1861, Fridtjof Nansen—zoologist, oceanographer, athlete, scholar, academic, Arctic explorer, writer, diplomat, humanitarian—was born at Store Frøen, near Oslo, Norway. A leader in many fields of human endeavour, he was driven by ambition and principles. As the Fram Museum website states:
His ambition was not for personal, material gain, or for the sake of power; he had no time for these things. His was the ambition which leads to new possibilities for the greater happiness of humanity, a richer quality of life, deeper insight, understanding and broader knowledge – it was an incentive one should appreciate.
As a young man, Nansen displayed great athleticism and was a strong skier. In school he excelled in the sciences and drawing. In 1881, he entered the University of Oslo to study zoology.
In 1882 he was aboard the sealer Viking and sailed to the east coast of Greenland. He spent four and a half months there taking notes and observations on the seals and bears which became the basis of a book to be later published. The trip instilled in Nansen a love of the sea and ice of the northern lands.
Over the next few years Nansen worked as zoological curator at Bergen Museum and continued intensive research at the University of Oslo. In 1888, after successfully defending his thesis concerning the central nervous system of certain lower vertebrates, Nansen was granted a doctorate at Oslo.
Following the submission of his thesis, Nansen then turned his attention to an expedition that would cross the interior of Greenland. He planned to bring only five men with him and begin the journey on the eastern side of Greenland with no base camp on the uninhabited side of the island. Though this was deemed the musing of a madman, Nansen was granted state funding for his plans. With primitive equipment and only supplies that could be pulled on ski sledges, the six men spend from 15 August to 3 October climbing unknown mountains, crossing dangerous ice and persevering through exhaustion and privation.
They emerged from the unknown on the west coast of Greenland lauded as heroes and carried with them valuable information about the features of the country’s interior and of the life and culture of the inhabitants, the Eskimos. Nansen had an admiration and respect for the people he met on the expedition. He wrote: ‘I dwelt in their huts, took art in their hunting, and tried, as well as I could, to live their life and learn their language.’ His observations were to be published as The First Crossing of Greenland and Eskimo Life.
While serving as curator at the Zootomical Institute at the University of Oslo, Nansen was planning another expedition into the Arctic regions. He hoped to see the Norwegian flag to be the first at the North Pole. The initial plan of the expedition was to use the natural drift of the polar ice to slowly move to the Pole along with the ice. A strong ship would be needed for such a task and the Fram was to be that ship. He was also to take only a small crew on the expedition, in contrast to the larger body of men taken by expeditions from the British Navy and US Navy. He was to
build a vessel as enduring and as strong as possible; it shall be just big enough to carry supplies of coal and provisions for 12 men for 4 years.
Nansen took the Fram into the pack ice of the Arctic to the north-west of the New Siberian Islands on 22 September, 1893, and the ship remained in the pack ice until 13 August, 1896. However, during March, 1895, Nansen realised that the ship would not drift over the North Pole.
Planning to finish the trek to the North Pole, Nansen and Fredrik Hjalmar Johansen left the Fram with thirty days’ rations for twenty-eight dogs, three sledges, two kayaks and one hundred days’ rations for themselves. They travelled for twenty-three days but were forced to turn back. On 7 April, 1896, they recorded their furthest north position at 86°13.6′N, a new record. The two men wintered on Franz Josef Land and returned to Vardo, Norway, in August, 1896.
Alongside his gathering and publishing of scientific observations in the Arctic, Nansen was also involved in the movement to gain for Norway independence from Sweden. When the dissolution of the union between the countries occurred, Nansen was appointed as Norway’s minister to Great Britain in 1905 and held the position until May, 1908. He then resumed his research and led several oceanographic expeditions north into the polar regions.
However, this activity ceased at the beginning of World War I. Nansen became increasing interested and involved in international politics. For the best part of a year he served as head of a Norwegian delegation in Washington DC with the task of negotiating a relaxation of the Allied blockade to allow for essential foodstuffs to pass.
Following the end of hostilities, Nansen served as president of the Norwegian Union for the League of Nations and then from 1920 he served as a delegate to the League representing Norway. Across the 1920s, Nansen was heavily involved in international refugee issues and humanitarian crises.
In 1920, Nansen undertook the task of repatriating the Great War’s prisoners of war, managing to repatriate 450,000 prisoners in eighteen months.
In 1921 Nansen was chosen to administer the Council of the League of Nations’ High Commission for Refugees. Nansen invented the ‘Nansen passport’ and assisted hundreds of thousands of refugees across Europe.
The Red Cross asked Nansen to take the task of directing relief for millions of Russians during the famine in Russia in 1921-1922. Despite suspicions of Russia from governments, Nansen gathered and distributed enough supplies to save at least seven million people.
Following the defeat of the Greek army by Turkey in 1922, Nansen aimed to solve the issues surrounding Greek and Turkish refugees on either side of the border and divide. He arranged an exchange of about 1.25million Greeks on Turkey territory for about 500,000 Turks in Greece, with indemnification and provisions to make a new start.
In 1925, the League of Nations invited Nansen to address another humanitarian issue—the fate of the Armenian people. He drew up a comprehensive plan that foreshadowed those used post-WWII but it was not implemented. However, the Nansen International Office for Refugees settled about 50,000 refugees.
Fridtjof Nansen was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1922. He had a deep compassion for the suffering of others and was saddened by indifference to that suffering. He once said that ‘the refugees who were regarded as an intolerable burden would comprise a rich asset.’ But this passionate belief in the potential of every man and woman was not always shared. In 1926, Nansen was elected Rector of the University of St Andrews in Scotland, the first non-Scot to hold the honorary position.
Nansen died of a heart attack, at his home, on 13 May, 1930. He was buried on 17 May, Norway’s Constitution Day. King Haakon ordered the Norwegian flag to be flown at half-mast at his Palace.
In the preface to William Archer’s translation of the biography of Nansen, he praised Nansen’s work thus:
What Nansen has done, in the teeth of scepticism and discouragement harder to face, perhaps, than the Arctic pack-ice and the month-long night, is to lead the way into the very heart of the polar fastnesses, and to show how, with forethought, skill, and resolution, they can be traversed as safely as the Straits of Dover. While other explorers have crept, as it were, towards the Pole, each penetrating, with incredible toil, a degree or two farther than the last, Nansen has at one stride enormously reduced the unconquered distance, and has demonstrated the justice of his theory as to the right way of attacking the problem.
The skills that Nansen demonstrated in his polar endeavours were also put to use in his international diplomatic and humanitarian careers.
‘Mid ice and night onward and onward: ice,
Night unresisted heaving on and on
Though motiveless yet mightily my life
In passion of the pack; pressing on, on
From nought through nought: no-progress; passage proved
Prison; persistence, powerlessness: or Pole
Or no Pole, equal impotence! In patience
My soul sees, even in impotence, fulfill’d
The prophecy that built, equipt, launch’d forth
Her foresight. Yea; this power, this thrust and stress
At bend and burst broad, loud below in the bleak,
My heart holds; comprehends; conclusively
Bursts beyond, thrusts down, down and bounds above
In freedom of buoyancy. My ship, my soul
Are motive; are. sun and strength beyond aught here!
(from Reginald C. Robbins, ‘Nansen’)
Bain., J. A. Life and Explorations of Fridjof Nansen. London, 1897.
Nansen, F. The First Crossing of Greenland. Translated by Hubert Majendie Gepp. London, 1892.
Nansen, F. Eskimo Life. Translated by William Archer. London, 1894.
Robbins, R. C. Nansen: A Poem. Boston, 1898.