About Fridtjof Nansen


Portrait of Fridtjof Nansen

Fridtjof Nansen crossing the inland ice of Greenland.

Fridtjof Nansen was not only a politician and world explorer. He also invented new technical devices including the so-called “Nansen bottle”, designed in 1910 by Nansen and further developed by Shale Niskin.

Fridtjof Nansen and his water-bottle: Authograph and signed letter from Fridtjof Nansen in English. Estimate: DKK 3,000-5,000 (€ 400 - 670)

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It all began in 1861 a little outside Kristiania, as Oslo was called then. Here Fridtjof Nansen grew up with his parents and siblings. His father, Baldur Nansen, was a lawyer – a strict and moralizing man, but who always backed his son up. His mother, Adelaide, was a strong-willed and athletic woman who introduced the children to skiing, among other things. Naturally, without having the faintest idea of the role which precisely this discipline would later play in the life of little Nansen.

As a young man Nansen studied zoology at the University of Oslo and was later employed as a conservator at the Bergen Museum. Here he sorted ocean samples of plants and animals from a North Atlantic expedition, while he was working on his dissertation on the nervous system of the hagfish – a project which resulted in 1888 in a doctoral dissertation. The structure and combination of the histological elements of the central nervous system.  

While he was working in Bergen he had the opportunity to take part in a sealing voyage to the Arctic and Greenland. It was during this voyage that he had his first important arctic experiences, and the idea of a skiing journey across the inland ice of Greenland gradually began to take form.

The father of modern polar research

In 1888 Nansen led the first expedition ever to manage to cross the inland ice of Greenland. There were a large number of elements of uncertainty in the trip. For example, it was not known then what was in the middle of Greenland. The journey on skis took 42 days from a position on the east coast of Greenland approx. 600 kilometres across the ice to the final destination between Umivik and Aleralik at Nuuk. When Nansen returned to Norway, he was world famous. From then on he was constantly occupied in writing and giving talks - and everywhere he was given a hero's reception. Nansen was now not just a big name in polar research, but also in the minds of the Norwegian people.

Farthest North

Five years later – in 1893 – he headed an expedition to the North Pole with the Fram, a voyage that took more than three years. The expedition never reached its destination, but nevertheless Nansen and a colleague reached 86° 14 N, the northernmost point then attained by any human being. The three year long expedition is described in Nansen’s perhaps most widely read work, Farthest North from 1897. The Fram expedition was of great importance to the new science of oceanography, and for Nansen it was a professional turning-point. As a professor of zoology 1897-1908 and oceanography 1908-1930 at the Royal Frederick University – later known as the University of Oslo – he continued to work with oceanic research, among other things, and obtained important results concerning the salinity of the ocean at great depths.

Norway’s first ambassador in London

Nansen was also a political man. In addition to his work at the university, he participated actively in the efforts for dissolution of the union between Norway and Sweden in 1905. He used his international reputation to advantage and his many lecturing tours abroad to spread understanding for the Norwegian view on the union with Sweden. Thus in Norway he became an important opinion former and wrote, as a contribution to this debate, the militant publication Norway and the Union with Sweden (1905).

Nansen did well as a politician and diplomat, and in the years following the dissolution of the Union Nansen was appointed Norway’s first ambassador in London 1906-08.

A champion of the weakest

After World War One, Fridtjof worked for the repatriation of prisoners-of-war and for aid to refugees. During the blockade of the revolutionary regime in the Soviet Union by the western powers, he tried to get relief supplies through to the Russian people who were suffering starvation because of the civil war. In 1921 Nansen became the League of Nation’s first High Commissioner for Refugees, and he made use of this position to create the Nansen Passport to help stateless refugees. Eventually it was recognized by most countries. In 1922 Fridtjof Nansen was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his extensive humanitarian and peace-making work. The award of the prize to Nansen won great approval all over the world.

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