I discovered Fridtjof Nansen one long ago day of my youth when grandpa Johnson and I were going through a stack of books he wanted to lend to me. Grandpa thought I’d be especially interested in a musty old book written in the 1890s by an heroic explorer of Scandinavian ancestry. He found Eskimo Life by Fridtjof Nansen and placed it inside the paper bag with several other books for me. Eskimo Life has haunted my mind ever since then.
Nansen was a larger than life, heroic figure who few people outside of Scandinavian countries have learned about. He’s someone the likes of a Nikola Tesla–a man who was once famous for his accomplishments, then faded into obscurity. Unlike Tesla, Nansen has yet to be rediscovered by popular culture.
Fridtjof Nansen had so many accomplishments, that writings about them could fill shelves in the public library. In this humble blog post, I only have room for a scant outline.
He was born near Kristiania, Norway (now Oslo) on October 10, 1861. While a young man in his twenties, Nansen headed up the first ski crossing of Greenland in 1888. This was just the first, of several exploratory adventures. One of his most famous, at the time, began in 1893 when he led a dozen other men on a three year journey into the Arctic regions aboard the sturdy ship, Fram. Nansen and a friend were able to trek closer to the North Pole than anyone else had previously attempted.
Nansen’s unorthodox, devil-may-care attitudes were also evident in his intellectual life. Before his Greenland adventures, Nansen was appointed zoology curator at the Bergen museum. His scholarly papers and superb drawings are still studied today. His most noteworthy paper is now considered to be a classic work. “The Structure and Combination of Histological Elements of the Central Nervous System” helped Nansen earn a Ph.D from the University of Kristiania.
Following Nansen’s three year hiatus for the Fram Adventure, the University of Kristiania established a professorship in zoolology which he filled. However, his curious mind shifted interest towards physical oceanography. From 1896 to 1917, most of his time was devoted to scientific research. He also helped establish the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea.
Throughout the early 20th century, Nansen either sailed on his own accord or accompanied others on voyages to various parts of the Atlantic Ocean. A few of his scientific contributions include explanations of wind-driven currents in the oceans, studies of deep water and bottom water, plus improved designs of measuring instruments.
Certainly, any of these accomplishments would make any life complete and fulfilled. However, Nansen had much more energy, talent, and intelligence to satisfy. He had a nagging interest in the political life of nations and peoples. He was a major figure in discussions as the dissolution of the Norway-Sweden Union took place in the early 1900s.
He served as Norway’s first foreign minister to London from 1906 to 1908. During the Great War, Nansen was appointed to lead a delegation to the United States to negotiate a trade agreement regarding esential, strategic supplies to Norway. The agreement was affirmed.
Nansen was the leading delegate for Norway at the first meeting of the League of Nations in 1920. It was during this latter phase that Nansen’s deep concern for humanitarian issues was demonstrated. Nanson was placed in charge of the organization’s first major humanitarian effort. He negotiated the repatriation of more than 450,000 prisoners of war.
While the League of Nations assignment was taking place, Nansen was also asked by the International Red Cross to find ways to help the famine-plagued Soviet Union. In mid-August of 1921, 13 national governments and 48 Red Cross affiliated organizations voted to appoint Nansen as high commissioner to lead the relief effort. By the 27th of the month he already signed an agreement with the USSR that authorized a Moscow office for the “International Russian Relief Executive”. Although funding by the League of Nations was denied, Nansen succeeded in raising the needed money and supplies from private charities.
Nansen was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1922. He dedicated the winnings towards more international relief efforts, mainly in the Ukraine.
Nansen still had more ideas. In July of 1922, he advocated an international system to produce identification cards for refugees and other displaced people. An agreement was passed and signed in Geneva, Switzerland to issue the documents. People called the card the “Nansen Passport”.
By 1931, in his honor, the “Nansen International Office for Refugees” was formed to oversee efforts to help Armenian refugees from Turkey, White Russian anti-communists, and Jewish refugees from Nazi ruled Germany. That organization won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1938.
The fearless adventurer, scholar, author, diplomat, peacemaker, and advocate for the well-being of the suffering and weak, suffered a heart attack at his home in Norway on May 13, 1930 and died. He was given a secular state funeral. His cremains were laid to rest beneath a tree near his home. Many polar geographical features have been given his name as tributes.