Explorer, scientist, oceanographer, athlete, international statesman, humanitarian, Nobel laureate - Fridtjof Nansen was a man accomplished in many fields. His leadership and dedication to his chosen tasks revolutionized scientific understanding of the oceans and saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of refugees. In 1999, readers of his country's newspaper Aftenposten voted him the most prominent Norwegian of the 20th century over such illustrious countrymen as Thor Heyerdahl, Roald Amundsen and Edvard Munch, and two popular kings.
Fridtjof Nansen was born in Norway at Store Frøen near Oslo in 1861. His was a prosperous childhood; his father was a contemplative and deeply moral lawyer, his mother an athletic and industrious housewife. He would exhibit qualities of both his parents at various points in his life.
As a child Nansen learned to skate, tumble, swim, and ski; as a young man he would go on long ski trips with a minimum of gear, accompanied only by his dog. He won the national cross-country skiing championship twelve times in a row, and broke the world record for one-mile skating at eighteen years of age. The physical properties - physique, stamina, and endurance - as well as the psychological ones - determination and self-reliance - that would get him through so many future accomplishments were already well in evidence.
A good student, Nansen excelled in science and drawing. Although he preferred mathematics and physics, he decided to major at zoology in university, hoping it would give him more time outdoors. He entered the University of Oslo in 1881, and in 1882, at a tutor's suggestion, he took passage on the sealer vessel the Viking to the east coast of Greenland. He made sketches and observations of seals and bears that years later he would turn into a book, and also began to keep journals. He was fascinated by the world of sea and ice that he saw and the glimpses he caught of this Greenland coast, visited only by the Inuit, never by white men. He was also intrigued by a piece of driftwood he spotted on the ice. He wondered where it had come from, and speculated that it must have come from Siberia.
Returning to Norway, Nansen, only 20, was offered to post of zoological curator at the Bergen Museum. He spend the next six years bent over a microscope, studying the central nervous system of lower vertebrates; he successfully defended his dissertation for a doctorate in 1888. He also skied across Norway, from Bergen to Oslo and back.
And all the time he had been thinking about that tantalizing glimpse of the unexplored east coast of Greenland. He planned to cross the Greenland icecap, beginning on the uninhabited east coast and travelling to the inhabited west coast. His reasoning was two-fold: to start from the west would probably cause the trip to be twice as long, for no boat would wait at the inhospitable east coast for a party to reach it, so they would have to retrace their steps back to the west; but also to start from a position of no retreat would be to burn his bridges and force the party forward: once they had set out, there could be no return. And so it was to be.
In June 1888 a six-man party rowed their small open boats away from their ship, expecting to reach shore in two days. Twelve days later they finally reached land, south of where they had planned to be: they were forced far off route by winds and tides. They scaled enormous ice cliffs onto the icecap and finally, one month after they had left the ship, began the actual trek across the ice. It took two months to cross the icecap, but the party survived temperatures of minus fifty degrees centigrade and extreme danger and privation to emerge on the west coast in late September. No boats would leave Greenland till the following spring, so Nansen studied the Inuit, collecting material for a book he would later publish, Eskimo Life (1891).
Back in Norway, Nansen worked a curator of the Zootomical Institute at the University of Oslo, published books and articles, and planned a foray into the Arctic. He wanted to test his theory that a current carried polar ice from east to west, so he had a ship designed that could withstand the immense pressures of the ice. He planned to sail it to Siberia, let it be frozen into the ice, and travel with it to see where it would be carried. The Fram ("Forward") is today in a special museum outside Oslo, where you can see the squat round vessel. Its hull is made of three layers oak and greenheart braced with heavy beams in all directions, and clad with iron fore and aft. The rounded shape would give the ice nothing to grip, so the ship would be pushed upward rather than crushed when pressure was applied. After years of planning, the Fram embarked in June 1893 with provisions for six years and fuel oil for eight, though Nansen thought the trip would take two or three years. He was leaving behind his wife, Eva, and a six-month old daughter, Liv.
The Fram was soon frozen solid in the ice, and began to drift, but much more slowly than Nansen had thought. After many months it had moved only slightly, and it became clear that the ice would not take them over the North Pole, so Nansen and one of his men, Hjalmar Johansen, took thirty days' rations for twenty-eight dogs, three sleds, two kayaks, and a hundred days' rations for themselves and set off. They knew they could not reunite with the ship, so their plan was to try and reach the Pole, and then head for Franz Josef Land. The going was tougher than they expected, and though they came closer to the Pole than any man had, after three weeks they turned back.
Five months after they had left the Fram they reached Franz Josef Land, where they build a small stone hut and spent the winter. In May they started south, and incredibly, while travelling, they met Frederick Jackson, the leader of a British exploratory expedition; Nansen would later name the island where he and Johansen had wintered Jackson Island after this man. In August Jackson's crew set the Norwegians down in Vardø, north Norway; bizarrely enough, on that same day the Fram reached open water. Nansen and Johansen were reunited with the Fram some weeks later. By September they were home.
Nansen was a hero in Norway for his brave adventuring, but he was also a respected scientist. The expedition had proved that on the Eurasian side of the Pole there was no land, just a deep ice-covered ocean. They had discovered a deep warm current of Atlantic water below the polar ice, and had compiled important and useful information on currents, winds, and temperatures. The emerging science of oceanography had received a major boost, and this new field became Nansen's major focus over the next several years. Now a research professor at the University of Oslo, Nansen published volumes of observations from the voyage, and was appointed professor of oceanography in 1908.
Even as he continued his scientific studies, he interrupted his research in 1905 when relations between Sweden and Norway reached a crisis. He urged Norwegian independence and travelled to Britain to present Norway's case; finally a treaty was signed. Nansen's stature at home was such that he was asked to become prime minister, an offer he declined, but when he was asked to serve as ambassador to Britain, he accepted, and he served in London from 1906-8. For years he had been planning an expedition to the South Pole, but as it became increasingly clear that he could not carry out the trip, he reluctantly surrendered Fram to Roald Amundsen.
Meanwhile, World War I erupted, and oceanographic research ground to a halt. Norway remained neutral but was hard-hit by the Allied blockade on food shipments; Nansen spent a year in Washington, D.C. successfully negotiating on behalf of Norway for a relaxation of the restrictions.
Nansen was horrified by war and saw great promise for the League of Nations; from 1920 to his death he was Norway's delegate to the League, arguing tirelessly for recognition of the rights of smaller nations that had little voice in an organization dominated by superpowers.
In 1920 the League asked him to oversee the repatriation of half a million prisoners of war, many still being held in Russia, who had fought for Germany and its allies and were now dying of cold and hunger. He overcame huge obstacles, including lack of funds and Russian reluctance, and managed over the next eighteen months to repatriate over 400,000 men.
At the urging of the Red Cross, Nansen turned his attention to Russia, where a massive famine and subsequent epidemics threatened the lives of millions. He pleaded with the League, but they were not interested in helping Communists; Nansen was able to raise some funds and saved, it is thought, millions of people, but in spite of his best efforts hundreds of thousands of Russians died. Nansen was deeply affected by what he saw as a failure; he was not accustomed to defeat, especially when it caused suffering and death. He was also deeply disappointed that the League had not lived up to what he saw as its potential.
Nevertheless, he continued to work for the cause of international cooperation. In 1921 the League instituted its High Commission for Refugees, and Nansen was asked to head it. He invented the "Nansen Passport" for stateless refugees who had no documentation, and over the next nine years hundreds of thousands of Russian, Turkish, Armenian, Assyrian, and other refugees were resettled using methods that were new at the time, but have now become accepted: custodial care, resettlement, emigration, integration.
In 1922 he took on the problem of Greek refugees who had been living in Asia Minor and wanted to return to the poverty-stricken country. He oversaw the exchange of about 1.25 million Greeks living in Turkey for half a million Turks living in Greece, a massive undertaking which he managed with typical skill and vision. In recognition of this and his previous work for refugees and the famine-striken, he was given the 1922 Nobel Prize in Peace. He donated the money to international relief efforts.
In 1925, he began to work to try to save the remnants of the Armenians, who then, as now, faced extinction. He was again deeply disturbed when his political, industrial, and financial plan for the creation of an Armenian homeland was not implemented by the League, and he tendered his resignation, but the League refused to accept it. Armenians apparently still name boys Nansen, and have featured the Norwegian on a stamp.
Nansen had worked hard for disarmament and for the convening of a conference to pursue the topic. The final resolution to convene the conference was made at the Assembly of the League in 1930, but sadly Nansen's place in the hall was vacant: he had died peacefully some months before, in Norway. He was buried on May 17, Norway's Independence Day.
Thanks toalight for a few pertinent details.