Fridtjof Nansen

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Fridtjof Nansen : biography

10 October 1861 – 13 May 1930

Student and adventurer

In 1880 Nansen passed his university entrance examination, the examen artium. He decided to study zoology, claiming later that he chose the subject because he thought it offered the chance of a life in the open air. He began his studies at the Royal Frederick University early in 1881.Huntford, pp. 18–19

Early in 1882 Nansen took "…the first fatal step that led me astray from the quiet life of science."Scott, p. 15 Professor Robert Collett of the university’s zoology department proposed that Nansen take a sea voyage, to study Arctic zoology at first hand. Nansen was enthusiastic, and made arrangements through a recent acquaintance, Captain Axel Krefting, commander of the sealer Viking. The voyage began on 11 March 1882 and extended over the following five months. In the weeks before sealing started, Nansen was able to concentrate on scientific studies. From water samples he showed that, contrary to previous assumption, sea ice forms on the surface of the water rather than below. His readings also demonstrated that the Gulf Stream flows beneath a cold layer of surface water.Reynolds, p. 20 Through the spring and early summer Viking roamed between Greenland and Spitsbergen in search of seal herds. Nansen became an expert marksman, and on one day proudly recorded that his team had shot 200 seal. In July, Viking became trapped in the ice close to an unexplored section of the Greenland coast; Nansen longed to go ashore, but this was impossible. However, he began to develop the idea that the Greenland icecap might be explored, or even crossed. On 17 July the ship broke free from the ice, and early in August was back in Norwegian waters.Huntford, pp. 21–27

Nansen did not resume formal studies at the university. Instead, on Collett’s recommendation, he accepted a post as curator in the zoological department of the Bergen Museum. He was to spend the next six years of his life there—apart from a six-month sabbatical tour of Europe—working and studying with leading figures such as Gerhard Armauer Hansen, the discoverer of the leprosy bacillus,Huntford, pp. 28–29 and Daniel Cornelius Danielssen, the museum’s director who had turned it from a backwater collection into a centre of scientific research and education.Reynolds, p. 25 Nansen’s chosen area of study was the then relatively unexplored field of neuroanatomy, specifically the central nervous system of lower marine creatures. In 1886 he stayed in Naples, at the Stazione Zoologica Anton Dohrn. Before leaving for his sabbatical in February 1886 he published a paper summarising his research to date, in which he stated that "anastomoses or unions between the different ganglion cells" could not be demonstrated with certainty. This unorthodox view, confirmed by the simultaneous researches of the embryologist Wilhelm His and the psychiatrist August Forel. Nansen is considered the first Norwegian defender of the neuron theory, originally proposed by Santiago Ramon y Cajal. His subsequent paper, The Structure and Combination of Histological Elements of the Central Nervous System, published in 1887, became his doctoral thesis.Huntford, pp. 65–69

Interlude and marriage

Hvidbjørnen reached Copenhagen on 21 May 1889. News of the crossing had preceded its arrival, and Nansen and his companions were feted as heroes. This welcome, however, was dwarfed by the reception in Christiania a week later, when crowds of between thirty and forty thousand—a third of the city’s population—thronged the streets as the party made its way to the first of a series of receptions. The interest and enthusiasm generated by the expedition’s achievement led directly to the formation that year of the Norwegian Geographical Society.Huntford, pp. 156–163

Nansen accepted the position of curator of the Royal Frederick University’s zoology collection, a post which carried a salary but involved no duties; the university was satisfied by the association with the explorer’s name. Nansen’s main task in the following weeks was writing his account of the expedition, but he found time late in June to visit London, where he met the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VII), and addressed a meeting of the Royal Geographical Society (RGS).