Fridtjof Nansen


Fridtjof Nansen : biography

10 October 1861 – 13 May 1930

The RGS president, Sir Mountstuart Elphinstone Grant Duff, said that Nansen has claimed "the foremost place amongst northern travellers", and later awarded him the Society’s prestigious Founder’s Medal. This was one of many honours Nansen received from institutions all over Europe.Reynolds, pp. 71–72 He was invited by a group of Australians to lead an expedition to Antarctica, but declined, believing that Norway’s interests would be better served by a North Pole conquest.Fleming, p. 238

On 11 August 1889 Nansen announced his engagement to Eva Sars, the daughter of Michael Sars, a zoology professor who had died when Eva was 11 years old. The couple had met some years previously, at the skiing resort of Frognerseteren, where Nansen recalled seeing "two feet sticking out of the snow". Eva was three years older than Nansen, and despite the evidence of this first meeting, was an accomplished skier. She was also a celebrated classical singer who had been coached in Berlin by Désirée Artôt, one-time paramour of Tchaikovsky. The engagement surprised many, since Nansen had previously expressed himself forcefully against the institution of marriage; Otto Sverdrup assumed he had read the message wrongly. The wedding took place on 6 September 1889, less than a month after the engagement.Huntford, pp. 168–173

National figure

Scientist and polar oracle

Nansen’s first task on his return was to write his account of the voyage. This he did remarkably quickly, producing 300,000 words of Norwegian text by November 1896; the English translation, titled Farthest North, was ready in January 1897. The book was an instant success, and secured Nansen’s long-term financial future.Huntford, pp. 441–442 Nansen included without comment the one significant adverse criticism of his conduct, that of Greely, who had written in Harper’s Weekly on Nansen’s decision to leave Fram and strike for the pole: "It passes comprehension how Nansen could have thus deviated from the most sacred duty devolving on the commander of a naval expedition."Nansen (1897), Vol. 1 pp. 51–52

During the 20 years following his return from the Arctic, Nansen devoted most of his energies to scientific work. In 1897 he accepted a professorship in zoology at the Royal Frederick University,Huntford, p. 452 which gave him a base from which he could tackle the major task of editing the reports of the scientific results of the Fram expedition. This was a much more arduous task than writing the expedition narrative. The results were eventually published in six volumes, and according to a later polar scientist, Robert Rudmose-Brown, "were to Arctic oceanography what the Challenger expedition results had been to the oceanography of other oceans."Reynolds, pp. 159–160

In 1900 Nansen became director of the Christiania-based International Laboratory for North Sea Research, and helped found the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea.Reynolds, p. 165 Through his connection with the latter body, in the summer of 1900 Nansen embarked on his first visit to Arctic waters since the Fram expedition, a cruise to Iceland and Jan Mayen Land on the oceanographic research vessel Michael Sars, named after Eva’s father.Huntford, p. 467 Shortly after his return he learned that his Farthest North record had been passed, by members of the Duke of the Abruzzi’s Italian expedition. They had reached 86°34N on 24 April 1900, in an attempt to reach the North Pole from Franz Josef Land.Fleming, p. 323 Nansen received the news philosophically: "What is the value of having goals for their own sake? They all vanish … it is merely a question of time.Huntford, p. 468

Nansen was now considered an oracle by all would-be explorers of the north and south polar regions. Abruzzi had consulted him, as had the Belgian Adrien de Gerlache, each of whom took expeditions to the Antarctic.Huntford, pp. 451–452, 463 Although Nansen refused to meet his own countryman and fellow-explorer Carsten Borchgrevink (whom he considered a fraud),Huntford, p. 463 he gave advice to Robert Falcon Scott on polar equipment and transport, prior to the 1901–04 Discovery Expedition. Nansen’s advice that dogs provided the best means of polar travel was politely ignored by Scott; nevertheless the two remained on good terms. At one point Nansen seriously considered leading a South Pole expedition himself, and asked Colin Archer to design two ships. However, these plans remained on the drawing board.Huntford, pp. 464–465