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Fridtjof Nansen was born just outside Christiania (Oslo) and grew up in a rural setting. As a youth he was highly enthusiastic about outdoor life and often went on excursions in nearby wilderness areas. Nansen was fascinated by nature and he chose to study zoology at the university.
The young scientist
After completing his studies he worked as a curator at Bergen Museum, where he dedicated much time to exploring the structure of the nervous system of lower vertebrates. His research ultimately led to a dissertation on the central nervous system of the hagfish. He defended his PhD thesis 28 April 1888, four days before he set off from Oslo to lead the expedition across Greenland.
On skis across Greenland
The plan was to cross the Greenland ice sheet on skis, from the east coast to the west coast, in the opposite direction from what others has tried before him. Nansen had been to the east coast of Greenland before: as a student in 1882 he had sailed with the sealing vessel Viking, and after that he developed a fascination for all things polar. The idea of an expedition across Greenland germinated in 1883. The Greenland Expedition was a huge success – both as a springboard for Norway as a polar nation and for Nansen himself, who became famous both at home and abroad. He also gleaned a lot of knowledge from the expedition, not least because they were obliged to spend the winter with the Inuits on the west coast of Greenland from autumn 1888 to spring 1889. Nansen used his time to study Inuit life and culture, something that later proved beneficial for both Nansen and polar research as a whole.
The Fram Expedition
Nansen had a clear scientific goal for his expeditions. Prior to Nansen’s expedition to Greenland, many had assumed that the island’s inland regions were free from ice. Nansen proved that the island was covered in a thick sheet of ice. The Fram Expedition aimed to show that ocean currents could transport a ship across the Arctic Ocean, possibly taking it as far northward as the North Pole itself. The expedition never reached the North Pole, though Nansen and Hjalmar Johansen penetrated farther north than anyone had previously – to 86° 4’. But Nansen did succeed in proving his theory about the current across the Arctic Ocean, and the Fram Expedition essentially dispelled the theory – held by many – that the North Pole was situated on a large land mass. The scientific results from the Fram Expedition were published in six volumes between 1900 and 1906.
For several years prior to the dissolution of the Union between Sweden and Norway in 1905, Nansen had been interested in the political and social aspects of the Union. He became increasingly involved in diplomacy, and maintained that Norway and Sweden should be treated as equal states within the Union. If it became necessary, Norway should be prepared to break the Union. In connection with the dissolution of the Union in 1905, Nansen was sent as an emissary by Prime Minister Christian Michelsen to present Norway’s case in London. In this context Norway benefited from Nansen’s international fame. After his stay in London, Nansen was sent to Copenhagen to persuade the Danish prince Carl to become Norway’s king. This marked the beginning of a close relationship between the Norwegian royal family and Fridtjof Nansen. Nansen was also Norway’s first ambassador to Great Britain 1906-1908. The most important diplomatic task during this period was to negotiate the Integrity Treaty of 1907, in which the major European powers promised to support Norway against anything that might threaten the country’s independence.
Fridtjof Nansen was a great polar explorer, but he was even greater as a scientist. This opinion was voiced by Harald Ulrik Sverdrup. What Sverdrup means is that Nansen distinguished himself in many of the natural sciences – particularly oceanography and zoology – but also in other areas, such as history, ethnography and politics. After the FramExpedition, Nansen was appointed professor of zoology at the Royal Frederik University (which later became the University of Oslo), but he dedicated ever more of his time to oceanography and in 1908 his position at the university was converted to a professorship in oceanography. It was as an oceanographer Nansen did his most important scientific work, and he has been called the founder of modern deep sea research. As a newly appointed professor of oceanography in 1909, along with Bjørn Helland-Hansen, he published “The Norwegian Sea” which became a reference work in ocean research. Despite being in the midst of an intense period dominated by research on oceanographic principles, Nansen found time to publish his classic “In Northern Mists” which describes the history of travel and exploration in the Arctic up to the 1500s.
At the invitation of Russian authorities, Nansen undertook a long excursion in Siberia in 1913, which he presented in the book “Through Siberia” (1914). In the aftermath of the First World War he became deeply involved in ameliorating the dire conditions in Russia (from 1923 the Soviet Union). From 1920 until his death, Nansen was a member of the Norwegian delegation to the League of Nations. The League approached Nansen in 1920 and requested that he organise repatriation of the multitude of war prisoners – a task he took on with alacrity. By 1922 approximately 450 000 prisoners of war from 26 countries had been exchanged and sent home. In parallel with this work Nansen dedicated himself ever more strongly to other humanitarian efforts. In the newly established Soviet Russia, famine was taking its toll and hundreds of thousands of people were refugees. The historian Carl Emil Vogt estimates that around one million Russians received help through the relief work Nansen initiated in Soviet Russia. Nansen also made formidable efforts to aid refugees, in particular Greek, Turkish and Armenian refugees. In 1922 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his humanitarian efforts. Through his wide spectrum of accomplishments, Nansen left an indelible imprint on Norway and many other countries. He towers over Norwegian history. Fridtjof Nansen died 13 May 1930 and was buried – symbolically enough – 17 May, Norway’s Constitution Day.