Oscar Wisting (1871-1936)
Wisting was Roald Amundsen’s most trusted and faithful expedition companion. For a total of 16 years he worked with and for Amundsen on board the Fram, the Maud and the airship Norge. Together they were the first to reach both the South and North Poles.
Oscar Adolf Wisting was born 6 June 1871 in Langestrand, Larvik in Vestfold county, and he became the eldest of 13 children. His father, Ola Martin Olsen Wisting, was a wagon driver and his mother was Abigael Helene Andersen. Oscar had to go to work early, and he left for the sea at 15 years of age. Seven years later he was enlisted in the Navy. He married Elise Marie Johansen (1871-1957) on 11th October 1897 and the couple settled in Horten where the Navy had its main base.
As with Martin Rønne, Wisting met Roald Amundsen in Horten in 1909 during an experiment with kites as possible viewing platforms over the ice. Amundsen invited Wisting spontaneously to join his Arctic Ocean expedition. When Wisting left on what became Amundsen’s South Pole expedition in 1910-13, he left behind a pregnant wife and five children. His wife gave birth to twins who, together with the couple’s only daughter Ruth, died while Wisting was away. In fact Wisting was mostly absent as the family father for 16 years, which resulted in a good deal of bitterness from the children and gave him a bad conscience later in life.
Wisting arrived at the South Pole on 14 December 1911 together with Amundsen, Bjaaland, Hanssen and Hassel. In the period after the expedition he was, at Amundsen’s request, more or less trained to be the complete handyman on the next expedition. He was given some training in doctor and dentist tasks, got his credentials as a tinsmith, went on a cookery course and studied navigation. In 1913-14 he was part of the group that fetched the Fram from South America, and in 1918 he left on the Maud expedition and was not home again before 1925. He had a visit from his wife Elise for five months in Seattle, but in these years he did not see his four sons, who all grew to men while he was away.
In 1922 Elise took over the responsibility for the two girls, Camilla and Kakonita from Siberia whom Amundsen had adopted and brought back to Norway after the Maud expedition. Elise became very close to the girls and found it very sad when they were returned to Camilla’s family in 1924.
While the Maud lay in the Northeast Passage, Wisting was given bigger and bigger tasks. He went on a six-month long sledge journey with Helmer Hanssen to the nearest telegraph station, and he was Harald Ulrik Sverdrup’s companion on his sledge trip round the Chukotski Peninsula in the far northeast of Siberia by the Bering Strait. After Amundsen left the expedition in 1921, Wisting was entrusted with the practical responsibility for the remainder of the expedition (Sverdrup was the scientific leader). He oversaw the repairs to the Maud in Seattle for almost a year in 1921–22, and he was captain for the last drift in the ice in 1922–25. He had been out on expeditions longer than most polar explorers either then or since. During the summer 1923 he had flown with Odd Dahl on what was probably the first airplane flight over the Arctic Ocean ice.
Wisting was only at home for a few days before he again left to help Amundsen on the airship Norge, which he joined on the flight from Rome to Ny-Ålesund, Svalbard. He was given the honour of hoisting the Norwegian flag on the airship during the takeover ceremony in Rome. On the flight over the North Pole he manned the elevation rudder, and in the night between 11 and 12 May 1926 he and Amundsen shook hands as the two first at both Poles. On 6 July 1926 the Norwegian parliament decided that chief gunner Wisting should be promoted to captain for his polar achievements. This caused some strongly negative reactions in parts of the Navy.
In 1928 Amundsen asked Wisting if he would join him on the search for Umberto Nobile and the airship Italia, but – and luckily for him – there was no room on the Latham plane to Svalbard, and he thereby missed disappearing into the sea with the man he had followed faithfully for 16 years. Wisting led a search expedition with the sealer Veslekari for the Latham, before he gave up expeditions for good and returned to a pastime from his youth, which was walking in the forests and mountains.
Wisting was the lucky owner of one of polar history’s most famous dogs: Obersten (the colonel). Obersten was one of the lead dogs to the South Pole in 1911 and one of the three which returned alive to Norway. He became a town character in Horten and was highly esteemed by the population there. When Obersten died, he was stuffed and exhibited for a while at the Ski Museum at Holmenkollen in Oslo.
On his retirement, Wisting and his wife moved to a house with a large garden, and he used much of his time working in the garden. However, in the last years of his life he was involved in the fate of the Fram, and it was he who captained the ship on its last journey, from Horten to Bygdøy in Oslo. During the work at the Fram Museum on 4 December 1936, he died alone in his old cabin, probably from a heart attack. The Norwegian government paid for his funeral in his home town of Horten, which took place two days before the 25th anniversary of the conquest of the South Pole.
The Fram Committee’s chairman stated at the annual general meeting of the Fram Museum in 1937: “The loss of Oscar Wisting must unfortunately be regarded as irreplaceable. His time allowed him to devote the whole of his great interest and capability for the preservation of the «Fram», and he achieved great work for this. He loved the ship as his child, and as such he treated it also. Captain Wisting was a charming person, and also for this reason we are sorry to have lost him.”
Oscar Wisting was appointed knight 1st class of the Order of St. Olav in 1926 and commander 1st class later the same year. He was also a knight of the French Legion of Honour, officer of the Order of the Crown of Italy and receiver of the Latham medal. His medals are displayed in the Fram Museum.
Susan Barr: Oscar Wisting’s biography in Store norske leksikon and Norsk biografisk leksikon
Fram Museum’s archives