Nansen, Fridtjof (1861-1930)

Many consider Fridtjof Nansen to be one of the greatest men Norway has ever nurtured. Even during his lifetime he became a legend; he was the personification of a great hero; the first among sportsmen, explorers, research workers, statesmen and humanitarians. Long after his death millions continued to remember him as the foremost exponent of human compas­sion.

Fridtjof Nansen (1861-1930)

As a young man he led courageous expeditions to arctic climes. The first when he was 27 years old, when he crossed the inland ice of Greenland on ski, and then five years later when he sailed over the Polar Sea with the polar ship Fram. As a scientist he was a pioneer in a number of fields within the spheres of zoology and oceanography. During the dissolution of the union between Norway and Sweden in 1905, his quali­ties as a respected statesman emerged. After the First World War he devoted his energies to people in need in a way which gave humanitarian relief work a new dimension. Wherever Nansen turned his attention, there were lasting traces of his efforts.

Fridtjof Nansen lived in a time which needed a man of his stature. Through the different phases of his life he developed the skills necessary for the tasks which confronted him. It was as if he was called by time to answer the challenges which lay in wait for him.

In the years of his youth a widespread appreciation for nature developed in Norway - the mountain kingdom was dis­covered once and for all. Outdoor life became fashionable and those who developed physical fitness and stamina were the ideal. These were times which needed new ideals. Heroes no longer wore uniform or shining armour, but the white coat of the scientist or the worn furs of the polar explorer. Undiscove­red areas of the globe were waiting to be conquered, unknown seaways charted. This was a time for individual courage, sta­mina and will-power. For a man of Nansen's aptitudes it was impossible to remain unaffected by the challenges.

Some will say that ambition drove him and he would not have denied this himself. He did not consider ambition a lesser motive, but something which would facilitate human progress. His ambition was not for personal, material gain, or for the sake of power; he had no time for these things. His was the ambition which leads to new possibilities for the greater happi­ness of humanity, a richer quality of life, deeper insight, understanding and broader knowledge - it was an incentive one should appreciate. If through the example of his life and work he could awaken such ambition in others, he was happier and in greater harmony with himself. This was his appeal to youth whom he urged to seek the spirit of adventure in life, to listen to the call of constant challenge. «It is within us all, it is our mysterious longing to accomplish something, to fill life with something more than a daily journey from home to the office and from the office home again. It is our ever present longing to surmount difficulties and dangers, to see that which is hidden, to seek the places lying away from the beaten track; it is the call of the unknown, the longing for the land beyond, the divine power deeply rooted within the soul of man; it is this spirit which drove the first hunters to new places and the incentive for perhaps our greatest deeds - the force of human thought which spreads its wings and flies where freedom knows no bounds».

The Years of his Youth

Fridtjof Nansen was born in Christiania, later called Oslo, on the 10th of October 1861. His father was a lawyer in private prac­tice. Both his parents had been married before and each had children from their previous marriages. These half brothers and sisters, who were many years older, looked after Fridtjof and his younger brother, Alexander, during their childhood. The older half brothers especially, played a major part in lay­ing the foundation for the love of and affinity to nature which Fridtjof developed, and which followed him throughout his life. Their home lay at the edge of Nordmarka - an expansive area of forests and open countryside, with streams and fishing waters. This natural environment where he spent his childhood and youth helped to form his character. The group of youths to which he belonged organised sports competitions both sum­mer and winter, and he quickly learned that his physical strength won the respect of others. The Nansen family had restricted economic resources which gave cause for continu­ous anxiety in relation to financing the children's education. When Fridtjof had completed his schooling at the gymnasium, his father, therefore, advised him to apply to the Officers' Academy, where education was free and where his son, as an officer, would be afforded ample opportunity to roam in nature just as he wished. However, it transpired that Fridtjof began to study zoology at the University in 1881. Soon after he began his studies he received an offer which was to bring about a complete change in the direction of his career. A friend of his father's needed a zoology student for a whale and seal hunting expedition in the Arctic Ocean. The ship had a crew of 62 -and the student Nansen became its only passenger. On this voyage Nansen made his first acquaintance with the Arctic. Already then he became so fascinated by this hostile, savage part of the world that he knew he must return. Each day pre­sented new challenges in the struggle for existence, both for animals and man. The young scientist found inspiration in the study of animal life, of temperature conditions, sea currents, ice formations, northern lights - many kinds of natural phenomena every single day. At the same time the arctic en­vironment appealed to his artistic sense, as he experienced the play of colour and light, extraordinary ice formations, the ani­mal life and the unusual types of the human race. His sketch book was constantly in use, and he photographed incessantly. He was struck by the compulsion to return, he had to test his strength in the Arctic, but he understood that this always involved working with nature, never against it. This was a con­viction he reiterated on many occasions.

Even though the scientific results of this expedition were not immediately significant, it was during this voyage that Nansen made the first observations of the sea currents which run from Eastern Siberia over the Polar Sea towards Greenland. He found drifting timber which he originally believed to be American pine, but which he later realised must have drifted with the ice from Siberia. He found grey, organic spillage on the ice, and after his return home it was proved that this came from the land near the Bering Straits. This and other finds would be amongst the evidence which indicated that the ice constantly drifted over the Polar Sea from the sea north of Siberia. On this voyage the seed of an idea began growing in him that a vessel would be able to withstand lying frozen in the ice if it was suitably con­structed. In the autumn of 1882 he began his scientific studies at the Bergen Museum, where he had been appointed curator. There was a very rich research environment here, the leading source of inspiration being Daniel C. Danielssen, who had been the zoologist with the Norwegian Arctic Ocean expedition 1876-78. Another prominent personality was Danielssen's son-in-law, Dr Armauer Hansen who in 1873 had discovered the leprosy bacillus which made him world famous. Nature research workers from many countries resided for shorter or longer periods at the Museum in Bergen. Visits from, for example, Louis Pasteur (1884) illustrate the high standing which the research environment in Bergen had with contemporary scientists. This was at a time when the theories of Darwin began to receive recognition. Bergen afforded ample opportunity to study sea animals - Nansen declared that the ocean currents off the west coast of Norway were an Eldorado for zoologists.

One of the Americans who visited the museum wanted Nansen to take up a scientific position under Professor Othniel Marsh at Yale University. This presented a great and challenging opportunity for the young research worker, but instead he chose to complete his studies in Norway. Fridtjof Nansen's plans for his research work were made early and his first dis­sertation to be presented was highly praised by the experts. The project was a painstaking study of the minute parasites, myzostomida. Nansen's research of the nervous system of these parasites won him a place in the field of international zoology and his paper was published in a German scientific periodical. The next significant paper he produced was a study of the formation of the central nervous system in ascidia or sea squirts, and hagfish, myxina glucinosa. This was a preliminary study prior to his forthcoming doctorate, which he completed after having carried out a study tour to Germany and Italy. His thesis was entitled «The Structure and Combination of the Histological Elements of the Central Nervous System», and was 118 pages in length with 113 diagrams which Nansen had drawn himself on lithographical stone. The thesis was written in English with a summary in German. In order to secure a wide circulation of his results and conclusions, he also wrote two abbreviated versions, one in Norwegian with a summary in French for the Nordic Medical Archives and one in the Ger­man periodical «Anathomischer Anzeiger». In addition to completing the work with his experiments, he succeeded in publishing the thesis and abbreviated versions in four different languages in the course of two years. There is no evidence to be found at the Bergen Museum indicating that he received assistance with his work, only encouragement and support. During the course of his work on the thesis, he received an­other offer from the USA. This time the University of Indiana approached him, but Nansen again declined the offer. He was passing through a major stage of personal development during this time and was basically dissatisfied with his own situation, often having to force himself to continue his studies and to carry out the tedious routine work of the museum. In reality he longed for the Arctic Ocean and the free, wild life of the North. In an article he wrote for a geographical periodical he recounted his observations of the ice formations along the East coast of Greenland, and mentioned that it should be possible to reach land by walking over the ice, pulling the equipment on sledges. One of the few who had succeeded in reaching land on the East coast of Greenland, was the Swedish polar explorer A. E. Nordenskiöld. When Nansen heard this, he became even more eager to attempt it, considering as he did that it must be feasible to cross Greenland on ski from East to West; this idea persisted to preoccupy him. The implication of going in an east-westerly direction was that retreat would be impossible. Even though conditions might indicate that retur­ning to the East coast was the only alternative, this would be precluded by the fact that it would be impossible to make con­tact with the outside world, and no ship would be able to come to their aid. The attitude of burning one's bridges, leaving only one course available, the way forward, was typical of Nansen both then and throughout his entire life.

The majority of experts initially characterised the plan as the work of a madman. It was not considered possible that a skier without dogs and sledges could cross the inland ice, and it was considered irresponsible not to have a base as a reserve in an emergency. But the 27-year old zoologist had made up his mind and submitted an application to the University for economic support. Characteristically enough the application began with the following sentence: «It is my intention this summer to undertake a journey on ski over the Greenland inland ice from the East coast to the West coast». It was a dis­appointment to Nansen that he was not granted any money for the expedition but great was his delight when he was offered 5 000 kr from the Danish Councillor of State in Copenhagen, August Gamél.

Fridtjof Nansen and the five members of his expedition were faced with great difficulties and troublesome delays, caused by adverse weather and ice conditions on the sea and land around the East coast, and the ascent of the glacier could not begin until the 15th August 1888. By this time the Arctic summer was already on the wane. It was an extremely strenu­ous expedition, ascending to over 2 700 meters between peri­lous crevasses, with temperatures sinking to minus 45 °C and with no other equipment or provisions than what was possible to carry on the ski sledges. They also suffered from an acute fat deficiency caused by an error in the pemmican compound which proved to be fat free. But they reached their destination - because they had to. At the end of September they arrived at the West coast, and at the beginning of October they reached the inhabited area of Godthab, where they received the dis­appointing news that the boat from Godthab had left two months earlier which was before they had even begun the expedition across the ice.

The expedition had to spend the winter in Greenland and Nansen used this time to study the life of the Eskimo. He sketched and photographed and went hunting - he thus experi­enced to the full the primitive life which he loved. In his books he tells with sheer delight about some of these hunting trips -far from the worries of civilisation and surrounded by a feeling of complete freedom. Fridtjof Nansen wrote the book «Eskimo Life» (1891) after his return, in which he described vividly his love for Greenland and its people. The material he published played its part in increasing the knowledge of Eskimo life and culture, and established beyond doubt his ability to carry out systematic studies in the field of ethnography.

The six man expedition crossing the Greenland inland ice will always be regarded as a heroic achievement. In order to endure and accomplish such a feat in one of the world's most inaccessible areas, using only the primitive equipment avail­able at that time, required a high personal level of self-disci­pline and an iron will. Assistance from others was out of the question, there was no possibility for retreat, and no means of communication with the rest of the world; at all times they were dependent on their own strength, capabilities and judge­ment. The men who carried out this remarkable feat were com­pletely aware of the fact that the effort could cost them then-lives. The expedition was of vital importance to our knowledge of inland Greenland, which several experts had thought was ice free, and it also provided overwhelming publicity all over the world for the sport of skiing. Nansen and his men received an enthusiastic welcome in Denmark and Norway when they arrived with the first boat in the spring of 1889, and their safe return was celebrated widely in many other countries.


Women were attracted to Fridtjof Nansen. He made an impres­sion on them by his seriousness and by his helpless, often boy­ish charm. One of those who were impressed by him was the singer Eva Sars. She was born on the 7th of December 1858 and was the daughter of the pastor Michael Sars who was a pioneer in the field of marine zoology and who had been appointed professor of this subject at the University. Eva's mother, Maren Sars, formerly Welhaven, was sister of the famous Norwegian poet Johan Sebastian Welhaven. Two of Eva's brothers, the historian Ernst Sars and the zoologist Georg Ossian Sars, were also professors at the University. A sister, Mally, was married to the composer Thorvald Lammers. Eva was everyone's favourite. She was distinctly artistic, and could both draw and paint, but it was music which lay nearest to her heart. In May 1887 she made her debut as a romance singer and received great acclaim from the critics. Eva and Fridtjof Nansen became engaged on 1 August 1889 and were married in September. The couple soon moved into their new home in Lysaker in Bærum and at the initiation party Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson the writer, named the house Godthåb. Here Nansen worked intensely to complete his book on the Greenland expe­dition, interrupted by several extensive lecture tours to many parts of Western Europe.

Towards the North Pole

In the summer of 1891 Nansen commenced the preparations for a courageous expedition by ship over the Polar Sea. The plan was based on the theory that strong ocean currents from the areas north of Siberia, flowed in the direction towards Greenland and Alaska. Wreckage from the American Jeannette expedition which had floundered in the ice north of Siberia in 1879-80, was found on the south-west coast of Greenland several years later. This proved that the theory of the ocean currents was correct.

Nansen believed that if ice floes could drift right across the polar area, an expedition must be able to use the same route. In order to do this, however, it would be necessary to obtain a ship constructed in a way which would enable it to withstand the strain of becoming frozen fast in the ice. The principle to be adopted was to shape the ship's hull so that when the might of the ice pressed itself against the ship's side, the vessel would not be forced down, but upwards. It would then be able to remain relatively stable, until the flow of the ice had carried it into warmer waters.

When this plan was presented it was met with numerous objections. These only made Fridtjof Nansen even more deter­mined and self-assured. He was not, however, unaffected by what the older experts had to say. Several good points of ad­vice emerged, notably from experienced Norwegian seafarers, who knew the dangers of the ice. A strong incentive to this plan was Nansen's earnest wish that it should be a Norwegian expedition that pioneered the way over the Polar Sea. He also hoped that the Norwegian flag would be the first to fly at the Pole. The many expeditions which had attempted to reach the Pole during the middle of the 19th century had all failed. Many countries had placed considerable investments in these ven­tures, notably Great Britain and the USA. Under the leadership of naval officers, onslaughts into the icy wastes were launched which were more comparable to military campaigns than to research expeditions. Several hundred men participated in these unsuccessful expeditions and such large numbers obvi­ously required enormous amounts of food and equipment.

Nansen chose quite another point of departure. He said him­self that he would «... build a vessel as enduring and as strong as possible; it shall be just big enough to carry supplies of coal and provisions for 12 men for 4 years. A vessel of approxi­mately 170 tons (gross) would probably be adequate. It will have an engine strong enough to be able to operate at a speed of 6 knots, but in addition will also have a full rig of sails ...». Originally it was envisaged that the ship, which Eva named Fram - meaning forward - would follow the same route as the Jeannette through the Bering Straits. He abandoned this idea, however, because it meant that the duration of the voyage would be too long. The Fram would have had to sail through the Mediterranean, the Suez Canal and the Pacific Ocean and up through the Bering Straits. Instead he chose to follow the same adventurous route which Nordenskiöld had taken along the Siberian coast into the Kara Sea towards the New Siberian Islands.

The ship was built by the famous shipbuilder Colin Archer in Larvik, who together with Nansen planned and designed everything down to the smallest detail. The Norwegian state granted economic support and other financial contributions were also raised in Norway, but the finances for the expedition were not finalised until two weeks before departure.

On the 24th of June 1893 the expedition departed and after one month left Norwegian waters turning eastwards from Vardø. After having sailed along the whole of the Northern Siberian coast, they reached the area around the New Siberian Islands at the end of September. It was here that the Fram froze fast in the ice. The construction proved itself to be correct, the vessel was pressed up onto the ice and in this way the lethal grip of the ice which had crushed so many vessels previously, was averted. The slow passage across the Polar Sea now began.

Sometimes they drifted southwards and at other times they advanced relatively quickly towards the north, only to drift back again. The current was not particularly strong and it was a mental strain for the small crew of 13 men to endure the pas­sivity on board. At Christmas time they had passed 79° N and the speed was so slow that Nansen calculated that it could take 6-7 years to drift over the entire Polar Sea. In his most pessimistic periods prior to the commencement of the expedition he had estimated that it could, perhaps, be a voyage of about 4-5 years' duration. On the 2nd of February they passed 80° N and the temperature was down to under -50 °C. On the 28th of May the Fram reached 81° 34' N. At this position Nansen began to realise that they would not drift as far north as he had originally hoped nor would they drift over the actual pole point. For a time he struggled with his innermost self: Should he try to reach this point, or should he be satisfied with what he had achieved up to now? The scientific investigations carried out each day on temperature, ocean currents, ice conditions, etc. were excellent, but to be the first to reach the North Pole was an increasingly tempting challenge.

Finally he made the courageous decision to attempt to reach the pole on ski. He knew he could entrust the ship in Captain Otto Sverdrup's safekeeping and the crew had enough provi­sions of every kind to last them for years. He took with him one man, Hjalmar Johansen, and left the Fram on the 26th of February 1895. They lashed their equipment to six dog sledges and would, of course, be completely self-reliant during the whole expedition. No communication with the outside world or retreat was possible, and they would have no chance of finding the Fram again. They were left completely to their own devices on the path into the unknown. After they had reached the North Pole, they would have to try and return southwards in the direction of Spitsbergen or Franz Josef Land. In order to succeed, ice and weather conditions would have to be favourable; delays would mean that by the spring the ice would probably be impassable and then they would have little chance of survival, even though they had their self-made kayaks lashed to the sledges.

The first attempt failed. The sledges were too heavy and the ice conditions too difficult so they turned back in order to reduce the equipment load. The sledges were improved and a new attempt was made but this also failed. Finally on the 14th of March they left the Fram at 84° 4' N in a temperature of -32 °C and turned their course northwards. It was an inhuman struggle through the ice masses. The many dogs which for so long had been bound and confined on board the Fram, behaved in a way which caused delays. They fought each other, and continually bit through the traces which had to be knotted again - this was not easy when the tempera­ture was at around -40 °C.

At the beginning of April Nansen realised that in all proba­bility, it would be impossible to continue right to the point of the pole. The ice conditions were too difficult; because of open water they were forced to make long detours, and the incidence of screw-ice meant that they had to lift the sledges. Sometimes they struggled for 20 hours without stopping. On the 7th of April they were forced to admit that it was not possible to advance any further towards the north. They were then 86° 14' N, the farthest north any person had reached until then. Their own calculations lead them to believe that they were at position 86° 13.6' N.

We can only imagine what these two men felt when they were forced to abandon the direction of their journey, so near to the very point of the North Pole. In their books they say very little. Hjalmar Johansen says laconically: «Should have liked it if we could have got further. It is our consolation that we have done what we could and that we have even lifted a little more of the veil which conceals this part of our planet».

The return journey was, if possible, even more dramatic than the expedition northwards. During the first days they pressed themselves hard in order to advance as far as possible before the ice began to give way to more open water. Once they travelled 36 hours without resting. By the 14th of May they were managing with just two sledges and 12 dogs of the orig­inal 28 with which they had set out. Each of the two remaining sledges weighed over 250 kilos.

At the beginning of June they were forced to take longer rests. They were somewhat despondent, because they had long expected to see land lying to the south. There were also only six dogs left. In front of them lay long stretches with open water or slushy ice. There was little food left and for several days they had only eaten some gulls which they had been lucky enough to shoot. On the 220th of June they had to use the kayaks and they lashed the sledges across them. On top of this load sat the two remaining dogs.

It was a hard struggle as each time they had negotiated a stretch of open sea, they had to pull the kayaks up on to the ice, hitch themselves to the sledges and continue on ski or on foot through the slushy ice to the next stretch of open water. Their lives were in peril several times. On the 5th of August Johansen was attacked by a polar bear in an area which was so full of ice hummocks that there was not even enough space for the small tent. They were just about to launch the kayaks onto the water, and Nansen stood holding onto his sledge to prevent it from sliding in, when he heard Johansen shout behind him: «Get the gun!» Nansen turned and saw the bear throw itself over Johan­sen, who fell backwards. Nansen failed to reach the gun at once, as it was lying in the front of the kayak which by now had slipped into the water. He heard Johansen's calm voice politely saying: «You had better hurry, otherwise it will be too late»! Johansen had received a blow on the head from the bear, and even though he had been knocked over he did not faint, but lay right between the bear's legs. With both hands he had grabbed the bear's throat and was hanging on fast. The bear that had been momentarily distracted by the dogs strode over Johansen and struck out against the dogs with his huge paw, sending them rolling and howling across the ice. Nansen then shot at close range and killed the bear. Johansen was unhurt, but the bear's claws had grazed his face and white stripes appeared in the layers of grime and grease on his cheeks. «Everything thus turned out well, even though it could have ended so sadly», wrote Johansen in his diary later that evening.

Not until the 15th of August did they have land beneath their feet. They had reached Franz Josef Land, on the northern tip of the island. It had become late in the year and they realised it was becoming urgently necessary to prepare to spend the winter here. First, they had to build a shelter for their winter quarters. They hacked away at the surface to make a hollow and then surround­ed this area with stone walls which they filled as best they could with moss. A long pine-log which had been washed ashore served as the ridge-piece, and over this they laid walrus skin. There were many walruses near the hut and they shot several in order to make use of the skins, blubber and meat. They were also able to shoot a number of polar bears and seals, which would provide a food reserve during the long polar darkness. They used the skins to make warm clothing and covered the floor of the hut with polar bear skins. In order to preserve warmth, they refashioned the woollen sleeping bag, so that both of them could creep into it. Here they remained for most of the day and night while the storm raged in the darkness outside. Water was scarce, and soot from the primitive oil lamps gradually blackened their faces. But the friendship between them was good, and they even had enough strength to make plans for a new expedition after their return to civilisation.

It was a long winter in the «den», as they called the stone-hut. There was little to do, they missed having reading matter, but amused themselves as best they could with their almanac. They were also very homesick, especially at Christmas time and in this diary Nansen writes: «Now the bells of home are ringing the feast of Christmas in. I can hear the peal of the bells swinging through the air from the church steeples. How beautiful it sounds... Now the candles on the Christmas trees are being lighted, the children are allowed in and dance round in joyous delight. I must give a Christmas party for the children when I return. This is the time of rejoicing, and there is feasting in every cottage at home... But we are celebrating in our modest way. Johansen has turned his shirt inside out, and is also wearing his outer shirt underneath. I have done the same; but I have also changed my under-pants and put on the others which I had wrung out in warm water. I have also had a complete wash down in a quarter of a cup of warm water using my discarded under-pants as sponge and towel. I now feel like a completely new man - my clothes do not stick to my body as much as they did».

Not until the middle of May was it light enough or spring-like enough for them to leave the hut to make their way towards Spitsbergen. In the beginning it was difficult for them to cover long distances each day. During the long winter there had been little opportunity for exercise and their physical condition was not at its best. Most of the journey southwards was made by kayak. They experienced several dangerous incidents on their way - on one occasion their kayaks floated a long way off while they were on an ice floe but Nansen succeeded in swimming after them in the cold arctic waters. Without these flimsy vessels they were doomed.

On the 17th of June 1896, quite by coincidence, they came upon members of a British expedition which was on Franz Josef Land. It was a dramatic meeting, which can best be compared to the meeting between Dr. David Livingstone and the Ameri­can Henry Stanley at Lake Tanganyika in 1871. Nansen and Johansen were received warmly by Frederick G. Jackson, the leader of the British expedition. It was agreed that the two Norwegians should accompany the British expedi­tion ship to Norway.

Such a long time had elapsed since the Fram expedition started, that many had begun to believe that the whole expedi­tion had perished in the ice. There had, of course, been no pos­sibilities for any form of communication with the outside world since they became locked in the ice.

Just after Nansen and Johansen arrived in Norway in August 1896, the news was received that the Fram too was safe. She had drifted across the Polar Sea towards Spitsbergen, and as soon as the ship had cleared the ice, she set course for Norway. The Fram and her entire crew arrived in Norway only five days after Nansen and Johansen - a truly amazing coincidence. The members of the Fram expedition were given a hero's welcome in Norway and Fridtjof Nansen became world famous. Letters and telegrammes arrived from every corner of the globe. People worshipped this new hero from the icy wastes. Institutions and Societies from many countries had to wait their turn for him to come and give lectures about his experiences.

For the people of Norway such international recognition at this time was very welcome. The conflict over the Union with Sweden had erupted in the middle of the 1890s and many Norwegians felt the Union was a national humiliation. A strong wave of national pride swept across the country. Fridtjof Nansen naturally became a central figure in connection with this national feeling, he was one of the leaders the people needed. Here was courage, strength and endurance in abun­dance - a man who could undoubtedly meet the challenges and conquer the strongest forces around him.

It took some time before Fridtjof Nansen could settle down after his homecoming. He attempted to withdraw from public life with his wife, Eva, and their daughter Liv, who was born just before the commencement of the Fram expedition, but people would not leave him in peace. The Fram expedition had attracted enormous attention throughout the world and awarded Nansen a reputation such as no other polar explorer of his time had enjoyed. His history-making ideas and plans, the results of his research, his abilities as organiser and leader, his courage, resoluteness and physical feats in the struggle with the relentless challenges of the elements, were all equally admired. The scientific new ground which he had covered was of great significance, and to some extent of a revolutionary nature, for on the basis of the expedition's observations - expounded and published in a scientific work of six volumes - it was proved that the Arctic Ocean was several thousand meters deep, and completely devoid of islands. Previously many scientists had believed that this ocean was shallow and that relatively large areas of land-mass were to be found there. The scientific material was of far-reaching significance in the study of earth magnetism and the northern lights, for arctic meteorology, oceanography, zoology etc.

Nansen, who in 1897 had become professor of Oceanography at the University of Oslo, gradually became more and more interested in marine research and became holder of the Chair in Oceanography in 1908, a scientific sphere which he pioneered. His written account of the voyage and exploration of the Fram, «Farthest North», directed towards a wide public, was a universal success and he was invited to give lectures about the expedition in all the distinguished geo­graphical societies. The fame he had earned, and the authority he commanded, were to be of the greatest value to him in solv­ing the important tasks which lay ahead, but which would be of quite another nature compared with those with which he was occupied at the turn of the century.

The Artist

The most striking thing about Fridtjof Nansen was his impres­sive physique; athletic, strong and vigorous. Then there was the scientist - intellect coupled with the burning desire to carry out research work and abilities far above average. There was another side to him too - the artist. His diaries reveal the thoughtful, often meditative philosopher. In his own written accounts of his travels, the often factual, prosaic style occasion­ally soars to heights of inspired lyricism. Throughout his life he was fond of poetry and already as a young man had an extensive knowledge of both Norwegian and foreign poets. Of the English poets he was perhaps especially fond of Lord Byron and Lord Tennyson and as an older man he referred to «the love of my youth, Lord Byron».

During the time Nansen studied in Bergen, he took lessons in drawing and water colour painting and for a time his ambition was to become a painter. His teacher, Franz W. Schiertz, greatly encouraged him in this direction; but ultimately Nansen decided painting should remain just a useful hobby. In the 1880s he taught himself lithography which he was to find very useful when preparing the thesis for this doctorate.

There was a gentle, mild, wistful, dreaming air about the man which dominated the artistic side of his nature, and this dualism remained a part of him throughout his life.

The choice of a Monarch

When the conflict concerning the question of the Union between Norway and Sweden began to unfold at the beginning of 1905, Fridtjof Nansen found his place at the forefront of public opinion. Through writing and speeches he agitated for the disso­lution of the Union; the ultimate aim was an independent Nor­wegian foreign service lead by a Norwegian Foreign Minister. The crisis reached a peak in May-June 1905, when the Norwe­gian National Assembly formally ceased to recognise the King of the Union and began to explore the possibilities for obtai­ning a new monarch for Norway alone.

Fridtjof Nansen was appointed by the government to under­take a secret mission to Copenhagen to enquire whether the Danish Prince Carl would consider coming to Norway as King. After several meetings and conversations with the Prince, Nansen succeeded in persuading him to agree, on the condition that the proposal was unopposed by the Swedish royal household. In the late autumn of 1905 and at the request of Prince Carl, a referendum was held in Norway on the ques­tion of the monarchy. A decisive majority of the people were in favour of a monarchy in preference to a republic, and the most popular candidate was without doubt the Danish Prince, with his English born wife Princess Maud, daughter of King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra. Prince Carl subsequently became King Haakon VII of Norway.

Nansen's diplomatic abilities and extensive international prestige resulted in his being appointed by the Government as Norway's first Ambassador in London. He remained there for two years and formed excellent connections with the British royal household and leading British politicians. He himself, however, felt he was unsuited to the role of diplomat and wished to return home to Eva and the children and to his research projects.

The question of Eva and the children joining him in London had never arisen because he had always said that his stay there would be a short one. In November 1906 Eva travelled to London and remained until Christmas. They had an interesting and pleasant time together, attending concerts and the theatre, taking weekend excursions and visiting mutual friends. Eva gave conceits at the Norwegian Embassy and when King Haakon and Queen Maud paid an official visit to London in November, they participated in an active social life. They both travelled home for Christmas at Lysaker, but soon after, Nansen had to return to London.

In the spring of 1907 Eva again went to London and stayed for 7-8 weeks celebrating the 17 May (the Norwegian National Day) together with the Norwegian colony. King Haakon and Queen Maud were also present and Nansen held the main speech at the celebration reception. At this time he finally decided to return home for good at Christmas and a few months later he wrote his formal resignation to King Haakon. He was looking forward to working with other things and to returning to Eva. Alas, this was not to be. In November Eva became ill and before he reached home, she died of pneumonia on the 9 December 1907.

Eva's death affected him deeply. He had five children and after she died he was never able to give them the home he had wished. The children were often placed with friends of the family for long periods of the year, whilst he buried himself in restless research projects. The new, large house, Polhøgda at Lysaker, which was completed at the turn of the century, never became the home for the family which he had dreamt it would be. Instead, it became a fortress for himself where he could shut himself away in his study in the tower and write, carry out his research work and meditate over national and international problems.

Humanitarian Work

Norway succeeded in maintaining her neutrality during the First World War but Fridtjof Nansen was one of the most ener­getic spokesmen in favour of strengthening the defence programme. He believed that only by having a strong defence would the country be in a position to prevent a greater power from invading Norwegian territory. During extensive lecture tours throughout the country he warned the authorities against a reduction m the appropriation of funds for defence and emergency supplies. In 1917 he led a delegation which negoti­ated an agreement with the USA to provide food supplies to Norway. This agreement came into effect in 1918 and played a major role with regard to the supplies' situation during the years immediately after the War.

In 1919 Nansen was ready to face the task which henceforth would totally absorb him until his dying day, international, humanitarian relief work. He was enthusiastic about President Wilson's idea of establishing the League of Nations. It is typi­cal of him that, after having been elected Rector of the Univer­sity of Oslo, he replied that he could not accept the position because of other important commitments. In the main he was referring to his general efforts in support of the League of Nations. He had become President of the Norwegian associa­tion which supported the establishment of the League, but he had also received a request to organise aid to the starving people of Russia, who were in dire need following the revolu­tion. Nansen considered it an obvious humanitarian responsi­bility that such help should be given. He ignored the political complications such action would create, due to the fact that the Western allies had not granted the new communist regime diplomatic recognition.

This first humanitarian aid project was not successful - Nansen met with no understanding from the allies in Paris. Those who had negotiated the conditions of peace with the powers of the Axis, were not interested in extending help to the revolutionaries in the Soviet Union.

Prisoners of War

Despite the fact that his first humanitarian effort was not con­sidered successful, there were those in the newly established secretariat of the League of Nations who believed that Nansen was well suited to undertake another and even more significant assignment. During the war millions of prisoners had been transported to camps all over Europe - even to countries in Asia. There was no central body responsible for the fates of these prisoners, neither was it known how many there were, but it was vital to repatriate them as quickly as possible.

It was relatively simple to send home the prisoners who were in Europe, but from the Soviet Union it was complicated. Rumours which reached the International Red Cross told of almost desperate conditions there. German and Austrian prisoners of war waited in distant camps devoid of contact with their families, whilst many Russian prisoners of war were in the West. Some of them did not wish to return home to the new regime, whilst others tried by all means possible to return to their families. The Red Cross was unable to carry out repat­riation alone, despite the enormous efforts of volunteers in many countries.

On the 11th of April 1920 the Council of the League of Nations resolved to ask Fridtjof Nansen whether he could present a proposal setting out a plan to relieve the adverse conditions endured by the prisoners of war and arrange for them to be sent home. He was also asked to suggest how such a proposal could best be financed. Nansen hesitated at first, his scientific work still uppermost in his mind, but eventually he allowed himself to be persuaded to take on this task and was appointed the League of Nations' High Commissioner for Prisoners of War. He decided to accept the task both because of compas­sion for the prisoners in the camps who were enduring despe­rate conditions, and also because it was an important factor in attaining confidence in and credibility of the League of Nations. This was the League's first important task on a practical, orga­nisational level which was necessary to solve as quickly and as efficiently as possible and Nansen wished to be associated with it. He also thought that his part in the operation would be relatively short term, in that it would primarily comprise devising a plan which could be implemented by others. He even believed that he would be able to remain in Oslo and continue his scientific work, but to ensure the best possible administration he requested the services of an assistant, as well as a man from the League of Nations.

It soon became evident that Nansen was the right man for the job. In the first place he was an outstanding organiser in practical matters. Secondly he possessed a distinct air of author­ity due to his own special characteristic abilities, which inspired confidence. This in turn meant that he easily made contacts and was able to negotiate and coordinate cooperation between governments and other groups which had hitherto been enemies. Not least it was important, although difficult, to build up a certain measure of reciprocal trust between the isolated government in the new Soviet Union and the countries in the West. Nansen negotiated, mediated and brought about practi­cal arrangements; he built up an effective administrative appar­atus, obtaining money and credit, food, clothing, medicines, ships, etc. and coordinated the operations of the large humani­tarian organisations. To begin with there were negative attitudes from many quarters but the USA supported Nansen's plans and undertook the responsibility for the repatriation of the pri­soners to and from Vladivostok. This was the longest, most costly and most difficult transportation route and the American support was very effective. 9,600 prisoners were sent from Vladivostok to Europe in 1921. In the course of one and a half years, up to the summer of 1922, approximately 450,000 prisoners of war from 26 different countries were brought home and for many this meant being rescued from certain death.

The administration costs had been minimal, because Nansen was able to utilize the services of the voluntary aid organis­ations in many countries and he himself received no salary for his work. The collective costs were not higher than approxima­tely £1 sterling per prisoner of war and the modest accounts which Fridtjof Nansen presented to the governments, there­fore, made a great impression.

Confidence of the People

For Fridtjof Nansen the international humanitarian effort had been a test of human compassion and solidarity. «It was love of one's fellow man which would one day come to be the deci­sive factor for the future of mankind», he said. He was, natur­ally, disappointed that the governments of many countries first and foremost expressed formal reservations and presented counter arguments to the plans. At the same time it was a great inspiration that the people enthusiastically supported his work. They believed in what he was doing and they listened to his deeply felt plea to exercise tolerance, and to be willing to make sacrifices for the sake of one's fellow human beings.

Fridtjof Nansen could never understand or accept that tragedies such as hunger and need, the existence and plight of refugees, prisoners of war and persecution, could be conside­red anything less than human problems. This belief presented him constantly with new disappointments and defeats. At the same time it was a part of his strength, as it was an expression for something about which no one could fail to be concerned, and more than anything else his belief in goodness was a force which no one or nothing could shake.


In his travels undertaken in connection with the aid to the pri­soners of war, Fridtjof Nansen had been deeply affected by the vast need startlingly evident in many parts of Europe, as a result of the aftermath of war. Especially serious were the con­ditions in the Soviet Union where, as he heard from several sources, there was nothing less than famine gripping large areas. It was, however, difficult to obtain confirmation of this as the communist rulers would not admit that conditions were bad. and they withheld the information concerning the magni­tude of this critical situation for as long as possible. The Western powers had introduced a blockade of the Soviet Union, in order to induce a counter revolution. It was a severe strategy with which Nansen was fundamentally in disagree­ment, in spite of this strong pro-western attitude.

On the 11th of July 1921 the writer Maxim Gorky broke his silence, and directed an earnest appeal to friends in the West to help the many who were starving. A short time later the Soviet authorities themselves declared large parts of the Volga region an area of famine. The truth could no longer be suppressed and two extensive relief operations came underway immediately. One was led by Herbert Hoover in the USA. This was a totally American relief operation under their complete supervision from the outset, and they took control of the distribution of all supplies which were sent. Large resources were mobilised and gradually over 200 Americans were involved in this operation in the Soviet Union. The other relief operation was based on a concerted effort by a number of voluntary aid organisations, first and foremost the Red Cross and the Quakers. The opera­tion, however, lacked a central administrative and coordi­nating body, and pressure was brought to bear on Nansen to undertake the leadership of these voluntary aid operations. It was also hoped that with Nansen's important influence, it would be possible to persuade the League of Nations to grant funds towards the campaign against hunger. Once again Nansen hesitated for a few days. He had become absorbed in his scientific research work as soon as the work with the pri­soners of war was concluded, and had three large projects in hand which he hoped to complete. He felt it was impossible for him to divide himself in this way, but could not ignore his inner voice of conscience. The leaders of the International Red Cross persistently stated that the Soviet Union would only accept a Norwegian, Swede or Swiss as leader of the relief work, and this made it impossible for him to refuse the request. At a meeting in Geneva on the 15th to the 16th of August 1921, 48 dele­gates from relief organisations and 12 governments were pre­sent. They passed a resolution to request that Nansen and Hoover should lead the relief work for the starving in the Soviet Union. Both were appointed as High Commissioners for the operation. Herbert Hoover, who in March 1921 had been appointed Minister of Commerce in the USA, declined the invitation. Nansen accepted and a few days later began work on the practical preparations. The first meetings with the Russians took place in Riga and Moscow in August 1921, and the outcome was that the Russians entered into an agreement with him. «Doctor Fridtjof Nansen, High Commissioner for Relief to Russia, appointed by the Geneva Conference» was the first to be appointed, the other was Foreign Minister Georgy Chicherin. Several other agreements followed, among them one that the Russians should take up a large loan to finance the opera­tion. This, of course, was tantamount to admitting failure, which the Soviet leaders had not found easy to accept. Through the loan agreement the Russians were forced to admit that foreign financial donations were «necessary to prevent a cata­strophe which would not only lead to dire need for a large num­ber of Russians, but also have a lasting effect on the economic situation in Europe». This was the wording used when they delegated the authority to Nansen to obtain credit in the West.

Fridtjof Nansen soon discovered that it was very difficult to obtain financial aid equable to the vast amount of the relief required. The Soviet regime was feared and hated in many parts of the world; the communist government was regarded with the deepest mistrust, and many politicians saw the help to the starving Russians as a form of support for bolshevism. This time Nansen was not successful in convincing the League of Nations when he addressed the General Assembly in September 1921 on the subject «Need in the Soviet Union». He gave a gripping description of the crisis threatening millions of people, a catastrophe which was considerably larger than any­thing Europe had ever before experienced. Using harsh words he criticised the governments who refrained from giving aid, ostensibly because the Soviet authorities could not be trusted. In his opinion no one had the right to react in such a way when it was a question of saving hundreds of thousands, even milli­ons, of lives. He tried to convince the delegates that he could organise the aid so that it really did reach those for whom it was intended; he assured them that several voluntary organisa­tions had achieved this on their own. Fridtjof Nansen con­cluded by appealing to the General Assembly to request the governments of the member nations to obtain the necessary credit - in addition to prospective gifts. The international com­munity dallied and the suggestion was formally sent to the committees for consideration, in spite of Nansen's request that a decision be reached immediately. The committees expressed great sympathy, but no one would support the request to obtain money. The governments replied that they could not accept the agreement which Nansen had entered into with the Russians. Instead it was suggested that the whole Russian problem should be discussed at a conference in Brussels some weeks later.

In a renewed address to the General Assembly on the 30th of September, Fridtjof Nansen expressed his deep disappointment and criticised the governments' cowardly approach. In his opin­ion there was not time for new reports and long speeches - even while the delegates were speaking, people were dying of hunger and sickness in the Soviet Union. Was it possible, sole­ly from fear of the Soviet government, to allow perhaps 20 million people to starve to death? «In the name of humanity, in the name of all that is pure and holy, I appeal to you, who yourselves have wives and children at home - think what it means to see women and children die of starvation. From this place I appeal to the governments, to the people of Europe, to the whole world, for help. Hurry - before it is too late to regret». But the governments in the Western European countri­es remained unmoved to any significant degree. Many of the delegates declared that they supported him, but it was only moral support - money was not forthcoming.

In addition to directing the large organisational apparatus which such an operation demanded, both within and outside Russia, Nansen was also forced to lead the work of fund rais­ing. It was characteristic of him that he did this by appealing directly to the people, over the heads of their insensitive, poli­tical leaders. He wrote and gave speeches, he travelled round on lecture tours, he organised the collection of funds, he beg­ged and persuaded. «I see no other way for the salvation of mankind than the rebirth of the attitude - love thy neighbour», he wrote in an article. The people reacted spontaneously, and the money flowed in. There were some who accused him of supporting the bolshevists, but he dismissed such accusations with contempt, and emphasised that politics were immaterial in this case - this was a question of people in dire need, and the responsibility of everyone else was obvious.

By the end of 1922 the relief work was gradually dis­continued. This was primarily due to the fact that the Russians themselves claimed that all acute need for aid had been met. Reports began to materialise stating that the Soviet Union had begun to export grain to other countries. For Nansen and his fellow workers, this was incomprehensible. They had seen with their own eyes that the famine continued to rage over large areas. The truth was that the Soviet system could no longer toler­ate the damage to prestige by admitting that the supply service to the country's population was so poor and agricultural work so unsuccessful. Lenin and his colleagues were interested in procuring foreign capital for the economy - production should be extended by foreign aid. It was, therefore, inappropriate that famine raged in the rural districts at the same time.

On the 10th of December 1922 Fridtjof Nansen was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his humanitarian work. He used half the prize money to establish agricultural stations in the Ukraine and the other half was allotted to Greek refugees in Turkey. The amount of the prize money was doubled by the Danish publisher Chr. Erichsen, as a mark of his admiration and respect for Nansen’s efforts.


Long before the famine relief operation was completed, and while he was still engaged in the repatriation of prisoners of war, Fridtjof Nansen was drawn into a new, enormous huma­nitarian task. This time it was the refugees. War, revolutions and civil wars had driven several million political refugees from their homes - displaced, distressed, hounded people were spread throughout Europe and Asia; they neither wished nor were able to return to their homelands. They were often completely without the means on which to exist and many had no place to stay, being transported from country to country -lonely, unwanted, unemployed, impoverished. Many lived under the most appalling conditions of want and misery. In February 1921 the International Red Cross Committee and the League of the Red Cross turned to the League of Nations beg­ging for help for these wretched people, and suggesting that a special High Commissioner for Refugees be appointed, who, with a mandate from the League of Nations, could attend to this problem. They wanted Fridtjof Nansen to undertake this assign­ment and he knew he would be unable to tolerate the responsi­bility which a refusal of such a request would bring to bear.

Again he declared himself ready to take on the task, even though it was potentially extremely difficult. In the first place it involved a huge number of people, secondly, it was not a question of sending them to their own countries, but finding new homelands for them, and thirdly it was extremely difficult to obtain residence and employment permits for them in coun­tries where economic crises and unemployment were rife. A particular difficulty which also faced them was that many refu­gees had no passport or other identification papers whatsoever, and this often caused problems in relationship to the author­ities. Nansen solved this problem in a simple but radical way: he instituted a new passport, a type of international document of legitimation, which he persuaded more than fifty govern­ments to recognise. This proved to be one of the easiest parts of the exercise. It was more difficult to find places where the refugees could stay permanently, where they could find work and begin a new life. They were met with both inertia and a decided unwillingness to surmount the difficulties on the part of the authorities. Nansen never gave up, it was not his nature. He negotiated with the authorities in country after country, reasoning and persuading; he succeeded in carrying out arrangements under a nerve-racking, never-ending struggle to awaken the world's conscience. The operation constantly suffered from an acute need of funds; certain groups of refugees were starving to death and he could often only save them by using his own money.

There were many «crisis areas», but at an early stage atten­tion was drawn to the situation in Constantinople - or Istanbul as it is known today. From 1919 to 1923 Constantinople had received protection from the Western powers. Over 150,000 soldiers from the Tzar's forces were staying in the town as refugees. Some of them were helped into France, Yugoslavia, Greece, Romania and Bulgaria. However, 20, 000 were held in a primitive camp in Gallipoli, where it was difficult to obtain adequate supplies of all kinds. Finally the voluntary organisa­tions were forced to abandon their operations, but Nansen intervened using his authority and brought pressure to bear on governments. Czechoslovakia received 4000, Bulgaria in­creased her quota significantly, and several hundred were sent to Palestine. Altogether 44 countries received refugees from Turkey after earnest appeals from Fridtjof Nansen. The Russian refugee problem in Turkey, however, was soon to be totally overshadowed by an even greater tragedy. During the Greco-Turkish war the Greek army suffered a decisive defeat in the autumn 1922 in Asia Minor. It was forced to withdraw from Turkish territory and together with it, a stream of Greek refu­gees flowed towards their homeland; families who had been living in Asia Minor and Turkish Thrace for many genera­tions, had now been driven or were fleeing in panic, unable to take with them anything more than they could carry or drag behind them. About one million people were fleeing in blind desperation to the small country of Greece, without having the means to cover their existence. This could easily have become a new catastrophe, because Greece had no possibility of sustai­ning all these immigrants who were suddenly descending upon her. In its hour of need the Greek government turned to Nansen and asked him to organise an international relief operation. This he did, this time receiving the support of the League of Nations and a number of European governments who gave money in addition to food supplies, clothing, medi­cine, etc. Through this operation the immediate need was met, but it was no lasting solution; a million people were affected, torn from their roots, - what was to become of them in the future, and where could one send them? They could not return to their farms and land in Turkey such as the situation was between the two countries. There were also many Turks living in Greece who felt somewhat threatened and wanted to return to Turkey. Nansen reached a bold and highly unconventional decision - he devised a plan to exchange these two groups of people with each other! In the beginning the idea was received with bitter opposition in both countries, and many character­ised the plan as irresponsible and impossible to implement. These were reactions which were familiar to Nansen - and just as in his youth when doubts, misgivings and objections could not halt him when he himself was convinced he had found the solution, nothing could stop him now. The plan had the simple expansiveness which was so characteristic of all his under­takings, and he finally succeeded in persuading both the Greek and the Turkish governments to accept it.

This, however, was only the beginning. The plan had to be implemented, and the finances had to be found with which to make this possible. Nansen led the arrangements for both these operations. It was the biggest exchange of peoples in history: 1.5 million Greeks were moved from Turkish to Greek terri­tory, whilst 1.5 million Turks were sent in the opposite direc­tion, in order that they could all start a new life together with their own fellow countrymen. What this meant for these peo­ple is easy to imagine. This particular movement of people has undoubtedly had a large, political influence on the relation­ships between the two countries; they have thereby avoided a series of serious problems with minority groups and conflicts between them, which has poisoned the atmosphere between so many other states.

The Armenians

One of the most difficult problems Nansen encountered still remained. During the work in Greece and Turkey Nansen was confronted with Armenian refugees. These people had already been in almost permanent conflict with the Turks since before the First World War. Hundreds of thousands had settled in countries outside Asia Minor, many had come to the Russian part of Armenia, and others had arrived in Syria, Palestine, Iran and Iraq. Nansen was deeply affected by the tragedy of these people, and devoted many years of his life in an effort to realise President Wilson's vision of providing the Armenians with a land of their own and establish an independent Armenian state. In 1920 The League of Nations had promised to protect the borders of this new State, but neither the Turks nor the Russians would recognise them. It was one of the biggest dis­appointments in Nansen's life that this problem remained unsolved; the political obstacles proved themselves insur­mountable.

The Armenian refugees were stateless. They would not return and they had no other country to go to. Fridtjof Nansen