When I first learned about Fridtjof Nansen, it was because of his groundbreaking achievements in Polar exploration. He was the first to achieve an overland traverse of Greenland and set a record for farthest North during his Fram expedition. His unique approach to expeditions and inventive talents would serve as an example for other great explorers, such as Amundsen, Scott, Shackleton, and Peary. Apart from his Polar achievements, Nansen was also a dedicated Scientist and became a respected diplomat and humanitarian later in his life. His achievements in both these fields are just as remarkable as his Polar exploits and well deserving of a blog post on their own.
Before Nansen made a name for himself as a Polar explorer, he fully immersed himself in the world of science. In 1880, He chose to study zoology at the University of Kristiania, which led him on his first research voyage into Arctic waters aboard the Norwegian sealer Viking. This trip was in Nansen’s own words “the first fatal step that led me astray from the quiet life of science,” since he presumably got the idea to attempt a Greenland traverse while Viking was trapped in the pack ice close to the Greenland coast.
He returned to Norway, however, and dedicated his career to the relatively new field of neuroscience. Darwin’s theory of evolution led him to believe that by studying the central nervous system of ocean invertebrates, he could deduct principles about the inner workings of the human central nervous system. He published the first data of his research in 1886, in which he challenged the prevalent view of scientists at the time that the central nervous system was fused, but proposed that nerves only touch each other through a “dotted substance”. Nansen became one of the first advocates of the Neuron Doctrine, the scientific view of the nervous system prevailing today. His work predicted the existence of the synaptic cleft, a gap between nerve cells that is only 20 millionths of a millimetre wide. Impossible to detect with microscopes of the time, the structure of the synaptic cleft could only be confirmed following the invention of electron microscopes in the 1950s.
At the same time as Nansen, two other scientists were working on the same theory: Raymon Y Cajal and Camillo Golgi. Y Cajal published a paper on the independence of nervous cellular units in 1888, a year after Nansen’s doctoral thesis on the same topic. In 1906, Y Cajal and Golgi were awarded the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for their discovery, a prize that could well have belonged to Nansen instead for his fundamental contribution to our understanding of the central nervous system.
Two days after successfully defending his doctoral thesis, Nansen left for his Greenland expedition. He had started preparing for his crossing only half a year earlier but had taken great care to address every aspect of the journey meticulously. His trip would be the example on which Polar greats such as Amundsen and Shackleton modelled their expeditions. Among other things, he invented a new kind of sledge, established skiing as the primary means of travel, developed the layer system for clothing and pioneered a new type of spirit stove. Nansen became the father of modern Polar exploration.
The first crossing of the world’s largest island propelled him to global fame, and he turned his attention away from neuroscience towards other endeavours. His next expedition was an attempt at reaching the North Pole. Nansen relied on the idea that the Arctic pack ice was following a drift, that could take a ship trapped in the ice from Siberia to Greenland across the North Pole. At this time, little was known about the Arctic ocean. Modern oceanography was still a young science. For his journey aboard the purpose-built vessel Fram, Nansen devised many scientific experiments to be carried out by the expedition crew. Besides setting a new record for farthest North, Nansen’s Fram expedition undoubtedly proved the existence of a drift in the Arctic pack ice, as had been first proposed by Dr Henrik Mohn in 1884. Depth sounding during the journey confirmed the nature of the Arctic ocean as a deep, ice-covered sea without significant land masses north of the known continents. These were just the most visible contributions of the Fram expedition to science. Nansen took his time writing up and publishing the expedition’s scientific data. In the end, it would amount to six volumes of observations from the sciences of oceanography, geography and meteorology. His data is still being studied today. Several of the research instruments he invented for the Fram expedition are also still in use, one example being the Nansen bottle, a device to sample water temperature at specific depths.
After returning from his North Pole attempt, oceanography was Nansen’s scientific calling. He contributed to several research papers between 1900 and 1910. From 1920 to 1914, he undertook many oceanographic research voyages to the North Atlantic and the Arctic Ocean.
Nansen returned from his Fram expedition to an increasingly unstable political climate in Norway. The union between Sweden and Norway was threatening to collapse over the issue of Norway’s right to its own consular service. Nansen involved himself in politics early on, mostly through letters to local newspapers, speaking in favour of Norway’s interests. When negotiations between Norway and Sweden threatened to break down in 1905, Nansen published a series of letters supporting separation. Courtesy of his polar fame, he had contacts in London’s high society and used his influence to raise awareness for the Norwegian cause in the English-speaking world. Shortly afterwards, Norway declared its independence from Sweden. After the dust had settled, the new Norwegian king Haakon asked Nansen to accept the position as ambassador in London. His goal was to negotiate a treaty with the great powers guaranteeing Norway’s integrity. He succeeded in 1907 and resigned his post as ambassador in 1908.
The ambassadorship to London was Nansen’s first appearance on the political stage, but it would not be his last. During the First World War, he held several official duties, such as the presidency of the Norwegian Union of Defence. In 1917 he secured humanitarian aid from the USA for the Norwegian population, who were suffering from the loss of international trade during the turmoils of war.
The stage for his arguably greatest achievements presented itself at the end of the war with the birth of the League of Nations. With the horrors of the great war still fresh, the idea of an international council of nations, dedicated to resolving conflicts of interest peacefully, appealed to the great powers. Nansen, making good use of his contacts from his days in London and the USA, played a fundamental role in allowing full membership of smaller nations, like Norway, in the new League of Nations.
The first world war had left many parts of Europe in shambles. While the victorious powers now organised through the League of Nations, Germany and Russia were left to their own devices. Germany was not allowed to be a member of the league and Russia (now ruled by the Soviets) was isolated from all diplomatic relations with the rest of the world. The change of power there had left many German prisoners of war interned in Russia, and had also prevented Russian prisoners in Germany from returning home. This was the situation the League asked Nansen to resolve in April 1920.
The repatriation of prisoners of war was the first humanitarian effort by the League of Nations. It provided Nansen with a new outlet for his relentless energy. While visiting Russia, he encountered the suffering of the stranded prisoners firsthand. “Never in my life”, he said, “have I been brought into touch with so formidable an amount of suffering.” With the help of the international Red Cross, Nansen quickly managed to set up an effective network for the repatriation of prisoners across the Baltic sea. In November of 1920, he was able to report the return of about 200,000 men to their home countries. He continued his work until 1922 when in his final report to the assembly of the League, he was able to state a staggering number of 427,886 repatriated prisoners.
During his work with the prisoners of war, Nansen got a firsthand account of another great humanitarian tragedy unfolding in Soviet Russia. The revolution and upheaval had caused the Russian infrastructure to collapse, and widespread crop failure diminished agricultural production. The new regime was unable to distribute food to a large amount of the Russian population, leaving about 30 million people threatened by starvation. In August 1921, the International Committee for Russian Relief (ICRR) was set up with Nansen as High Commissioner. He quickly set up an operation in Moscow and began fundraising efforts. The International relief efforts went on until 1923. Though Nansen himself was dissatisfied with the amount of money he was able to raise, the European relief effort coordinated by his ICRR fed about two million people per day, and together with the American Relief Administration, they managed to save millions of lives.
Even while his efforts to repatriate prisoners and send relief to Russia were still ongoing, the League called upon him for another colossal task: the Russian revolution had left about 2 million citizens displaced. They had mostly fled the Soviet regime and were waiting for resettlement. On September 1st 1921 Nansen accepted the post as High Commissioner for Refugees and with it the responsibility for the stranded Russians. Once again, the turmoil in Russia proved to be a significant problem: in 1921, Lenin revoked citizenship for all Russian expatriates with the stroke of a pen. Any passports or official documents the refugees had in their possession were now null and void. But without official documents, there was no way to resettle them in western countries. Most of the refugees were fleeing from the new Soviet government, so getting new papers from them was an option few would consider. The refugees were left stateless. To overcome this, Nansen proposed a new kind of document, issued by the League of Nations, that would allow stateless people to travel, just like a national passport. These documents became known as Nansen Passports. Over 450,000 Nansen Passports were issued, not only to Russian refugees, and the papers were recognised by over 50 governments worldwide.
Nansen continued his humanitarian work for the League of Nations until his death in 1930. Among other endeavours, he negotiated a settlement between Turkey and Greece to resettle over a million of their citizens threatened by nationalist violence and sought a solution for refugees fleeing from the Armenian genocide. In 1922, his work for the repatriation of prisoners of war, Russian famine relief, and resettlement of Russian refugees was honoured with the Nobel Peace Prize. He donated the prize money to the Russian Relief effort.
He was a fearless peacemaker, a friend of justice, an advocate always for the weak and suffering.Lord Robert Cecil on Fridtjof Nansen
Fridtjof Nansen was a pioneer in many ways – scientist, explorer, humanitarian. He laid the groundwork for our modern understanding of the central nervous system. He revolutionised Polar travel and equipment and became the father of modern Polar exploration. His work with the League of Nations helped establish the principle of international responsibility and humanitarian aid and started a tradition that is carried on by organisations like Unicef and UNHCR to this day. Each of his achievements individually would make one man’s lifetime stand out. Together they form a larger-than-life legacy, which affects the lives of millions of people to this day.
We’re crossing Greenland in August 2021 to celebrate the legacy of Fridtjof Nansen as an explorer, scientist and humanitarian. We are working with the UNHCR to support their fantastic relief efforts for people who’ve been forced to flee their homes or have become stateless – causes Nansen started to fight 100 years ago.
If you liked this blog post, please consider donating towards our expedition or the UNHCR. We can’t do this without your help! Any contribution is appreciated!
Keen hiker and ÖAV trekking and hiking guide, in love with Nansen. Owner of the most walk-averse rescue dog ever. Ice cream lover, kit junkie, runner and mad software genius.