Fridtjof Nansen

Fridtjof Wedel-Jarlsberg Nansen (born October 10, 1861 on the estate Store Froen, near Christiania – died May 13, 1930 in Lysaker, outside Oslo) was a Norwegian explorer, scientist and diplomat. He was married to Eva Nansen (died 1907). Nansen was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1922 for his work as a League of Nations High Commissioner. He was the father of noted architect and humanist Odd Nansen and the grandfather of Eigil Nansen.


The Arctic exploration

Nansen made his first voyage to Greenland waters in a sealing ship in 1882, and in 1888 succeeded in crossing the Greenland icefield on skis from east to west with Otto Sverdrup, Olaf Dietrichson, Kristian Kristiansen Trana, Samuel Balto and Ole Nielsen Ravna. The ship was called Fram. In 1893, he sailed to the Arctic in the Fram (a purpose-built, round-hulled ship later used by Roald Amundsen to transport his expedition to Antarctica) which was deliberately allowed to drift north through the sea ice, a journey that took more than three years. During this first crossing of the Arctic Ocean the expedition became the first to discover the existence of a deep polar basin.

When, after more than one year in the ice it became apparent that Fram would not reach the North Pole, Nansen, accompanied by Hjalmar Johansen (1867–1913), continued north on foot when the Fram reached 84° 4´ N. This was a daring decision, as it meant leaving the ship not to return, and a return journey over drifting ice to the nearest known land some five hundred miles south of the point where they started. Nansen and Johansen started north on March 14, 1895 with three sledges, two kayaks and twenty-eight dogs. On April 8, 1895, they reached 86° 14´ N, the highest latitude then attained. The two men then turned around and started back, and did not find the land they expected at 83°N (it did not exist). In June 1895 they had to use their kayaks to cross open leads of water, and on July 24, they came across a series of islands. Here they built a hut of moss, stones, and snow, and wintered, surviving on walrus blubber and polar bear meat. In May of the following year (1896), they started off again for Spitsbergen. After travelling for a month, not knowing where they were, they happened upon the British Jackson-Harmsworth Expedition (led by Frederick George Jackson) whose party were wintering on the island. Jackson informed them that they were in fact on Franz Josef Land. Finally, Nansen and Johansen made it back to Vardo in the north of Norway.

He was the first to note and describe dead water.

Academic career and scientific works
Nansen was a professor of zoology and later oceanography at the Royal Frederick University in Oslo and contributed with groundbreaking works in the fields of neurology and fluid dynamics.


Nansen was one of the founders of the neuron theory stating that the neural network consists of individual cells communicating with each other. He set out to study the nervous system of invertebrates and soon he became preoccupied with the question of how nerve cells communicated with each other. At that time, there was a major discussion whether the nervous system was a continuous structure of interconnected cells like the circulatory system (reticular theory) or if it consisted of separate neurons as key elements (the neuron doctrine).

It was a clever choice to look at this basic features of the nervous system in model organisms with a lucid nervous system, however his microscope could not tell him the answers without utilizing the newest technology developed by the nobel laureate Camillo Golgi. In February 1886 he took off to Italy, to Pavia, to work with Golgi. After mastering the technique during his short stay, he continued his explorations of the nervous system at the marine biological station in Napels, established by Dohrn, where he worked among others on amphioxus. Most probably, he was the first to apply the Golgi technique to lower vertebrates (chordates).

His work developed in line with and supported the work of contemporary scientists such as His and Forel, in showing that nerve cells all were enclosed by membranes, implying that nerve cells are discontinuous. He published these major contributions to the currently well accepted neuronal theory of the brain in German and English in established international journals, but it was not until he translated these papers into Norwegian that he received his doctorate degree in 1887 in Oslo. In this, he not only became the godfather of Norwegian (Scandic) neuroscience, he also became one of the first proponents of the neuronal theory of the brain as it prevails today.

Ramon y Cajal was the major spokesman for the neuron doctrine, which states that the key unit of the nervous system is a single neuron and neurons communicate with each other via specialized junctions called synapses, and together with Golgi they received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1906 for their studies of the structure of the nervous system.

Nansen did extensive research into the behavior and origin of ocean currents, following his experiences from the Fram expedition. He was, together with the Swedish mathematician V. Walfrid Ekman, deeply involved in the discovery of how currents are generated from the planetary rotation and the formulation of the theory of the Ekman spiral that explains the phenomenon. He also invented a bottle for collection of water samples from various depths known as the Nansen bottle that, further developed by Shale Niskin, is still in use.

Diplomatic and political career
Before Norway’s dissolution of its union with Sweden on 7 June 1905, Nansen had been a devoted republican, along with other prominent Norwegians like the authors Bjornstjerne Bjornson and Arne Garborg. However, after hearing compelling arguments from Sigurd Ibsen and others, Nansen changed his position (as did Bjornson and Garborg) and was thereafter influential in convincing Prince Carl of Denmark that he should accept the position as king of Norway. In a referendum where the Norwegian electorate chose between a monarchy and a republic, Nansen campaigned for monarchy, certain it was the right thing for Norway, although the general view was that Nansen would be elected President if Norwegians chose republican rule. Carl was crowned as King Haakon VII after the referendum results indicated Norwegians’ strong preference for monarchy.

Following Norway’s independence, Nansen was appointed as the Norwegian ambassador in London (1906-08), becoming a close friend of King Edward VII and assuring support from Britain in the campaign for an international guarantee of Norwegian territorial integrity.

In the period between the wars Nansen’s admirers made an unsuccessful effort to make him Prime Minister in a broad government based on all the non-socialist parties. This was proposed to counter the growth of Arbeiderpartiet, the Norwegian labour party. In 1925 Nansen co-founded Fedrelandslaget (The Fatherland Society), an anti-socialist political organisation that folded at the outbreak of the Second World War.

The League of Nations
After World War I, Nansen became involved in the League of Nations as a High Commissioner for several initiatives, including organisation of exchange of war prisoners and help to Russian refugees, in which campaign he originated the Nansen passport for refugees. He was aided by Vidkun Quisling in his work to help the Russian peasants. In 1917 and 1918 Nansen was in Washington D.C, he convinced the allies to allow essential food supplies to be brought through their blockade. In 1920 the League of Nations asked Nansen to send home many prisoners of war, most being in Russia. With limited funds Nansen sent home 450,000 within a year and a half. In 1921 Nansen was asked by the League of Nations to administer the newly formed High Commission for Refugees. Nansen created the “Nansen passport” for refugees, it eventually became recognised by fifty-two governments. Red Cross then asked him in 1921 to organise a relief program for the millions of Russians dying in the Russian Famine of 1921-1922. The West was suspicious that the Russian famine was created by government mismanagement of the economy and it was hard to gain funding, but still Nansen found enough supplies for between 7,000,000 and 22,000,000. For the next few years Nansen did some more humanitarian work, and in 1922 won the Nobel Peace Prize. He was involved in the negotiations between the Greek and Turkish governments that lead to the Treaty of Lausanne. In the latter half of the 1920s he worked to solve the crisis involving the Armenians in Turkey.

In 1896 he was awarded the Grand Cross of The Royal Norwegian Order of St. Olav and in 1925 he received the Collar as well.

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