Nansen is perhaps best remembered for his extraordinary feats as a cross-country skier, setting out to conquer the polar north in defiance of the elements, but he also played a major role in supporting refugees around the world in the aftermath of the First World War, lending his name to a passport recognising asylum seekers rendered stateless by conflict and winning the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts in 1922.
A truly tenacious individual of whom Norwegians remain justly proud, Nansen once summarised his lust for life by explaining, “I demolish the bridges behind me… Then there is no choice but to move forward.”
Fridtjof Nansen was born in Store Froen near Oslo, the son of Baldur Nansen, a lawyer known for his strong sense of duty. His mother Adelaide was more athletically inclined and encouraged her son’s interest in outdoorsmanship and winter sports. Both parents would have an enormous influence on Fridtjof’s career.
A tall, slender youth marked by steely determination, Fridtjof proved particularly adept at long-distance skiing, often covering 50 miles a day with only a small satchel of supplies and a dog for company. These endurance treks inspired the young man’s love of the natural world and fed his longing for adventure.
He was also an exceptional student and entered the University of Oslo in 1881, capitalising on his knack for sciences and drawing to study zoology. A year into his academic life, Fridtjof took part in a research expedition to the east coast of Greenland aboard the sealing ship Viking, observing the seals and bears of the Arctic tundra and finding himself bewitched by the sublime seascape of white skies and mountainous ice. Nansen published the first of his several books soon after, recounting this spectacular journey.
Taking on the post of zoological curator at the Bergen Museum, Nansen spent the next six years carrying out scientific research into the central nervous system of lower vertebrates, winning a doctorate and taking time out to criss-cross the snowbound plains on his trusty skies.
Returning to Greenland in October 1888, Nansen’s next feat was to realise a long-cherished ambition to traverse the barren waste’s unexplored interior. His team of six survived temperatures of -45C and severe deprivation over the course of their two-month expedition, which yielded a wealth of data about the uninhabitable expanse.
Following his triumphant return from the frozen north, Nansen joined his alma mater’s Zootomical Institute where he immediately began plotting his next trip: a journey across the Arctic. Concluding that his ship, the Fram (“Forward”), could not pass through dense pack ice en route to the North Pole, Nansen and a colleague set out in March 1895 on foot. The pair took a team of 28 huskies, three sledges and a 100 days’ worth of rations on their 400-mile hike to the Pole. Forced to turn back 23 days and 140 miles later, the men had nevertheless come closer than anyone else to reaching the landmark.
Nansen was reunited with the Fram in August 1896 after a long and arduous retreat through Franz Josef Land. In the explorer’s absence his crew had engaged in oceanographic research, again retrieving invaluable findings about the aqua culture of the northern seas. The field would preoccupy Nansen over the coming years and he was duly appointed Professor of Oceanography at the University of Oslo in 1908.
It was at this point that Fridtjof Nansen turned his attentions away from the natural world to the men who inhabit it. A passionate advocate for Norway’s independence from Sweden, Nansen became his country’s ambassador to Britain in May 1908 following the successful campaign for dissolution of the union.
With the onset of the Great War, Nansen’s skill as a diplomat came to the fore. He headed a Norwegian delegation to Washington D.C. in 1917 to negotiate the relaxation of an Allied blockade hindering the passage of vital food supplies to Europe. This action led to his being named President of the Norwegian Union for the League of Nations at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, where he campaigned for the rights of smaller countries.
In turn, the League of Nations asked Nansen to help with the repatriation of prisoners of war, safely returning 450,000 captured soldiers to their homelands between 1920 and 1921. It was as administrator for the High Commission of Refugees that he conceived the Nansen Passport, giving migrants from then-troubled nations like Russia, Turkey, Armenia and Syria recognition with 52 foreign governments.
Rohingya refugees – in pictures
Nansen’s other contributions to international humanitarian causes included directing Red Cross aid towards those devastated by famine in post-revolutionary Russia. The scale of this undertaking was vast but difficult to pin down, with Nansen’s planning credited with saving the lives of as many as 22 million people. He also negotiated the exchange of Greek and Turkish civilians trapped in enemy territory when war broke out between those two nations and came to the aid of those caught up in the Armenian genocide.
Truly a remarkable individual, Fridtjof Nansen was a Renaissance man whose bravery and compassion stand as a timely example to the international community today, when the plight of refugees from Syria and Burma continue to make headlines around the world.