1861: Fridtjof Nansen is born. He will become a towering figure in Arctic exploration, the natural sciences and international diplomacy.
Nansen, born outside of Oslo, Norway, grew up hard and fit … and intellectually curious. He developed an early interest in science and studied zoology at the university before shipping aboard the Norwegian sealer Viking in 1882.
He made extensive observations of the Greenland fauna, especially bears and seals, and returned to serve for six years as zoological curator at the Bergen Museum — meanwhile earning his doctorate by defending the neuron theory as it pertains to the central nervous system. But Fridtjof Nansen also returned with a passion for the Far North and an unquenchable thirst for adventure.
Nansen returned to Greenland in 1888, skiing from east to west across the interior’s massive ice fields. The trek yielded new scientific information about the frozen island, but it also served as a dress rehearsal for Nansen’s attempt, in 1893, to reach the North Pole. Sailing into the Arctic Ocean aboard his purpose-built ship, Fram, Nansen realized it would be impossible to reach the pole in any way but by foot.
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He left the Fram in the pack ice at 84 degrees, 4 minutes north latitude and, accompanied by Hjalmar Johansen, struck out for the pole with skis, dogs, sledges and kayaks. On April 9, 1895, the two men reached 86 degrees, 14 minutes north latitude before turning back. It was, at the time, the farthest north any explorer had achieved.
Back in Norway, Nansen — having earned a professorship at the University of Oslo — returned to research and writing. He published a six-volume collection of scientific observations and intensified his oceanographic research, eventually becoming a full professor of oceanography.
All of his achievements as an explorer and scientist aside, it was Nansen’s humanitarian service that won him a Nobel Prize, for peace, in 1922. He had become active in political and diplomatic circles in 1905, during Norway’s final push to dissolve its union with Sweden, and he served as the newly independent nation’s first ambassador to England.
During World War I, in which Norway was neutral, Nansen headed a delegation to Washington, D.C., that lobbied for an easing of the Allied naval blockade to stave off the threat of starvation in Germany. Following the war he served as a delegate to the League of Nations, remaining in that post until his death.
Nansen was especially active in refugee issues and the repatriation of prisoners of war. But his crowning achievement may have come in 1921, when he directed a massive famine-relief program in Russia that was credited with saving anywhere from 7 million to 22 million lives.
Nansen died in 1930, at the age of 68.
Fridtjof Nansen won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1922 for his humanitarian service and active involvement in political and diplomatic circles. (Courtesy Library of Congress)
This article first appeared on Wired.com Oct. 10, 2008.