Reflections: Fridtjof Nansen

Norwegian explorer and humanitarian Fridtjof Nansen’s name is perhaps most recognizable by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Nansen Refugee Award that was named after him, which is awarded annually to an individual or organization that has dedicated their time and gone above and beyond the call of duty to help people who have been forcibly displaced from their homes. As the first High Commissioner for Refugees for the League of Nations, Nansen’s humanitarian contribution has left an indelible mark on society. Apart from his philanthropic values and pursuits, Nansen continues to be regarded as a prolific scientist.

Nansen’s life began just outside Oslo, Norway, in 1861, where he was born to Baldur and Adelaide Nansen. His father was a lawyer and his mother is described as being highly active and athletic, providing the foundation for Fridtjof’s love for the outdoors, particularly long-distance skiing (he reportedly ventured as far as 80 km a day).

In 1881, Nansen enrolled at the University of Oslo for studies in zoology and, in the following year, participated in a whale and seal hunting research expedition to the Arctic Ocean, marking the beginning of his heroic pursuits and scientific successes. Later in 1882, he was appointed zoological curator of the Bergen Museum, at which he had also begun studies in the central nervous system of lower vertebrates. The museum provided a compelling and intensive learning environment for the young student and he remained there for six years, completing his PhD in 1887.

Nansen returned to the Arctic in that year and, together with a team of six, began a never-been-done-before expedition to Greenland’s interior. Nansen devised a route that would see the team sailing from the country’s uninhabited east to its inhabited west over two months. Despite critics trying to dissuade him — labeling the attempt as foolishness — he persisted, braving temperatures of –45° C to climb to 9,000 ft above sea level.

Upon his return in 1889, Nansen was appointed professor of oceanography at his alma mater and in 1908 he was awarded the chair in oceanography. In the same year, following the establishment of the Norwegian monarchy, Nansen was appointed Norway’s ambassador to Britain, an unlikely development that proved highly successful, as Nansen had natural skill in navigating diplomatic topics and relationships.

In 1920, Nansen led a Norwegian delegation at the first assembly sitting of the League of Nations. It is believed that his contribution was so meaningful that the league appointed him High Commissioner for the Repatriation of Prisoners of War. The following year, the International Committee of the Red Cross appointed Nansen High Commissioner for Russian Refugees, tasked with assisting displaced peoples in Russia.

In 1922, Nansen initiated the development of the Nansen passport, which was intended to allow refugees  a measure of freedom of movement between countries and protect them from deportation. In recognition of his gallant humanitarian efforts, Nansen was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize that year.

He died in 1930, after contracting influenza following a skiing trip. Symbolically, Nansen was buried on Norway’s official Constitution day.


I demolish my bridges behind me — then there is no choice but to move forward.


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