On this date in 1861, explorer Fridtjof Nansen was born in Kristiania (now Oslo), Norway, and was educated at Kristiania University. Nansen took his first voyage in 1882 to the Greenland Sea, then was appointed Curator of the Bergen Natural History Museum, where he met leading scientists and became a Darwinist. He made headlines in Norway when he skied across the mountains from Bergen to Kristiania to take part in sports competitions. While working on his doctorate in zoology, Nansen became the first person to cross Greenland on skis. From 1893 to 1896, Nansen led a famous expedition to the Arctic. Although not quite reaching the north pole, he became an international celebrity. Nansen helped negotiate the peaceful split between Norway and Sweden in 1905, then became Norway's first ambassador to Great Britain. A professor of zoology at Kristiania University for several years after his voyage, he returned to the university as Rector Magnificus. Nansen wrote up his exploits in The Norwegian North Polar Expedition (1893-1896) and Northern Mists (1911). In the early 1920s when famine struck the Soviet Union, Nansen overcame diplomatic difficulties to engineer a successful prisoner swap between Russia and Germany-Austria-Hungary, involving more than 400,000 prisoners. For this humanitarian feat he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1922. He worked not only with the League of Nations but the International Red Cross, which used Nansen's name on a special passport for refugees deprived by Lenin of their nationality during the Russian civil war. Refugees such as Stravinsky, Rachmaninoff and Chagall came to the west bearing the Nansen passport. After the award, Nansen brokered an "ethnic separation" between fighting Turks and Greeks, arranging a population exchange. Nansen was considered an outspoken agnostic. He was given a state funeral. D. 1930.
“. . . the religion of one age is, as a rule, the literary entertainment of the next. . .”"
—Fridtjof Nansen, "Science and the Purpose of Life." Speech published by the Rationalist Press Association, 1909, cited by A Biographical Dictionary of Modern Rationalists.
Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor
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