Fridjtof Nansen: Explorer, Scientist, Humanitarian, and Rector.

Fridtjof Nansen is an individual you need to know about. A Norwegian visionary, explorer, pioneer, diplomat, humanitarian, champion, artist, and scholar, Nansen had a hunger for adventure and a quest for knowledge, venturing into uncharted territory time and time again. He held a Nobel Peace Prize, several world records, and to top it all off, he was our Rector.

1. Portrait of Fridtjof Nanse, New York, 1929, UNHCR photo

Nansen was a trailblazer from the get-go. In his youth, he was a champion skier and ice skater, setting the world’s one-mile speed skating record. He spent his early years in the countryside, where he nurtured a love of art and the outdoors. He was one of the first to buy and promote Edvard Munch’s art (Munch’s 1893 The Scream should come to mind). MUSA holds one of Nansen’s own drawings of a polar bear in the snow, gifted by him to our Principal at the time. On it, Nansen left a note:

To Sir James and Lady Irvine with hearty good wishes for the New Year from their friend, Fridtjof Nansen, January 1927.”



Nansen was also the leader of the first skiing team to cross the Greenland inland ice sheet in 1888, and international fame came when he broke a record with his 1893-96 North Pole expedition aboard the Fram ship. MUSA holds a treasured remnant from this trip – the Nansen flag. This flag was aboard the Fram and was gifted by Nansen to our university’s Student’s Union during his time as a Rector between 1925-28. On the back of the flag’s frame, it states the following:

“Flag presented to the Students’ Union by Fridtjof Nansen (Lord Rector 1925-28), carried by him on the ‘Fram’ in his ‘Farthest North’ expedition”

When I visited the modest silk relic, I noticed the faded colors of the Norwegian flag. Perhaps this occurred with time, or perhaps the flag’s colors were diluted on its journey across the Arctic ocean, mixing in with the glacial seawater air. It is about the size of an A4 sheet of paper and accompanied Nansen in his ground-breaking (or rather, ice-breaking) expedition. This trip proved the soundness of Nansen’s theories on ice drifts and was also when Nansen hopped off the ship to ski up to the North Pole. Although he did not make it, he broke the latitudinal record. Talk about going the distance!

Nansen Flag

His scientific observations from this trip also led to the publication of six books, innovations in equipment and clothing, and established Nansen as a scholar in ethnology, nutrition, oceanography, meteorology, zoology, marine biology, geology, anthropology and sociology. With this man, the list just goes on and on.

Later in his life, Nansen was involved with the League of Nations, appointed as the first High Commissioner for Refugees in 1921. His work dealt with the displaced peoples after the First World War. The most notable of his initiatives were the Nansen passports – these were certificates recognized by over 50 countries and they were the first documents of their kind to enable displaced peoples to travel abroad with a legal status and identity.

Moreover, Nansen was busy with the Red Cross – relieving famine in Russia, repatriating prisoners of war, and helping Armenian refugees. Although this was a departure from skiing and Arctic explorations, what it did hold in common were the principles of citizenship, compassion, mercy, and obligation which Nansen demonstrated as intrinsic to his character.

3. Postcard Photograph

Nansen was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1922 for his work with the League. His works contributed to the foundations of the international refugee regime as we know it today, institutionalized in the UNHCR. They still annually deliver the Nansen Refugee Award for outstanding work on behalf of refugees.

Nansen passed away in 1930, his obituary stating, “Nansen threw himself heart and soul, as was his way in all he did.” (Brown 1930, 94). The Nansen International Office of Refugees was set up and took over his work. It too received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1938.

2. NansenPreparesForTheFramJourney1895

Nansen’s life accomplishments demonstrate the power of determination, drive, and curiosity to bring innovation, progress, peace and security. Few individuals in history can reel out as many credentials as Nansen can. The connections this university has with Nansen demonstrates the breadth of our reach and the prominence of the figures who have been a part of our university history.

Photo credits:

  • Portrait of Fridjtof Nansen, New York, 1929, UNHCR.
  • Postcard Photograph of Two Starving Boys, 1922, taken by Nansen, sold to raise funds for the Ukrainian famine.
  • Nansen Prepares for the Fram 1895, appears in Nansen’s 1893 book, photograph taken by Nansen.


Brown, R.N. 1930. “Obituary: Fridjtof Nansen.” The Geographical Journal 76 (1): 92-95. JSTOR.

About Selena Putri

Selena is a second-year undergraduate student at the University of St Andrews. She studies Art History and International Relations and is interested in the traditions, notable figures and forgotten histories of St Andrews. She is an avid vlogger of student life and beyond the town, she is interested in the politics and sustainability of artistic, environmental, and cultural practices.


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