Vilhjálmur Stefánsson

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Vilhjálmur Stefánsson around 1915

Vilhjálmur Stefánsson (born November 3, 1879 in Gimli , Manitoba , † August 26, 1962 in Hanover , New Hampshire ) was a Canadian- born polar explorer , ethnologist and nutritionist .

Origin and youth

He was the son of Johann Stefánsson and Ingibjorg Jóhannesdottir - both immigrants from Árnes , Iceland. His birthplace Gimli (75 km north of Winnipeg on Lake Winnipeg) was founded by Iceland. He felt strongly connected to his roots and later changed his baptismal name "William" to the Icelandic form "Vilhjálmur". Although he grew up with little basic education, he self-taught himself a wide range of knowledge by reading the Bible, newspapers and specialist books. He was further educated across the state line in the United States at the University of North Dakota (1898-1902), where his family moved in 1881 after a severe flood in his home country. At the University of Iowa , he acquired in 1903 the Artium Baccalaureus ( Bachelor of Seven Liberal Arts , USA: Bachelor of Arts, AB). He continued studying anthropology at Harvard University and later taught the subject there for two years.

Expeditions and research

As early as 1904 and 1905 he carried out archaeological and anthropological studies in Iceland and in the winter of 1906-07 he lived as a participant in the Anglo-American polar expedition with the Inuit on Mackenzie . In the following years Stefánsson undertook several expeditions to the Arctic and completed their mapping . He lived at times with the Inuit, about which he published numerous writings and books.

In 1915 he discovered Brock Island , Borden Island and Mackenzie King Island , which he believed to be part of neighboring Borden Island. It was not until 1947 that his mistake was recognized and corrected. He also discovered Meighen Island in 1916 and cleared up the geography of the Findlay Group , the largest of which is Lougheed Island .

Under the auspices of the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), he and Rudolph Martin Anderson undertook an ethnological study of the population of the Central Arctic and North American coasts. In 1910 he discovered the hitherto unknown "blonde Eskimo" who had never seen a white person before.

1913-16 he took over on behalf of the Canadian government, the leadership of an expedition to explore the regions in the west of the Parry Islands , the Canadian Arctic Expedition . Three sailing steamers , the Karluk , the Mary Sachs and the Alaska , were made available to him. His main ship, the Karluk , was enclosed by the ice in late 1913 and drifted west off the Siberian coast. It sank on January 11, 1914. Stefánsson, who had left the Karluk during the drift, continued his expedition by sled across the Arctic Ocean ( Beaufort Sea ). The supply sledge turned back after a while, while he and two of his men continued the expedition by sledge and lived mainly from the hunt. After 96 days they reached the rescuing Mary Sachs in the fall . With her he continued his expedition. His research also included the discovery of new land and the definition of the continental plate boundaries . The trip with its scientific results formed the basis for its scientific recognition. He was also able to expand the discoveries of the researcher Francis Leopold McClintock . During this expedition he lived on the polar ice for more than a year.

17 of the 25 shipwrecked Karluk made it to the uninhabited Wrangel Island - led by Captain Robert Bartlett (1875–1946) . Accompanied by the Eskimo Kataktovick, Bartlett reached the Siberian coast after another grueling hike , where he was hospitably received by the local Chukchi . From there he made his way to the Bering Strait on a 1100 km walk in 37 days and embarked for Alaska . Only there he was able to organize the rescue of the survivors, the number of whom had continued to decrease due to illness and conflicts, and in September 1914, just in time for the next onset of winter, he was able to rescue them from Alaska with the chartered schooner King & Winge . Only 14 of the Karluk's 25 crew members survived. Stefánsson's role in this expedition is controversial. On the one hand, he is accused of having willfully left Karluk , on the other hand, the personal relationship between him and Robert Bartlett was probably problematic from the start. What is certain is that the equipment of the Karluk and the ship itself were by no means sufficient for an expedition or wintering.

In the early 1920s, Stefánsson, the British Empire , to which Canada belonged as the Dominion , tried to secure the possession of Wrangel Island by initiating a settlement attempt. On September 16, 1921, the Canadian Allan R. Crawford and the three Americans Frederick W. Maurer (1893-1923), Milton Galle (1902-1923) and Errol Lorne Knight (1893-1923) together with the Eskimo woman Ada Blackjack (1898–1983) deposited on the island. A supply ship sent by Stefánsson in 1922 had to return to Nome due to unfavorable ice conditions . On January 28, 1923, Crawford, Maurer, and Galle left the island to walk to mainland Siberia. They have been missing since then. The knight who stayed behind fell ill with scurvy and died on June 22nd. On August 19, 1923, the Donaldson reached Wrangel Island and took Ada Blackjack as the only survivor on board. The American Charles H. Wells stayed on the island with twelve Eskimos. In 1924 Stefánsson sold his supposed rights to Wrangel Island to Carl J. Lomen (1880–1965), who owned 40,000 reindeer in Alaska . A Soviet gunboat under the command of Boris Vladimirovich Dawydow (1884-1925) reached the island in August 1924 and took the settlers around Wells to Vladivostok .

Stefánsson was a well-known scientist during his lifetime. He later became one of the leading figures in the US Army's Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory (CRREL) in Hanover through his connections at Dartmouth College , where he was director of the Department of Polar Studies .

Stefánsson was also interested in nutritional science and habits, especially those with a very low-carbohydrate diet. He documented the fact that the Inuit diet consists of around 90% fish and meat and that they sometimes eat nothing for six to nine months a year feed another. He also found out that he and his European companions survived such a “zero-carbohydrate diet ” in a completely healthy manner. When approached by medical professionals on this point, he and a companion agreed to participate in a year-long study supervised by the American Medical Association (America's largest medical association). The aim of the study was to show that people can only eat fish and meat without taking vitamin supplements and without suffering any damage to their health. The results were published in the journal of the AMA. Both men survived the study without any health problems.

Stefansson's personal records and the collection of Arctic items are in the library of Dartmouth College received (Dartmouth College Library) and available to the public.

Stefánsson is known for his saying: "Risk is a sign of incompetence." ( English "Adventure is a sign of incompetence.").

Stefansson Island , an island on the northeast tip of Victoria Island , was named after him during his lifetime . In addition, the Stefansson Basin in the Arctic Ocean ( 82 ° 30 ′  N , 133 ° 0 ′  W ), the Stefansson Strait on the east side of the Antarctic Peninsula ( 69 ° 26 ′  S , 62 ° 25 ′  W ), Stefansson Lake and Stefansson Creek in the Canadian Northwest Territories and Stefansson Bay on the coast of the Antarctic Kempland ( 67 ° 20 ′  S , 59 ° 8 ′  E ). In 1923 he was elected to the American Philosophical Society and in 1958 to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences .


The year of publication cannot be determined precisely because different dates are available.

  • My Life with the Eskimo , 1912 ( online , German title: The Secret of the Eskimos )
  • The friendly Arctic , 1922 ( online , German title: Countries of the Future )
  • Hunters of the Great North , 1922 ( online , German title:. Hunters of the far north )
  • The Northward course of Empire , 1923 ( online , German title: Neuland im Norden )
  • The Adventure of Wrangel Island , 1925 ( online )
  • Northward ho! An account of the Far North , 1927, ( online )
  • The Three Voyages of Martin Frobisher , 1938, ( online )
  • Iceland: The First American Republic , 1939
  • Unsolved mysteries of the Arctic , 1939
  • Ultima Thule , 1940, ( online )
  • Greenland , 1942
  • Arctic Manual , 1944
  • Compass of the World (co-author: Hans W. Weigert), 1944
  • The Encyclopedia Arctica , 16 volumes 1947–1951 (as editor, online )
  • Not by bread alone , New York, MacMillan 1946; expanded edition under the title The Fat of the Land , New York, Macmillan, 1956, 1961
  • Great Adventures and Explorations (co-author: Olive Rathbun Wilcox), 1947
  • Northwest to Fortune , 1958
  • Cancer: Disease of civilization? An anthropological and historical study , 1960
  • Discovery - the autobiography of Vilhjalmur Stefansson , 1964


  • William L. McKinlay: Karluk - The story of a betrayed Arctic expedition , translated from the English Karluk by Günter Seib, Kiepenheuer & Witsch, Cologne 1999, ISBN 3-462-02851-0 .
  • Jenniver Niven: Packeis - The drama of the Canadian polar expedition of 1913 (= The Ice Master , translated by Sabine Schult), Hoffmann and Campe, Hamburg 2000, ISBN 3-455-11335-4 .
  • William R. Hunt: Stef: A Biography of Vilhjalmur Stefansson, Canadian Arctic Explorer , 1986, ISBN 0-7748-0247-2 .
  • Gísli Pálsson : Writing on Ice: The Ethnographic Notebooks of Vilhjalmur Stefansson ; Dartmouth College Press, University Press of New England, Hanover, 2001, ISBN 1-58465-119-9 .

Web links

Commons : Vilhjalmur Stefansson  - Collection of images, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Vilhjálmur Stefánsson: The Adventure of Wrangel Island . Jonathan Cape, London 1926.
  2. ^ Stefansson Basin , entry on (accessed January 29, 2013).
  3. ^ Stefansson Strait , entry on (accessed January 29, 2013).
  4. ^ Gazetteer of the Northwest Territories . NWT Cultural Places Program, Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Center 2017, accessed January 9, 2018.
  5. ^ Stefansson Bay , entry on (accessed January 29, 2013).
  6. Member History: Vilhjálmur Stefánsson. American Philosophical Society, accessed December 4, 2018 .