Stefansson, Vilhjalmur, 1879-1962

Stefansson, Vilhjalmur, 1879-1962



  • Existence: 1879 - 1962


Vilhjalmur Stefansson was born on November 3, 1879, in Arnes, Manitoba, Canada to Icelandic immigrants. In 1881, the family moved to North Dakota. Without a formal primary education Stefansson entered the University of North Dakota's preparatory department in 1898, but was expelled in 1902, for allegedly inciting a protest within the student body. He then enrolled at the University of Iowa from which he graduated with a B.A. in 1903. After a year of studying theology at the Harvard Divinity School he joined the Anglo-American Polar Expedition, which was under the auspices of Harvard and the University of Toronto, in 1906. In 1908, he participated in the Stefansson-Anderson Expedition, which was financed by the American Museum of Natural History and the Canadian government. The expedition took him to northern Alaska where for four years he explored the area on his way to Victoria Island where he planned to study an isolated group of Inuit who still used primitive tools and had strong Caucasian features. In 1913, he set out again on the Canadian Arctic Expedition which explored sea and islands north of Alaska and the Canadian mainland. Even though the expedition discovered Brock, Borden, Meighen and Lougheed Islands, it was overshadowed by the tragic sinking of one of the expedition's ships, the "Karluk," in pack ice and the subsequent deaths of many of its crew. It was also the last expedition Stefansson physically participated in as he began to focus his energy on the lucrative lecture circle and the writing of books on arctic subjects including "My Life with the Eskimo." In 1921, he organized the ill-fated Wrangel Island Expedition, the failure of which caused the death of all but one of its participants. In 1922, he began what was to become a lifelong project; the creation of a comprehensive polar library. In 1927, he participated in the Bellevue "Meat-Diet" experiment which required him to live on an all meat diet for one year. Being convinced of the benefits of such a diet, based on his experience living among the Eskimos earlier in his life, he continued to endorse and live by this diet even after completion of the experiment. From 1932-1954, Stefansson became an advisor on northern operations for Pan American Airways. He also performed a variety of jobs for the United States Government such as advisory work for the Coordinator of Information, authoring guide books and manuals on the arctic, as well as serving as a consultant on diet, clothing and other fields related to living in the arctic.

From 1937-1939, Stefansson was the president of the Explorers Club and in 1941, he married Evelyn Schwartz Baird who became his assistant as well as his wife. In 1946, he was contracted by the United States Office of Naval Research to create a comprehensive work on the arctic entitled the 'Encyclopedia Arctica.' Stefansson and dozens of other writers worked on the project for five years. However, the US government abruptly canceled the contract in 1951. In 1947, the Stefansson's moved to Vermont and Stefansson became an Arctic Consultant at Dartmouth College. He also sold his extensive arctic library to the college, but he and his wife remained involved in its upkeep.

Stefansson died of a stroke in Hanover, New Hampshire on August 26, 1962.

Found in 14 Collections and/or Records:

Vilhjalmur Stefansson papers

Stefansson Mss-98
Identifier: Mss-98
Date(s): 1902 to 1962

Vilhjalmur Stefansson (1879-1962), Arctic explorer and writer. Papers consist of correspondence, journals, reports, manuscripts of published and unpublished books and articles, research files, source material, maps, photographs and printed matter relating to his career as a writer and arctic explorer.

Vilhjalmur Stefansson self-portrait collection

Stefansson Mss-269
Identifier: Mss-269
Date(s): 1932 to 1939
Scope and Contents

The collection contains portraits and a silhoutte of Vilhjalmur Stefansson; comprised of a charcoal sketch, a pencil sketch and a pen and ink sketch of Stefansson's portrait as well as a silhoutte of his profile.

Vilhjalmur Stefansson vertical files

Stefansson Mss-242
Identifier: Mss-242
Date(s): 1683 to 2004

Vilhjalmur Stefansson (1879-1962), Arctic explorer. Contains original and reproduction pamphlets, clippings, reports, and photographs related to Stefansson's writings, research and expeditions.

Vilhjalmur Stefansson's photographic files

Stefansson Mss-238
Identifier: Mss-238
Date(s): 1890 to 1961

Stefansson Photographic Files (circa 1890-2002). Consist of photographs and negatives created and gathered by Vilhjalmur and Evelyn Stefansson.