Log In

Adolf Erik Nordenskiold Edit Profile


Adolf Erik Nordenskiold led a number of expeditions to the Arctic and was the first person to sail through the North-east Passage from northern Norway to the Bering Strait. Nordenskiold is the most internationally famous Finnish-born scientist.The collection of his maps and geographical works held by the University of Helsinki Library is regarded by UNESCO as one of the world’s most important collections of documents


When Nordenskiold was thirteen years old, he and his brother were sent to the famous grammar school at Porvoo. The school’s headmaster and Greek teacher was the national poet J. L. Runeberg, at whose home Nordenskiold sometimes spent evenings during his school days.

When he entered university at the age of seventeen, Nordenskiold was already oriented towards a scientific career, and he began studying mathematics, chemistry, mineralogy and geology. His first scientific work dealt with molluscs. He wrote a number of treatises, including a large general work entitled Beskrivning over de i Finlandfunna mineralier (‘Description of minerals occurring in Finland ) which was published in 1855. He trained himself to write in a concise fashion, but with a wealth of content and a precise, scientific attention to details. All seemed promising; Nordenskiold gained his doctorate, and he would probably have been given a professorship at the University if he had not come into conflict with the Russian authorities in Finland.


The 700th anniversary of Erik the Holy’s Finnish crusade was celebrated in conjunction with the conferring of doctoral degrees in 1857, and representatives of the Universities of Lund and Uppsala were present at the doctoral ceremony. As primus magister and ultimas doctor, Nordenskiold held a speech at the ceremony; in it he appealed to the shared history of Sweden and Finland, expressing the hope for strengthened relationships between these two countries again and casting doubts on Finland’s future opportunities under Russian rule. Many in the audience were of a different opinion, and the governor-general, Count Fredrik Wilhelm Rembert Berg, demanded that Nordenskiold apologise for his speech. Norden¬skiold, however, chose the second alternative and went to Sweden. His intention was evidently not to try to lead popular opposition but to continue his career as a scientist, and he was helped in this by his father’s contacts with leading international scholars and scientific circles. Having lost for some time his chance to gain a post, Nordenskiold was in fact later offered a professorship in Helsinki, but by that stage he was unwilling to give up his successful career in Sweden.

In the summer and winter of 1857 Nordenskiold stayed in Sweden and published several scientific papers after conducting chemical analyses at the Karolinska Institute and studying mineralogy at the Museum of Natural History. The head of the Mineralogical Department at the museum, Professor Carl Gus- taf Mosander, and the pioneer in Sweden of polar exploration, Professor Sven Loven, became his patrons and teachers. Thanks to Loven’s recommendation, Nordenskidld won a place on OttoTorell’s 1858 expedition to the fjords on the west coast of Spitzbergen, where zoological, botanical and geological research was carried out. The Tertiary plant fossils collected by Nordenskiold at Belsund were the beginning of the gradually accumulated extensive collections resulting from Swedish expeditions. On Torell’s second expedition to Spitzbergen, Nordenskiold was responsible for geological research and geographical position fixing. Torell and Nordenskiold mapped North-east Land and the northern part of Hinlopen Strait.

In January 1861 he was appointed a member of the Royal Academy of Sciences, and after Torek's first expedition he was already offered the position of director of the Department of Mineralogy at the Museum of Natural History and thus continued to participate in Swedish polar expeditions. Nordenskiold was 26 when he attained the office of director and professor which he held for a total of 43 years until his death


  • In 1864 Nordenskiold left on his third expedition, the first which he himself led.

    Nordenskiold published both topographical and geological maps of Spitzbergen. The degree measurements, as well as astronomical measurements and observations, were published in the form of precise tables. The 1864 expedition went well, though Nordenskiold did note down the difficult conditions in the Arctic Ocean when the explorers were forced to contend with drift ice. The first of Nordenskiold’s expedition reports to appear was Svenska expeditionen till Spetsbergen ar 1864. After this expedition to Spitzbergen, Swedish explorers of Arctic regions joined the new era of the steamship.

  • At the end of July 1878 Nordenskiold’s expedition set sail from Tromso aboard the steamship Vega, accompanied by several ships carrying supplies. In addition to a steam engine, the 300-ton Vega was equipped with sails, and it carried supplies for two years.

    The emphasis of the voyage was on research, and activities included the collection of ethnographic materials in the villages of the Chukchi Sea. After mid September the open passage near the coast became full of drift ice, and the Vega had great difficulties in pushing its way forward through the shallow water just off the shore.

    Nordenskiold succeeded in demonstrating that with good luck and a fast vessel about two months was needed to navigate the North-east Passage. The changeable weather conditions, however, made it one of the world’s most difficult sea routes, and in the late 19th and early 20th centuries it was not yet suitable as a trade route. Shipping along the North-east Passage did not begin until the mid 20th century, when icebreakers, harbours and meteorological stations had been constructed and - above all - communications had been improved. The scientific significance of the North-east Passage was recognised immediately. The collection of prehistoric plants brought back set off the first discussions concerning global climatic changes tens of thousands of years ago.

    The voyage was also made dramatic by the fact that the world had no way of knowing about the Vega’s fate via telegraph or telephone, and the explorers could not be observed from the air. From the very beginning the press had maintained interest in the expedition, and on the return voyage around Asia to Europe, Nordenskiold was feted at every port of call and made a member of numerous scientific societies. In Sweden and Finland he was regarded as a national hero and one ol these countries’ greatest scientists. In Sweden he was made a baron, and in Finland he was awarded the Grand Gold Medal of the Finnish Economic Society (Suomen talousseura) and other distinctions. Zachris Topelius and Carl Snoilsky wrote poems in his honour.

  • A five-volume catalogue of the maps in the A. E. Nordenskiold Collection, including one of the few historical placename reference works, has been published. Nordenskiold’s collection has been included in United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s ‘Memory of the World programme as a unique cultural treasure.


  • book

    • Faksimileatlas till kartografiens cildsta historia innehallande avbildningar av de viktigaste kartor tryckta fore ar 1600


Nils Gustaf Nordenskiold

Nils Gustaf Nordenskiold was a notable scholar who has been called the father of Finnish mineralogy. He was also his son’s most important teacher.

Sofia Margareta von Haartman

Sofia Maragareta von Haartman, was the daughter of the prominent doctor and economist Gabriel Erik von Haart¬man.

Baroness Anna Maria Mannerheim

Anna Nordenskiold was the daughter of Carl Mannerheim, president of the Viipuri Appeal Court; his nephew was Gustaf Mannerheim, later Marshal of Finland. Anna Nordenskiold soon had to become accustomed to the anxiety caused by danger-filled Arctic exploration.