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Guide to the Papers of Vilhjalmur Stefansson, 1902 - 1962

Stefansson Mss-98

Biography & History

Biography

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.