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10 Key Figures in the History of Polar Exploration

Photograph of the Nimrod Expedition (1907-09) to the Antarctic, led by Ernest Sheckleton.
Image Credit: Ernest Henry Shackleton (1874-1922), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

For centuries humankind has explored ‘unknown’ parts of the world, charting lands, marking new towns and cities and learning more about the world’s geology and geography.

The polar regions of the Arctic and Antarctica are some of the most dangerous and inhospitable places on Earth. Several people have undertaken voyages and expeditions to them, hoping to better understand the world’s polar regions, to find the Northwest Passage or to be the first to reach the North or South Poles. 

These people achieved incredible feats of human endurance and bravery. Here are 10 key figures in the history of polar exploration.

1. Erik the Red (950-1003) 

Born in Rogaland, Norway, in 950 AD, Erik the Red (red for the colour of his hair and beard) was an explorer. Erik’s father was exiled from Norway when Erik was 10. They sailed west and settled in Iceland. Following in his father’s footsteps, Erik was exiled from Iceland. This led him to explore and settle in Greenland. 

2. Sir John Franklin (1786-1847) 

Born in 1786, Sir John Franklin was a British Royal Navy officer and Arctic explorer. The early 19th century saw a rise in Arctic exploration with many trying to find the Northwest Passage, the fabled sea route between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans via the Arctic Ocean. Franklin undertook three voyages to the Arctic with his most famous being his third and final expedition.  

In 1845, commanding Terror and Erebus, Franklin set out on his final voyage to the Arctic. His ships became trapped in the ice off King William Island and his entire crew of 129 men perished.  

Dr John Roobol discusses the fate of John Franklin and his crew, from how they suffered in the bitter conditions, to the crew members who resorted to cannibalism. John's work also looks into the Inuits, and how their testimony was largely ignored, as the Victorians were desperate to insist that no British explorers would ever resort to cannibalism.
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3. Sir James Clark Ross (1800-1862) 

Sir James Clark Ross was a Royal Navy officer who undertook several expeditions to the Arctic. His first voyage to the Arctic was as part of his uncle, Sir John Ross’s, expedition in search of the Northwest Passage in 1818. He subsequently undertook 4 expeditions under the command of Sir William Parry. In 1831, Ross located the position of the North Magnetic Pole.   

Between 1839-1843, Ross commanded an expedition to chart the Antarctic coastline. HMS Erebus and HMS Terror were used on the voyage and several discoveries were made including the volcanoes Terror and Erebus, James Ross Island and the Ross Sea.  

For his work in enhancing our geographical knowledge of the polar regions, Ross was knighted, awarded the Grande Médaille d’Or des Explorations and elected to the Royal Society.  

HMS Erebus and Terror in the Antarctic by John Wilson Carmichael

Image Credit: Royal Museums Greenwich, James Wilson Carmichael, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

4. Fridtjof Nansen (1861-1930) 

Fridtjof Nansen was a Norwegian explorer, scientist, diplomat and humanitarian. In 1888, Nansen undertook the first crossing of Greenland’s interior. His team used cross-country skis in order to complete this expedition.  

Five years later, Nansen undertook an expedition to reach the North Pole. With a crew of 12, Nansen chartered the Fram and sailed from Bergen on 2 July 1893. Icy waters around the Arctic slowed the Fram down. Nansen made the decision to leave the ship. Accompanied by dog-driving expert Hjalmar Johansen, the crew made their way across land to the pole. Nansen did not reach the pole but he did reach a record northern latitude. 

5. Robert Falcon Scott (1868-1912) 

Scott was one of the most influential, and arguably most tragic, figures of the ‘heroic age of Antarctic exploration’. The heroic age was a period of history from the end of the 19th century through to 1921 that saw several international efforts to explore Antarctica and reach the South Pole. This age was sparked by whaling ships travelling to Antarctica, rather than the overfished Arctic, and a paper by John Murray calling for a renewal of Antarctic exploration. 

Scott undertook two expeditions to the Antarctic. For his first expedition in 1901, Scott commanded the purpose-built RRS Discovery. The Discovery Expedition was the first official British exploration of the Antarctic regions since Ross, and it led to several discoveries including the Cape Crozier emperor penguin colony and the Polar Plateau (where the South Pole is located).  

His final expedition, the Terra Nova Expedition, was an attempt to be the first to reach the South Pole. Though they reached the pole, they had been beaten by Roald Amundsen. Scott and his party perished on their return journey.

Ship Discovery, and the two relief ships, Morning and Terra Nova, in Antarctica during the British National Antarctic Expedition, 1904.

Image Credit: Alexander Turnbull National Library, Unknown Photographer, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

6. Roald Amundsen (1872-1928) 

As a child, Roald Amundsen fervently read Franklin’s accounts of Arctic expeditions and was fascinated by the polar regions. In 1903, Amundsen undertook an expedition to traverse the Northwest Passage. Amundsen used a small fishing vessel, Gjøa, and a crew of 6, which made it easier to navigate through the Passage. He spoke to locals and learnt Arctic survival skills, including the use of sled dogs and wearing animal fur.

He is perhaps most well known for being the first to lead a team to reach the South Pole, beating Scott by 5 weeks. His successful expedition is often attributed to his careful planning, appropriate clothing and equipment, an understanding of sled dogs and a singular purpose – to reach the South Pole.  

To add to his impressive CV, Amundsen became the first man to cross the Arctic in an airship and reach the North Pole. Whilst on a rescue mission, Amundsen and his plane disappeared. His body was never found.

Roald Amundsen, 1925.

Image Credit: Preus Museum Anders Beer Wilse, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

7. Sir Ernest Shackleton (1874-1922) 

Sir Ernest Shackleton was born in 1874 in County Kildare, Ireland. His family moved to London when he was 6. He was uninterested in school but read extensively about travel, exploration and geography. Leaving school at 16, Shackleton joined “before the mast” (an apprentice or ordinary seaman on a sailing ship) on the ship Hoghton Tower.  

After several years at sea, Shackleton joined Scott’s Discovery Expedition. Many of the crew were sick during the expedition (scurvy, frostbite), and Shackleton was eventually dismissed for ill-health. Shackleton was determined to return to Antarctica to prove himself. The Nimrod Expedition led to Shackleton reaching the farthest southern latitude and raised his profile as a polar explorer.  

The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, led by Shackleton, was undertaken in 1911 with the aim of crossing Antarctica. Though the expedition failed in its aims, it is perhaps best known for the incredible feats of human endurance, leadership and courage it witnessed.

Shackleton’s vessel, Endurance, sank on the trip, leaving the crew stranded on the ice. It was rediscovered 107 years later, in March 2022. Shackleton led his men to Elephant Island where he and 5 others undertook an 800-mile journey to the James Caird to then mount a rescue mission for the rest of his crew. All 28 survived.

Shackleton’s final expedition to Antarctica took place in 1921. Shackleton had a heart attack aboard his ship Quest and died. He was buried in Grytviken, South Georgia.  

8. Robert Peary (1881-1911) 

Robert Peary was an American explorer and officer in the United States Navy. Peary’s first visit to the Arctic took place in 1886 when he attempted, unsuccessfully, to cross Greenland. In 1891, Peary undertook an expedition to Greenland to determine if it is an island or peninsula of the North Pole. Peary’s wife Josephine accompanied him, making her the first woman on an Arctic expedition.  

Peary set a new farthest north record and in 1909 claimed to be the first man to reach the North Pole. His claim has been disputed with some claiming he missed the pole and explorer Cook claiming he reached the pole in 1908.  Amundsen’s account of reaching the North Pole in 1926 is the first to be verified.  

9. Sir Edmund Hillary (1919-2008) 

One of the most famous adventurers and explorers of the 20th century was Sir Edmund Hillary. Born in New Zealand in 1919, Hillary became interested in hiking and mountain climbing at school. He completed his first major climb, Mount Ollivier, in 1939.  

In 1951, Hillary joined the British reconnaissance expedition of Everest. On 29 May 1953, Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first recorded climbers to reach the summit of Mount Everest 

Hillary formed part of the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition in 1958, leading the New Zealand section. His team were the first to reach the South Pole since Amundsen and Scott. In 1985, Hillary landed at the North Pole. This meant that Hillary was the first man to stand at both poles and reach the summit of Everest.  

10. Ann Bancroft (1955-present)

Ann Bancroft is an American adventurer, author and teacher. She is passionate about the outdoors, the wilderness and exploration and has undertaken expeditions on the Ganges River and Greenland. 

In 1986, as part of the Will Steger International North Pole Expedition, Bancroft became the first woman to reach the North Pole on foot and by sled. 5 years later, she led the first all-female expedition to the South Pole. Passionate about the effect global warming is having on the polar regions, Bancroft and Liv Arnesen became the first women to ski across Antarctica to raise awareness about climate change.

Read more about the discovery of Endurance. Explore the history of Shackleton and the Age of Exploration. Visit the official Endurance22 website.

Tags: Ernest Shackleton Robert Falcon Scott Sir John Franklin

Charlotte Ward