Vilhjalmur Stefansson was born of Icelandic parents in Arnes, Manitoba, on 3 November 1879. His death in Hanover, New Hampshire, on 26 August 1962 ends a remarkable career devoted to the understanding and development of the polar regions. Active to the last, Stefansson had served from 1947 as Arctic consultant to Dartmouth College. The Stefansson Collection of polar literature, one of the largest polar libraries in the world, had been acquired by the college. He completed a first draft of his autobiography only the week before he died.
The interest and the energy which kept Stefansson at his desk seven days a week in recent years were a characteristic of his Arctic explorations and of his subsequent career as author, lecturer, adviser to government and industry, and collector of polar literature. A graduate of the University of Iowa, he went on to read comparative religion and anthropology at Harvard. Stefansson spent ten winters and thirteen summers in the Arctic between 1906 and 1918. He commanded the Canadian Arctic Expedition of 1913–18, which explored a vast area and discovered four sizeable islands. He was one of the few anthropologists who, upon finding primitive groups who had never even seen a white man, was able to speak with them in their own tongue. Largely because he was an untiring recorder with unusual powers of observation, and because he lived with the Eskimos as one of them, Stefansson’s anthropological writings are scholarly and unique.
His contribution to glaciology was indirect but far-reaching. Though each of his expeditions had specific research objectives, Stefansson’s lifelong crusade was to convince men that the polar regions were not wastelands but areas holding great promise for science and for commercial enterprise. His independence of mind led him to reject the entrenched belief that the Arctic environment was hostile, and to champion, when still unorthodox, the feasibility of polar aviation and of submarine navigation through Arctic seas. In attacking the psychological barriers to living and working in polar lands, Stefansson did much to pave the way for the rapidly expanding activities of the past few years. Altogether he wrote 24 books and more than 400 articles. In his best-known narrative, The friendly Arctic, and in his handbook, the Arctic manual, glaciologists find invaluable information ranging from ice observations to hints on survival and the technique of polar travel.
Stefansson’s contribution to the individual student of polar matters is tangible and lasting; it is his library. He believed that a thorough knowledge of the literature is essential to intelligent progress. With his fluency in half a dozen languages, Stefansson’s own grasp of the literature was formidable. He was always eager to learn from others, whether from the culture of ancient Greece or from the Eskimos of Coronation Gulf. For those who had the privilege of using the library during Stefansson’s lifetime, the rewards were twofold. Not only did they discover a wealth of information at hand, but Stefansson was never too busy to interrupt his own work to give of his knowledge and wisdom. Whether undergraduate or distinguished scholar, the visitor was received with the same enthusiastic attention. Stefansson’s death breaks one of the last strong ties between the old and the new in polar research.