Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld, a Finnish explorer transplanted to Sweden, was born Nov. 18, 1832. Like many people raised in northern climes, he was inclined to go even further north, and he made several trips to Spitsbergen, but he never shared the desire of many contemporaries to seek the North Pole–Spitsbergen was quite far enough north, thank you. His real passion was to sail east–to navigate the long-sought Northeast Passage from Scandinavia across the top of Russia to the Bering Sea. In July, 1878, he and a carefully chosen crew left Finland in the SS Vega to attempt the passage. In just shy of two months, they steamed almost all the way across this arm of the Arctic Ocean, only to be frozen into the ice just one day shy of their goal. They spent the next ten months in icy confinement (see third image above), and when the thaw finally came the next July, they rapidly completed the first transit of the Northeast Passage. Continuing their voyage around the Eurasian continent (the first to do so), they sailed into Stockholm on Apr. 24, 1880, to great acclaim (first image). Nordenskiöld became a national hero of both Finland and Sweden, was made a Baron, and collected a 25,000 guilder reward that had been offered for the first successful passage by the Dutch government in 1617. Apr. 24 is now Vega Day in Sweden, and when Nordenskiöld and his crew gathered on Vega Day in 1900, a photograph recorded the event (fourth image). Nordenskiöld is at the right of the front row.

The portrait of Nordenskiöld and the Vega is by Georg von Rosen and hangs in the Swedish Nationalmuseum (second image). There is a fine memorial to Nordenskiöld in Helsinki, created by Johanna and Heikki Häiväoja (fifth image). You can find more images of the monument here.

Dr. William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City. Comments or corrections are welcome; please direct to