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Emil Bessels: Encyclopedia Arctica 15: Biographies
Stefansson, Vilhjalmur, 1879-1962

Emil Bessels

(Felizia Seyd)


Emil Bessels (1847-1888), German naturalist and explorer, was born in
Heidelberg and educated at the universities of Heidelberg and Jena, where he
studied medicine and natural sciences. In 1869, on the recommendation of the
German geographer A. Petermann, Bessels took part in Rosenthal's Albert Expedi–
tion to the Greenland and Barents seas. He was then only twenty-two years of
age, but his observations of sea-surface temperatures north of the 75th par–
allel, between Spitsbergen and Novaya Zemlya, at once made a name for him in
the geographic field. They proved what Petermann had advanced as a theory for
several years, that a branch of the Gulf Stream, dividing off the southern tip
of Spitsbergen, extended northward to the west coast of Novaya Zemlya. Bessels'
observations coincided with a newly awakened interest in the Northeast Passage
which the following year led to the opening of the Kara Sea, and they initiated
other Gulf Stream studies in that part of the world, notably those made by the
Grand Duke Alexis off Novaya Zemlya, in 1870.
After serving six months as surgeon in the Prussian Army during the Franco–
German war, Bessels volunteered to accompany the Polaris expedition the American,
Charles Francis Hall, authorized by Act of Congress, approved July 12, 1870, which
he subsequently joined as surgeon and chief of the scientific staff. The expedi–
tion was to get as close to the North Pole as possible, by vessel, boat or sledge.
It was provisioned and equipped for a stay in the Arctic of two and a half years.
Hall himself was under instructions of the U.S. Navy Department and the National

EA-Biography. Seyd: Emil Bessels

Academy of Sciences, the latter's instructions containing specific directions
for the 24-year-old Bessels, whose character, record, and enthusiasm were alluded
to in complimentary terms.
Hall's vessel, the Polaris , sailed for the arctic zones from New London,
Conn., on July 3, 1871, and attained her farthest north, 82° 11′ N., off the
northwest coast of Greenland, on August 30th. Four days later the ship made
harbor at 81° 37′ N., 61° 44′ W. (Thank God Harbor), on the Greenland side of
Robeson Channel, where the winter was spent. Hall died here on November 8th,
and the command passed to Captain S. O. Buddington, sailing master of the vessel.
Bessels remained in charge of all scientific operations and assumed responsibil–
ity for sledging trips made on land. By that time, the scientific observations
were well under way. The transit instrument had been set up and a tidal gauge
had been erected. A wooden shed on shore, 10 by 8 feet, served as an observatory,
where Bessels, assisted by R. W. D. Bryan, astronomer, and F. Meyer, meteorologist,
made hourly readings of barometric pressure, temperature, moisture on the air,
direction and force of wind, etc. Tidal and meteorological observations were
scrupulously kept throughout the winter and after the first of the year, were
rounded out by magnetic observations and experiments with Hayes' pendulum (for
On the 28th of February, 1872, the sun reappeared after an absence of 132
days, and a month later Bessels, accompanied by Bryan and Eskimo Joe, started on
a sledging trip southward to Cape Constitution, to make a survey of that part of
the coast. Cape Constitution could not be reached, due to much open water and
bad ice conditions, but Bessels entered Petermann and Bessels fjords, visited
Offley Island, and rounded Cape Bryan. Petermann Fjord was explored to an extent
of 25 miles, but Bessels was undecided whether to call it a strait or a fjord.

EA-Biography. Seyd: Emil Bessels

His map represented the indentation as a channel continuing indefinitely inland.
The arctic spring, meanwhile, was far advanced, and the land at large had
come to life. Lemmings and hares were sighted, more game was seen, and mosses
and flowering plants attracted butterflies and bumblebees, and there were mos–
quitos. For long hours now the men at the observatory were busy preserving bird
skins and botanical specimens, to which was added an ever-growing collection of
geological specimens.
In June 1872, open water in Robeson Channel called for an exploration of
the coast by boat. Two whaleboats,with mates Chester and Tyson in command, and
Bessels participating, left for Cape Sumner and Newman Bay. Some heights on
Polaris Promontory and those around Newman Bay were explored, but the boats them–
selves were lost and some valuable material besides.
The Polaris , meanwhile, after desultory attempts to reattain her farthest
north, was ready to leave for home and on August 12th, steamed out of Thank God
Harbor. On November 15th, when she was midway through Smith Sound, she ran aground
among icebergs, but broke loose again shortly afterwards, leaving a crew of 19
persons and the major part of her stores and collections behind on an ice floe.
(For details of the ice floe party see TYSON.) Those on board the Polaris number–
ed 14 persons, including the captain, two mates, and the chief of the scientific
staff. The following day the vessel was warped into a berth inside Lifeboat Cove,
at Latitude 78° 23′ N, on the Greenland coast, butwas so badly battered that the
crew decided to establish winter quarters on land. A square frame 16 by 22 feet
was put together on shore. Eskimos, who came over from Etah to visit, lent a
friendly hand, and on October 27th, "Polaris House" stood ready for occupancy.
The crew spent its second winter in the Arctic in relative comfort here.
Bessels, who still had a complete set of meteorological instruments in his

EA-Biography. Seyd: Emil Bessels

possession, recommenced his meteorological observations as well as his experi–
ments with the pendulum. In the spring of 1873, he set out on several sledging
journeys northward and westward, but the attempts came to nought due to diffi–
culties with his drivers who refused to proceed. A trip to Foulke Fjord, to de–
termine the meridian between Polaris House and Port Foulke, was more successful.
It resulted in an examination of the Inland Ice, or more specifically of the
Brother John Glacier, the rapid forward advance of which was ascertained.
Preparations to abandon the Polaris and seek escape southward in self-con–
structed boats were, meanwhile, coming to a close, for the Polaris with her upper
deck 2 feet under water at high tide, was beyond hope of salvage. The escape was
effected in two small boats which left Lifeboat Cove on June 3rd, and, after a 20
day drift, ware sighted by the Scottish steamer Ravenscraig off Concal Rock,
Greenland. The Ravenscraig subsequently transferred some of the crew, Bessels
among them, to the steamer Arctic , bound for Dundee, Scotland, so that their return
to the States was delayed until October 7th.
Nor were their troubles over when they landed in New York. In Washington a
Board of Inquiry had been set up "for the purpose of obtaining the most full and
reliable information concerning their own history, the circumstances under which
they had left the Polaris , and the condition of that vessel." Bessels, in addi–
tion, underwent an interruption by the Secretary of the Navy and two Surgeons
General as to the circumstances connected with the illness and death of Hall. The
Board, ultimately, came to the unanimous conclusion that no blame attached to any
member of the expedition and "that every possible opportunity was embraced by the
members of the scientific corps of the expedition to carry out the instructions
The story of Hall's expedition was first told by Rear Admiral C. H. Davis, in

EA-Biography. Seyd: Emil Bessels

his official narrative: The North Polar Expedition of the U.S.S. Polaris ,"
published in Washington, in 1876. The narrative, however, more or less limited
itself to a chronological account of the expedition's activities. Bessels' own
record of the expedition: Die amerikanische Nordpolexpedition , published in Leip–
zig in 1879, was considerbbly more detailed. It contained a scientific appendix,
listing the expeditions' hydrographical and me teorological observations and, strewn
throughout its text, a wealth of personal observations relative to the flora, fauna,
and geologic structure of Hall Land and the Etah region. The delay of its publi–
cation had in so far profited Bessels, as he was able to revise it on the basis
of data furnished by the Nares Expedition (1875-76).
Bessels' other publications relative to the Polaris Expedition were his "Re–
port on the Scientific Results of the Polaris Expedition" (Washington 1876);
"Smith Sound and its Explorations" (Washington, 1884); and an essay on the Smith
Sound Eskimos: "Einige Worte ueber die Innuit [Eskimos] des Smith Sound, nebst
Bemerkungen ueber Innuit Schaedel," Archiv f. Anthrop ., Vol. VIII, Braunschweig,
Bessels' later yea rs were overshadowed by a number of misfortunes. His papers
and valuable collections were destroyed by fire in Washington. Plans for an Ethno–
logical expedition to Jones Sound, promoted by private funds, miscarried.
He finally returned to Germany, where he died at Stuttgart, at the age of

EA-Biography. Seyd: Emil Bessels


Davis, C. R. Narrative of the North Polar Expedition, U.S.S. Polaris . Wash–
ington, 1876.

Nourse, J. E. American Explorations in the Ice Zones . Boston, 1884.

Mirsky, J. To the North . New York, 1934.

Petermann's Geogr. Mittheilungen , Vol. 15 (1869); Vol. 16 (1870); Vol. 25 (1879);
Vol. 28 (1880); Gotha, Germany.

Meddelelser om Gro e nland, Vol. 65, Copenhagen, 1928.

Greenland . (Editors: M. Vahl, G. C. Amdrup, L. Bobe, Ed. S. Jensen),
Copehhagen-London, 1928. Vol. I, Vol/II/

Felizia Seyd
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