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Alfred de Quervain: Encyclopedia Arctica 15: Biographies
Stefansson, Vilhjalmur, 1879-1962

Alfred de Quervain

(William H. Hobbs)


Alfred de Quervain (1879-1927), distinguished Swiss scientist and Green–
land explorer, was born at Uebeschi near Thun, Switzerland, June 25, 1879. He
was graduated from the Gymnasium of Bern, and later studied science at the
Universities of Neuch a â tel, Bern (geography with Ed. Br u ü ckner), and Strassburg,
(meteorology with Hergesell). In 1898 he was a student of the upper atmosphere
with the famous Tesserenc de Bort at Trappes near Paris, and the following year
carried out important registrir-balloon studies in Russia during the winter months.
In 1902, when he received his doctor's degree at Bern, de Quervain's thesis was
on the subject "Elevation of the atmospheric isotherms in the Swiss Alps and
their relation to the higher limits." He had been able to show by registering
balloon ascents that between February and November the midday isotherms were
bent upward over the central high Alps.
At the close of his student life, de Quervain was made Assistant at the
Astronomical Observatory in Neuenburg, Switzerland, but was shortly afterward
called to Strassburg, to the then Central Bureau for study of the upper atmos–
phere, where he carried out extensive research till 1905. In 1906 he was called
to Zurich as Assistant in the Central Swiss Meteorological Institute, and was
soon afterward advanced to Adjunct and Acting Director, a place he was to hold
until his death a quarter of a century later. He thoroughly reorganized this
winter bureau.
As an inventor de Quervain was to devise with the physicist A. Piccard the

EA-Biography. Hobbs: Alfred de Quervain

de Quervain-Piccard universal seismograph for the study of distant earthquakes.
This instrument had a 21-ton pendulum and was able to register all three com–
ponents of the earthquake motion. Three Swiss stations were equipped with this
type of instrument by 1924 and the country took a high place in international
earthquake investigation. De Quervain also devised a portable form of seismograph.
When the railroad was constructed to the Jungfraujoch (3,740 meters), he was able
to induce the Swiss government to establish an observatory for geophysical, astron–
omical, and physiological investigations.
Dr. de Quervain's great interest in meteorological and especially upper-air
studies led him in 1909 to undertake a Swiss expedition to Greenland in company
with colleagues Stolberg and Bäblers. This expedition was based on the Karajak
Glacier in West Greenland near Gödhavn. Here extensive daily pilot balloon
ascents were carried out, and de Quervain with Stolberg made a penetration over
the inland ice for a distance of about 100 kilometers. (A. de Quervain and A.
Stolberg, Durch Grönlands Eiswüste , Strassburg, 1911, 180 pp.). He then saw the
great advantage for science of an expedition to cross Greenland in the south–
central position, and planned a second and larger expedition for the summer of
1912. On this expedition de Quervain was accompanied by the Swiss aerologists
Dr. P. L. Mercanton, Dr. A. Stolberg, and Dr. W. Jost. With them he carried out
extensive pilot balloon ascents in various colonies on the West Greenland coast.
Then, leaving Mercanton with Stolberg and Jost, to further pursue these researches,
de Quervain, with three companions (Hössly, Fick, and Gaule), set out on the cross–
ing of the island to Angmagssalik on the east coast. This was the first crossing
ever to be made in the central sector of Greenland. The outfit consisted of 4
Nansen sledges and 25 dogs. The load was 55 pounds per dog, and the distance to
be covered 650 kilometers. The party left the western edge of the inland ice on

EA-Biography. Hobbs: Alfred de Quervain

June 20th, the ice divide on July 8th (where sailing began), the eastern border
of the inland ice on July 21st, and the colony of Angmagssalik was reached on
August 1st.
As earlier explorers had learned, the most difficult part of the journey
was the climb to the divide in the face of fierce head winds and drifting snow.
The descent from the divide to the east coast was relatively easy, for the wind
was always to the rear, and with sail raised on the sled a brake had to be used
to keep the sled from overrunning the dogs. Even then the daily runs were from
two to three times as long as those on the ascent. On both sides of the divide was a
central area of the island, within which the air temperature was much lower and
the daily range of temperature on the average three times as great as outside it.
This central area had been entered suddenly at an elevation of 1,900 meters on
the western flank of the inland ice, and the party emerged from it quite abruptly
at the elevation of 2,250 meters on the eastern flank. Outside this central cold
area the average daily air temperature was throughout close to 0° C., whereas
the average daily value within it was −10° C.
This discovery and transaction of the core of the glacial anticyclone of
Greenland was of the highest importance to science, and was in the following year
to be confirmed on a transaction of the island somewhat farther to the north by
J. P. Koch and Alfred Wegener. The scientific report on the de Quervain expedi–
tion appeared in 1920 ("Ergebnisse der schweizerischen Grönlandexpedition 1912-13,
von Prof. Dr. Alfred de Quervain und Prof. Dr. P. L. Mercanton," Denkschr. d.
Schweizerischen Naturforschenden Gesellschaft
, vol. 53, 402 pp. (4 [: ] to ), many plates
and figures).
Dr. de Quervain was a member of many scientific commissions, including that
of glaciers. His publications in scientific fields comprise no less than 75 titles.

EA-Biography. Hobbs: Alfred de Quervain

Dr. de Quervain was one of the most distinguished of Swiss scientists, in the
fields of geography, meteorology, and seismology. He was elected to membership
in many scientific societies, both Swiss and foreign, and the recipient of many

Billinger, R. Verhandl. Schweiz. Naturf. Ges ., vol. 108, pp. 32-41 (with
portrait and full bibliography).

Brückner, Eduard Gerland's Beiträge, Geophysik . vol. 16, pp. 341-343.

William H. Hobbs
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