Roald Engelbregt Gravning Amundsen (1872-1928) was born near Oslo, Norway into a prosperous shipbuilding family. Amundsen was inspired to become a polar explorer by travel books on the Arctic and by the exploits of his countryman Fridtjof Nansen.
Amundsen spent two years as a medical student at Oslo University before he went to sea in a sealer to East Greenland, obtaining his mate's certificate in 1895. He joined the Belgian Antarctic Expedition, 1897-1899 (de Gerlache de Gomery) as first mate of Belgica. The ship was beset by pack ice and drifted south of Peter I y for 12 months, becoming the first exploring vessel to winter south of the Antarctic Circle. A comprehensive scientific programme was undertaken and detailed collections were made.
On his return Amundsen obtained his master's certificate in 1900 and also trained in geomagnetism under the German physicist Georg von Neumayer. In 1903, despite inadequate financial support, he sailed the small fishing boat Gja with six companions from Baffin Bay westward through the Arctic archipelago of northern Canada, living in close contact with local Inuit. During the first winter, he sledged with dog teams to the North Magnetic Pole. In the second summer, Gja emerged into the Beaufort Sea, becoming in August 1905 the first ship to achieve the Northwest Passage.
For two years following his return, Amundsen was engaged in writing and lecturing in order to pay the debts of the expedition. He began to prepare for his next great venture, hoping to reach the North Pole by drifting across the Arctic Ocean like Nansen. Winning Nansen's support, the Norwegian government loaned Amundsen the research vessel Fram, in September 1909, the news that Frederick Cook and Robert Peary had reached the North Pole reduced Amundsen's enthusiasm for this expedition. Sailing from Norway in June 1910, ostensibly for the Arctic, he switched objectives and headed instead for the South Pole on the Norwegian Antarctic Expedition, 1910-1912, informing Robert Falcon Scott of his intentions before Scott left New Zealand. By the end of January 1911, Amundsen was established at Framheim on the Ross Ice Shelf, and on 14 December 1911 he and four companions reached the South Pole by dog sledge, claiming the South Polar Plateau for Norway. His expedition was a model of foresight, organization and efficiency.
In the earlier years of the First World War, Amundsen amassed a small fortune by speculation in shipping. Putting his money into the furtherance of his schemes of exploration, Amundsen returned to the Arctic in 1918 with his own ship Maud, in which he sailed and drifted along the Siberian coast.
On his return to Norway, Amundsen became interested in flight as a means of exploration, and after some preliminary ventures, he flew from Spitsbergen in 1925, reaching 88° North before being forced to descend. The following year, with Lincoln Ellsworth and General Nobile, he took the Norge airship from Spitsbergen to Alaska over the North Pole in 72 hours. In June 1928, he was lost with two companions while flying over the Arctic Ocean in search of a missing Italian expedition led by Nobile.
Published work My life as an explorer by Roald Amundsen, Heinemann, London (1927) Roald Amundsen's Belgica diary, the first scientific expedition to the Antarctic, edited by Hugo Decleir, Bluntisham Books Bluntisham, Erskine Press Norwich (1999)
Biographical information, Roald Amundsen explorer by Charles Turley, Methuen & Co. London (1935) Amundsen by Bellamy Partridge, Robert Hale, London (1953) Roald Amundsen - en biografi (Norwegian) by Tor Bomann-Larsen, Cappelen Oslo (1995)