Henryk Arctowski – The Cold Weather Enthusiast
portrait, Henryk Arctowski, photograph from the book Antarctica: Last Continent by Ian Cameron, © 2003 Topham Picturepoint/TopFoto /Forum, center, antarctica-portret-forum.jpg
He researched climate change before it was cool. A fearless polar explorer and accomplished scientist, Arctowski led the first scientific expedition to Antarctica. His passion for research never faltered: even a year spent trapped in ice couldn’t deter him.
He was born in Warsaw as Henryk Artzt. His family had moved from Württemberg to Poland in the 17th century and assimilated into the Polish culture over time. Artzt’s father is a high-ranking railway official. They lead a comfortable life. Young Henryk goes to the gymnasium in Inowrocław (under German occupation at the time), but he gets in trouble at school for manifesting his Polish patriotism. His parents send him to a prestigious school in Liège.
Artzt’s scientific career soon starts gaining pace: he’s studying at the Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Science in Liège, then at the Sorbonne and Collège de France. By the time he turns 24, he already holds a position at the Institute for Chemistry in Belgium and an impressive portfolio of academic publications. He signs them Henryk Arctowski – having changed his name to emphasise his Polishness.
The Belgica goes to Antarctica
In 1895, Arctowski hears that Adrian de Gerlach, an officer in the Belgian navy, is organising an expedition to Antarctica. Arctowski is the first to sign up. The land they’re heading to is still unknown: they will be the first scientists ever to reach it. If that wasn’t enough, they decide to go there in winter. Together with Gerlach, Arctowski runs a fundraising campaign. He fully commits to preparing himself for the expedition: he researches Swiss glaciers and consults experts on oceanology and meteorology.
Their budget is modest. All they can afford is a second-hand ship from Norway. They christen their whaler with the proud name Belgica. Their vessel is small but reliable. And most importantly, they have a spacious and well-equipped laboratory.
On the 16th August 1897, they leave the port of Antwerp. The international crew of 22 people, including Roald Amundsen – who would later gain fame as the first man to reach the South Pole – and Emil Racoviţă, the famous Romanian zoologist and the pioneer of biospeleology (the study of organisms that live in caves). Arctowski is chosen to be the scientific leader of the expedition.
The trip doesn’t start well: they only manage to reach nearby Ostend before the steam machine breaks. Three crew members quit. After some personal reshuffling, Arctowski manages to get his colleague Antoni Dobrowolski to join the team. Soon, Dobrowolski will become known as the creator of cryology, the study of ice. For the expedition, however, he is only hired as a regular sailor and merely an assistant to the scientists: Gerlach didn’t take to him at the beginning.
In Rio de Janeiro, they are joined by Frederick Cook, an American doctor and photographer, who will later find himself in the centre of a dispute over who was the first man to reach the North Pole. After many adventures and disruptions, in January 1898 the expedition sails past the last human settlements on the Argentine Isla de los Estados. After that it’s just sea and ice.
The ice trap
Upon reaching the shores of the Antarctic Peninsula, the Belgica gets stuck in the sea ice for 13 months. The crew spends their time of polar imprisonment researching and analysing everything around it. The worst is yet to happen, however. In May, the polar night begins. It will last for six months, and temperatures will plunge to –40°C. The crew members are tormented by depression, breathing problems and scurvy (they will eventually overcome it by eating fresh seal and penguin meat).
In November, the day returns, but the ice is still holding strong. They begin carving their way through: the task takes them five weeks of three eight-hour shifts a day. The men use saws, shovels and anything else they can get their hands on. On 14th March 1899, they manage to escape their frozen jail. They return the first men to have ever spent a winter in Antarctica.
Popular science publications keep asking Arctowski to write an account of his journey. He refuses, and for many years works meticulously on processing and cataloguing all the data from the expedition. Arctowski enjoys professional success, but he also finds love: he marries a famous opera singer, Arian Jane Addy.
The climate man
In 1910, Arctowski participates in the scientific expedition to Spitsbergen. Upon his return, he moves to the USA. For the next nine years, he works as a head of the science division of the New York Public Library. During his time in the USA, he begins his large-scale research on climate change: he will work on this topic for the rest of his life.
The Arctowskis are closely following everything that is happening in Poland. During the Great War, Henryk prepares an extensive (over 2,500 pages) report on Poland for the American committee appointed by President Wilson. At the Paris Peace Conference, where the fate of Polish independence is being decided, Arctowski serves as an advisor to the delegates from his country. His wife organises an aid campaign for Polish refugees.
Poland finally reappears on the map, and Arctowski returns to Poland. Prime Minister Paderewski offers him the position of education minister, but Henryk prefers to commit to science. He becomes a professor of geophysics and meteorology at the Jan Kazimierz University in Lviv.
In August 1939, the Arctowskis travel to New York for a science conference. A month later, war breaks out. There is no way back. Arctowski will work at the Smithsonian Institute for as long his health allows him to continue his research. He dies in 1958.
Translated by Agata Zano