Knud Rasmussen
Knud Johan Victor Rasmussen

(1879-06-07)7 June 1879
Died21 December 1933(1933-12-21) (aged 54)
Copenhagen, Denmark
Known forPolar exploration and eskimology
Dagmar Andersen
(m. 1908)
Scientific career

Knud Johan Victor Rasmussen[1] (/ˈræsmʊsən/; 7 June 1879 – 21 December 1933)[2] was a Greenlandic-Danish polar explorer and anthropologist. He has been called the "father of Eskimology"[3] (now often known as Inuit Studies or Greenlandic and Arctic Studies) and was the first European to cross the Northwest Passage via dog sled.[4] He remains well known in Greenland, Denmark and among Canadian Inuit.[5]

Early years

Rasmussen family house in Ilulissat

Rasmussen was born in Jakobshavn, Greenland, the son of a Danish missionary, the vicar Christian Rasmussen, and an Inuit–Danish mother, Lovise Rasmussen (née Fleischer). He had two siblings.[6]

Rasmussen spent his early years in Greenland among the Kalaallit where he learned to speak Kalaallisut, hunt, drive dog sleds and live in harsh Arctic conditions. "My playmates were native Greenlanders; from the earliest boyhood I played and worked with the hunters, so even the hardships of the most strenuous sledge-trips became pleasant routine for me."[7]

He was later educated in Lynge, North Zealand, Denmark. Between 1898 and 1900 he pursued an unsuccessful career as an actor and opera singer.[5][8]


Rasmussen in 1924, on the left (with Mrs. Arnalulunguak & Mr. Meetek)

He went on his first expedition in 1902–1904, known as The Danish Literary Expedition, with Jørgen Brønlund, Harald Moltke and Ludvig Mylius-Erichsen, to examine Inuit culture. After returning home, he went on a lecture circuit and wrote The People of the Polar North (1908), a combination travel journal and scholarly account of Inuit folklore. In 1908, he married Dagmar Andersen.[9]

In 1910, Rasmussen and friend Peter Freuchen established the Thule Trading Station at Cape York (Qaanaaq), Greenland, as a trading base.[5][10] The name Thule was chosen because it was the most northerly trading post in the world, literally the "Ultima Thule".[7] Thule Trading Station became the home base for a series of seven expeditions, known as the Thule Expeditions, between 1912 and 1933.[11]

The Thule expeditions

The First Thule Expedition (1912, Rasmussen and Freuchen) aimed to test Robert Peary's claim that a channel divided Peary Land from Greenland. They proved this was not the case in a remarkable 1,000 kilometres (620 mi) journey across the inland ice that almost killed them.[5] Clements Markham, president of the Royal Geographical Society, called the journey the "finest ever performed by dogs."[12] Freuchen wrote personal accounts of this journey (and others) in Vagrant Viking (1953) and I Sailed with Rasmussen (1958).[13] In 1915, he translated Mathias Storch's novel Singnagtugaq into Danish (The Dream in English; translated as En grønlænders drøm), the first novel written in Greenlandic.[14]

The Second Thule Expedition (1916–1918) was larger with a team of seven men, which set out to map a little-known area of Greenland's north coast. This journey was documented in Rasmussen's account Greenland by the Polar Sea (1921). The trip was beset with two fatalities, the only in Rasmussen's career,[5] namely Thorild Wulff and Hendrik Olsen. The Third Thule Expedition (1919) was depot-laying for Roald Amundsen's polar drift in the ship Maud.[5] The Fourth Thule Expedition (1919–1920) was in east Greenland where Rasmussen spent several months collecting ethnographic data near Angmagssalik.[5]

Rasmussen's "greatest achievement"[5] was the massive Fifth Thule Expedition (1921–1924) which was designed to "attack the great primary problem of the origin of the Eskimo race."[7] A ten volume account (The Fifth Thule Expedition 1921–1924 (1946)) of ethnographic, archaeological and biological data was collected, and many artifacts are still on display in museums in Denmark. The team of seven first went to eastern Arctic Canada where they began collecting specimens, taking interviews (including the shaman Aua, who told him of Uvavnuk), and excavating sites.[15]

Rasmussen left the team and traveled for 16 months with two Inuit hunters by dog sled across North America to Nome, Alaska – he tried to continue to Russia but his visa was refused.[5] He was the first European to cross the Northwest Passage via dog sled.[4] His journey is recounted in Across Arctic America (1927), considered today a classic of polar expedition literature.[5] This trip has also been called the "Great Sled Journey" and was dramatized in the Canadian film The Journals of Knud Rasmussen (2006).[16]

For the next seven years, Rasmussen traveled between Greenland and Denmark giving lectures and writing. In 1931, he went on the Sixth Thule Expedition, designed to consolidate Denmark's claim on a portion of eastern Greenland that was contested by Norway.[5]

The Seventh Thule Expedition (1933) was meant to continue the work of the sixth, but Rasmussen contracted pneumonia after an episode of food poisoning attributed to eating kiviaq,[17][18] dying a few weeks later in Copenhagen at the age of 54. During this expedition Rasmussen worked on the film The Wedding of Palo, which Rasmussen wrote the screenplay for. The film was directed by Friedrich Dalsheim and completed in 1934 under the Danish title Palos brudefærd.[19][20]


Knud Rasmussen House, now a museum, in Hundested, Sjælland, Denmark

In addition to several capes and glaciers, Knud Rasmussen Range in Greenland is named after him, as is the Knud Rasmussen-class patrol vessel and its lead ship, the HDMS Knud Rasmussen.[21]

He was awarded an Honorary Fellowship from the American Geographical Society in 1912, and its Daly Medal in 1924.[22] The Royal Geographical Society awarded him their Founder's Medal in 1923[23] and the Royal Danish Geographical Society their Hans Egede Medal in 1924.[24] He was made honorary doctor at the University of Copenhagen in 1924, and the University of St Andrews in 1927.[25]



  1. ^ "Rasmussen, Knud | Inuit Literatures ᐃᓄᐃᑦ ᐊᓪᓚᒍᓯᖏᑦ Littératures inuites". Retrieved 28 May 2021.
  2. ^ Knud Rasmussen at the Encyclopædia Britannica
  3. ^ Jean Malaurie, 1982.
  4. ^ a b Alley, Sam. "Knud Johan Victor Rasmussen". Mankato: Minnesota State University. Archived from the original on 12 October 2010. Retrieved 23 November 2015.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Elizabeth Cruwys, 2003.
  6. ^ "Knud Rasmussen | Arctic Thule". Retrieved 7 January 2023.
  7. ^ a b c Knud Rasmussen, 1927, Across Arctic America, Introduction.
  8. ^ "Life and history". Archived from the original on 2 January 2008. Retrieved 6 January 2008.
  9. ^ Forlag, Hans Reitzels (2009). Mellem mennesker: en grundbog i antropologisk forskningsetik (in Danish). Hans Reitzels Forlag. ISBN 978-87-412-5329-9.
  10. ^ Freuchen, Dagmar (1960). Peter Freuchen's Adventures in the Arctic. New York: Messner. p. 21.
  11. ^ Johnston, Jay; Probyn-Rapsey, Fiona (2013). Animal Death. Sydney University Press. ISBN 978-1-74332-023-5.
  12. ^ Clements Markham, 1921
  13. ^ "I sailed with Rasmussen by Freuchen, Peter: Hardcover (1958) Presumed first edition/first printing. | Ground Zero Books, Ltd". Retrieved 2 February 2022.
  14. ^ Thisted, Kirsten (2018). ""A place in the sun": Historical perspectives on the debate on development and modernity in Greenland". Arctic modernities: The environmental, the exotic, and the everyday. Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge. p. 320. ISBN 9781527506916.
  15. ^ "Knud Rasmussen | Biography, Expeditions, & Facts | Britannica". Retrieved 2 February 2022.
  16. ^ The Journals of Knud Rasmussen. Montreal: Alliance Atlantis. 2006. Retrieved 11 August 2022.
  17. ^ Magazine, Smithsonian. "Eating Narwhal". Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved 19 October 2022.
  18. ^ "Review: This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons in Greenland by Gretel Ehrlich". the Guardian. 16 February 2002. Retrieved 19 October 2022.
  19. ^ "Palos Brudefærd" (in Danish). Det Danske Filminstitut. Retrieved 11 August 2020.
  20. ^ MacKenzie, Scott; Anna, Westerståhl Stenport (2015), "'From Objects to Actors: Knud Rasmussen's Ethnographical Feature Film The Wedding of Palo' by Ebbe Volquardsen", Films on Ice: Cinemas of the Arctic, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, pp. 217–223, ISBN 9780748694174
  21. ^ "Knud Rasmussen Land". Mapcarta. Retrieved 24 April 2016.
  22. ^ "American Geographical Society Honorary Fellowships" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 4 July 2009. Retrieved 2 March 2009.
  23. ^ "List of Past Gold Medal Winners" (PDF). Royal Geographical Society. Archived from the original (PDF) on 27 September 2011. Retrieved 24 August 2015.
  24. ^ "Egede Medaillen". (in Danish). Royal Library, Denmark & Copenhagen University Library. Archived from the original on 10 February 2017.
  25. ^ "Knud Rasmussen". (in Danish). 21 December 2008. Archived from the original on 23 October 2020. Retrieved 31 January 2021.

Further reading