Bessels Emil

(03.06.1847 - 30.03.1888)

German Jewish physician, Arctic explorer.

Born in Heidelberg, Germany, he studied medicine and natural sciences in his hometown and Jena, and spent most of his academic career at the Smithsonian Institution.

In 1869, at the suggestion of Augustus Petermann, he joined the Arctic expedition with the aim of exploring the islands of Spitsbergen and Novaya Zemlya and exploring the ocean in their vicinity. Due to unfavorable ice conditions, only the first destination was reached. During the expedition, hydrographic measurements were carried out and the influence of the Gulf Stream on the climate of the east coast of Spitsbergen was demonstrated.

After returning from an expedition in 1870, Bessels as a surgeon participated in the Franco-Prussian war. For his military service, he was awarded the public praise of the Grand Duke of Baden.

In 1871, Bessel as a ship doctor and head of scientific research joined the expedition of the American Arctic explorer Charles Francis Hall on the ship Polaris. He and Hall soon came into conflict because of the control over the scientific research on the expedition. When Hall fell ill in October 1871, Bessel stayed at the bedside for several days, ostensibly to administer the treatment.   However, Hall suspected that Bessel hunted him and refused to make further contacts.

After the death of Hall, Bessels was among those who remained on the ship squeezed in ice while most of the crew headed south on the ice. Bessel and his party after wintering, too, were forced to leave the ship. As a result, both groups were saved by whalers and arrived in the United States in 1873.

Bessel and other surviving members of the expedition’s crew were interrogated by the naval commission to investigate the events leading to Hall’s death. The commission concluded that Hall died of natural causes and that Bessel had done his best to save him.

However, there was no absolute certainty that Bessels was innocent, and almost 100 years later, in 1969, Hall’s body, buried in Greenland, was exhumed: tests showed signs of arsenic in the bones and tissues.


Bergfriedhof Cemetery (Mountain) in Heidelberg


In the 1870s, Bessel served at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, where he worked on the preparation of the publication of the scientific results of the expedition. It was planned to publish 3 volumes, but only the first volume, Physical Observations, was released. In 1885, the manuscripts died in a fire.

Later, Bessel thought about conducting his own Arctic expedition, but eventually abandoned this intention.

Bessel died of a stroke in Stuttgart. He was buried in Heidelberg in the cemetery of Bergfriedhof Heidelberg.

Cape and glacier on the northeast coast of the Barents Island, Spitsbergen. The coordinates are 78° 32'N  21° 33'E.


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