Henryk Arctowski, polar and Antarctic explorer

The 151st anniversary of Arctowski’s birthday

A mountain and glacier in Spitsbergen is named after him, as well as a bay, peninsula, mountain range, mountain, nunatak (a hill hidden under the ice surface) and a research station in Antarctica. Despite his German origin, Arctowski was a Polish patriot who believed that, thanks to his presence in Antarctica, his homeland would find itself among “the cultural states”.

by Piotr Bejrowski


He was born on 15 July 1871 in Warsaw as Henryk Artzt. His wealthy parents sent their son to a high school in Liège, Belgium after which he continued his studies at French universities, including the Sorbonne and the Mining School studying geology, petrography and mineralogy. In 1893, he started working at the Chemical Institute of the University of Liège and was involved in studying rock-forming minerals and other geological research. At that time he decided to change his name and from that moment on he signed all his letters with the name Arctowski, which would prove to be more difficult to pronounce abroad.

Christmas Dinner on the “Belgica” (December 25, 1898). From the left: Henryk Arctowski, Georges Lecointe, Emil Racoviţă, Adrien de Gerlache

The expedition of the ship “Belgica”, which set sail in August 1897, would be a breakthrough for polar research. The scientific director of the expedition was a young Polish scientist who selected the soon to be recognized geophysicist, ice researcher, meteorologist and educator Antoni Dobrowolski to help him. Roald Amundsen and Frederick Cook, later conquerors of the South and North Poles, were also among the party. On 30 January 1898, the polar explorers reached the Antarctic Peninsula and went ashore. Soon the ship was immobilized by a frozen ice floe and the crew were trapped in Antarctica for thirteen months. This was the first research trip forced to spend the winter in the area, and it proved to be an “ice prison” filled with danger and struggle. “Belgica” did not return to Antwerp until November 1899.

Among Arctowski’s most important achievements on the expedition were a hypothesis about the geological connectivity of Antarctica and South America (“Antarktanda”), comparative studies of optical and atmospheric phenomena, and comprehensive meteorological observations throughout the year, which confirmed that the continent’s climate was much cooler than previously claimed. After returning to Belgium, the scholar devoted himself to further research. These results were published for many years under the title “Expedition Antarctique Belge”. Arctowski also participated in many world scientific congresses, during which he presented a project that sought to continue international research on Antarctica and planned for the creation of a network of research stations.

Belgica anchored at Mount William, 1898

In 1910, he took part in a French expedition to Spitsbergen and Lofoten. He then moved to the United States and became director of the science department at the New York library. During the First World War, Arctowski actively supported the Commission on Polish Affairs (the so-called Hausa Commission), to which he presented a comprehensive report on Poland, containing detailed historical, cultural, demographic and economic data. During the Paris Peace Conference, he was an advisor to the Polish delegation, and he supported the activities of Roman Dmowski and Ignacy Paderewski.

In 1920, Arctowski returned to independent Poland. He decided to pursue a scientific career, and therefore, did not accept the proposed office of minister of religious denominations and public enlightenment. As a professor at the University of Lwów, he headed the Institute of Geophysics and Meteorology, which conducted, inter alia, research on oil in the Carpathians and other climatic and geological research. He co-organized the scientific life in interwar Lwów, held conversational Mondays in his home with professors and students, and donated his large library to the university.

At that time, the distinguished polar explorer continued to publish extensively, participated in many conferences and was a member of several important organizations, including the International Geographic Union and the International Commission of Climate Fluctuations, which he chaired from 1934. On his initiative, the Polish delegation took part in the Second International Polar Year in 1932–1933. In 1935, Arctowski became a member of the Polish Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Henryk Arctowski as a professor at the Jan Kazimierz University of Lwów

In August 1939, he took part in the Congress of the International Geodetic and Geophysical Union, during which he was the chairman of the Climate Change Committee. The outbreak of the war prevented him from returning to Poland. He decided to stay and continue his research work in the United States. In 1943, he was a co-organizer of the 400th anniversary of the birth of Nicolaus Copernicus in New York. A few years before his death, he established the Henryk Arctowski Foundation as part of the American National Academy of Sciences.

Arctowski died on 21 February 1958 in Washington. Two years later, his ashes were brought to Poland and placed in the Powązki Cemetery in Warsaw. In 1977, on King George Island, the Polish Academy of Sciences launched the first Polish Antarctic Station named after Henryk Arctowski, which is still operating today. The most famous Polish polar explorer in the world had developed the project to establish a research station in Antarctica many decades earlier.


Author: Piotr Bejrowski
Transation: Mikołaj Sekrecki