Stefansson, born William Stephenson, was born at Gimli, Manitoba, Canada, in 1879. His parents had emigrated from Iceland to Manitoba two years earlier. After losing two children during a period of devastating flooding, the family moved to North Dakota in 1880.
He was educated at the universities of North Dakota and of Iowa (A.B., 1903). During his college years, in 1899, he changed his name to Vilhjalmur Stefansson. He studied anthropology at the graduate school of Harvard University, where for two years he was an instructor.
In 1904 and 1905, Stefansson made archaeological researches in Iceland. Recruited by Ejnar Mikkelsen and Ernest de Koven Leffingwell for their Anglo-American Polar Expedition, he lived with the Inuit of the Mackenzie Delta during the winter of 1906–1907, returning alone across country via the Porcupine and Yukon Rivers. Under the auspices of the American Museum of Natural History, New York, he and Dr. R. M. Anderson undertook the ethnological survey of the Central Arctic coasts of the shores of North America from 1908 to 1912.
In 1908, Stefansson made a decision that would affect the rest of his time in Alaska: he hired the Inuk guide Natkusiak, who would remain with him as his primary guide for the rest of his Alaska expeditions.1 At the time he met Natkusiak, the Inuit guide was working for Capt. George B. Leavitt, a Massachusetts whaling ship captain and friend of Stefansson's who sometimes brought the Arctic explorer replenishments of supplies from the American Museum of Natural History.2
Christian Klengenberg is first credited to have introduced the term "Blonde Eskimo" to Stefansson just before Stefansson's visit to the Inuit inhabiting southwestern Victoria Island, Canada, in 1910. Stefansson, though, preferred the term Copper Inuit.3 Adolphus Greely in 1912 first compiled the sightings recorded in earlier literature of blonde or fair haired Arctic natives and in 1912 published them in the National Geographic Magazine entitled "The Origin of Stefansson's Blonde Eskimo". Newspapers subsequently popularised the term "Blonde Eskimo", which caught more readers attention despite Stefansson's preference for Copper Inuit. Stefansson later referenced Greely's work in his writings and the term "Blonde Eskimo" became applied to sightings of light haired Eskimos from as early as the 17th century.4
Stefansson organized and directed the Canadian Arctic Expedition 1913-1916 to explore the regions west of Parry Archipelago for the Government of Canada. Three ships, the Karluk, the Mary Sachs, and the Alaska were employed.
Stefansson left the main ship, the Karluk, when it became stuck in the ice in August/September 1913. Stefansson's explanation was that he and five other expedition members left to go hunting to provide fresh meat for the crew. However, William Laird McKinley and others left on the ship suspected that he left deliberately, anticipating that the ship would be carried off by moving ice, as indeed happened. The ship, with Captain Robert Bartlett of Newfoundland and 24 other expedition members aboard, drifted westward with the ice and was eventually crushed. It sank on January 11, 1914. Four men made their way to Herald Island, but died there, possibly from carbon monoxide poisoning, before they could be rescued. Four other men, including Alistair Mackay who had been part of the Sir Ernest Shackleton's British Antarctic Expedition, tried reaching Wrangel Island on their own but perished. The remaining members of the expedition, under command of Captain Bartlett, made their way to Wrangel Island where three died. Bartlett and his Inuk hunter Kataktovik made their way across sea ice to Siberia to get help. Remaining survivors were picked up by the American fishing schooner King & Winge and the U.S. revenue cutter Bear.5
Stefansson resumed his explorations by sledge over the Arctic Ocean, here known as the Beaufort Sea, leaving Collinson Point, Alaska in April, 1914. A supporting sledge turned back 75 mi (121 km) offshore, but he and two men continued onward on one sledge, living largely by his rifle on polar game for 96 days until his party reached the Mary Sachs in the autumn. Stefansson continued exploring until 1918.
In 1921, he encouraged and planned an expedition for four young men to colonise Wrangel Island north of Siberia, where the eleven survivors of the 22 men on the Karluk had lived from March to September 1914. Stefansson had designs for forming an exploration company that would be geared towards individuals interested in touring the Arctic island.
Stefansson originally wanted to claim Wrangel Island for the Canadian government. However due to the dangerous outcome from his initial trip to the island, the government refused to assist with the expedition. He then wanted to claim the land for Britain but the British government rejected this claim when it was made by the young men. The raising of the British flag on Wrangel Island, acknowledged Russian territory, caused an international incident.
The four young men, Frederick Maurer, E. Lorne Knight, and Milton Galle from the US, and Allan Crawford of Canada, were ill equipped, both materially and in experience for the trip. All perished on the island or in an attempt to get help from Siberia across the frozen Chukchi Sea. The only survivors were an Inuk woman, Ada Blackjack, whom the men had hired as a seamstress in Nome, Alaska, and taken with them, and the expedition's cat, Vic. Ada Blackjack had taught herself survival skills and cared for the last man on the island, E. Lorne Knight, until he died of scurvy. Blackjack was rescued in 1923 after two years on Wrangel Island. Stefansson drew the ire of the public and the families for having sent such ill equipped young men to Wrangel. His reputation was severely tainted by this disaster and that of the Karluk.
Stefansson's discoveries included new land (such as Brock, Mackenzie King, Borden, Meighen, and Lougheed Islands)6 and the edge of the continental shelf. His journeys and successes are among the marvels of Arctic exploration. He extended the discoveries of Francis Leopold McClintock. From April 1914 to June 1915 he lived on the ice pack. Stefansson continued his explorations leaving from Herschel Island on August 23, 1915.
Stefansson remained a well-known explorer for the rest of his life. Late in life, through his affiliation with Dartmouth College (he was Director of Polar Studies), he became a major figure in the establishment of the US Army's Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory (CRREL) in Hanover, New Hampshire. CRREL-supported research, often conducted in winter on the forbidding summit of Mount Washington, has been key to developing matériel and doctrine to support alpine conflict.
Stefansson joined the Explorers Club in 1908, four years after its founding. He later served as Club President twice: 1919–1922 and 1937–1939. In the all-male Club, the Board drew attention under Stefansson's reign when it put forth an amendment to its bylaws that read in 1938, "A Woman's Roll of Honor shall be instituted to which the Board of Directors may name women of the United States and Canada in recognition of the noteworthy achievements and writings in the field of the Club's interests, primarily exploration."7 Perhaps to comfort fellow members, the article added, "This Woman's Roll of Honor shall be quite outside the Club's organisation but shall correspond in dignity to the Honorary Class of (male) members within it."7
While living in New York City, Stefansson was one of the regulars at Romany Marie's Greenwich Village cafés.8 During the years when he and novelist Fannie Hurst were having an affair,9 they met there when he was in town.
Stefansson's personal papers and collection of Arctic artifacts are maintained and available to the public at the Dartmouth College Library.
Stefansson is frequently quoted as saying that "adventure is a sign of incompetence."
In the 1930s, pro-Soviet movements were created whose main aim was to provide support for the Soviet project to establish a Jewish socialist republic in the Birobidzhan region in the far east of the USSR. One of the organisations prominent in this campaign was the American Committee for the Settlement of Jews in Birobidjan, or Ambijan, formed in 1934. A tireless proponent of settlement in Birobidzhan, Stefansson appeared at countless Ambijan meetings, dinners, and rallies, and proved an invaluable resource. Ambijan produced a 50-page Year Book at the end of 1936, full of testimonials and letters of support. Among these was one from Stefansson, who was now also listed as a member of Ambijan's Board of Directors and Governors: "The Birobidjan project seems to me to offer a most statesmanlike contribution to the problem of the rehabilitation of eastern and central European Jewry," he wrote.
Ambijan's national conference in New York, November 25–26, 1944, pledged to raise $1 million to support refugees in Stalingrad and Birobidzhan. Prominent guests and speakers included New York Congressman Emanuel Celler, Senator Elbert D. Thomas of Utah, and Soviet ambassador Andrei Gromyko. A public dinner, attended by the delegates and their guests, was hosted by Vilhjalmur and spouse Evelyn Stefansson. Vilhjalmur was selected as one of two vice-presidents of the organisation.
But with the growing anti-Russian feeling in the country after World War II, "exposés" of Stefansson began to appear in the press. In August 1951, he was denounced as a Communist before a Senate Internal Security subcommittee by Louis F. Budenz, a Communist-turned-Catholic. Perhaps Stefansson himself had by then had some second thoughts about Ambijan, for his posthumously published autobiography made no mention of his work on its behalf. Nor, for that matter, did his otherwise very complete obituary in The New York Times of August 27, 1962.14
Stefansson is also a figure of considerable interest in dietary circles, especially those with an interest in very low-carbohydrate diets. Stefansson documented the fact that the Inuit diet consisted of about 90% meat and fish; Inuit would often go 6 to 9 months a year eating nothing but meat and fish—essentially, a no-carbohydrate diet. He found that he and his fellow explorers of European descent were also perfectly healthy on such a diet. When medical authorities questioned him on this, he and a fellow explorer agreed to undertake a study under the auspices of the Journal of the American Medical Association to demonstrate that they could eat a 100% meat diet in a closely observed laboratory setting for the first several weeks, with paid observers for the rest of an entire year. The results were published in the Journal, and both men were perfectly healthy on such a diet, without vitamin supplementation or anything else in their diet except meat and entrails.15
- Natkusiak (ca. 1885–1947), Arctic magazine, Vol. 45, No. 1 (March 1992), pp. 90–92.
- My Life with the Eskimo, Vilhjalmur Stefansson, Reissued by Kessinger Publishing, 2004. ISBN 1-4179-2395-4
- "Further Discussion of the 'Blonde Eskimos'",American Anthropologist, vol. 24., 1922, p.229 
- My Life with the Eskimo, 1922, p. 199 (reprinted by Kessinger Publishing, 2004).
- Newell, Gordon R., ed., H.W. McCurdy Maritime History of the Pacific Northwest, at 242, Superior Publishing, Seattle, Washington, 1966.
- Stefansson, Vilhjalmur (1922). The Friendly Arctic: The Story of Five Years in Polar Regions. New York: Macmillan.
- Minutes, Explorer's Club, 4 January 1938.
- Robert Shulman. Romany Marie: The Queen of Greenwich Village (pp. 93, 110–112). Louisville: Butler Books, 2006. ISBN 1-884532-74-8
- Pálsson, Gísli. Travelling Passions: The Hidden Life Of Vilhjalmur Stefansson (pp. 187, 190, 251–252). Lebanon, New Hampshire: University Press of New England, 2005. ISBN 1-58465-510-0
- "Stefansson Receives Honor By American Polar Society". Christian Science Monitor. February 5, 1940. Retrieved 2011-11-02. "Dr. Vilhjalmur Stefansson, veteran Arctic explorer and author has been unanimously voted in as the third Honorary Member of the American Polar Society by its executive board. He will be presented with an illuminated scroll emblematic of..."
- The History of Science Society "The Society: Past Presidents of the History of Science Society", accessed 4 December 2013
- "Milestones". Time. December 22, 1941. "Marriage revealed: Explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson, 62; and Mrs. Evelyn Schwartz Baird, 28, his secretary; in Wellsville, Tennessee"
- Scott catalogue #2222.
- Srebrnik, Henry. "The Radical 'Second Life' of Vilhjalmur Stefansson," Arctic: Journal of the Arctic Institute of North America 51, 1, 1998: 58–60.
- McClellan, Walter S.; Du Bois, Eugene F. (February 13, 1930). "The Effects on Human Beings of a Twelve Months' Exclusive Meat Diet" (PDF). Journal of the American Medical Association.
- Stefansson, Vilhjalmur. My Life with the Eskimo; The Macmillan Company, New York, 1912.
- Stefansson, Vilhjalmur. Stefánsson-Anderson Expedition, 1909–12; Anthropological Papers, AMNH, vol. XIV., New York, 1914.
- Stefansson, Vilhjalmur. The Standardization of Error; W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., New York, 1927.
- Stefansson, Vilhjalmur. Unsolved Mysteries of the Arctic; The Macmillan Company, New York, 1938.
- Stefansson, Vilhjalmur. Not by Bread Alone; The Macmillan Company, New York, 1946.
- Stefansson, Vilhjalmur. The Fat of the Land; The Macmillan Company, New York, 1956.
- Stefansson, Vilhjalmur. Discovery – the autobiography of Vilhjalmur Stefansson; McGraw-Hill Book Company, New York, 1964.
- Stefansson, Vilhjalmur. Cancer: Disease of civilization? An anthropological and historical study; Hill and Wang, Inc., New York, 1960.
- Stefansson, Vilhjalmur (ed.). Great Adventures and Explorations; The Dial Press, 1947.
- Diubaldo, Richard. Stefansson and the Canadian Arctic; McGill-Queen's University Press, Montreal, 1978.
- Hunt, William R. Stef: A Biography of Vilhjalmur Stefansson, Canadian Arctic explorer; University of British Columbia Press, Vancouver, 1986. ISBN 0-7748-0247-2
- Jenness, Stuart Edward. The Making of an Explorer: George Hubert Wilkins and the Canadian Arctic Expedition, 1913–1916; McGill-Queen's Press – MQUP, 2004. ISBN 0-7735-2798-2
- Niven, Jennifer. The Ice Master: The Doomed 1913 Voyage of the Karluk, Hyperion Books, 2000.
- Niven, Jennifer. Ada Blackjack: A True Story Of Survival In The Arctic, Hyperion Books, 2003. ISBN 0-7868-8746-X
- Pálsson, Gísli. Writing on Ice: The Ethnographic Notebooks of Vilhjalmur Stefansson; Dartmouth College Press, University Press of New England, Hanover, 2001. ISBN 1-58465-119-9
- Pálsson, Gísli. "The legacy of Vilhjalmur Stefansson", the Stefansson Arctic Institute (and individual authors), 2000.
- Henighan, Tom (2009). Vilhjalmur Stefansson: Arctic Traveller. Toronto: Dundurn Press. ISBN 978-1-55002-874-4.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Vilhjalmur Stefansson.|
- "Adventures in Diet", Harper's Monthly magazine, November 1935
- Biography of Vilhjalmur Stefansson
- Stefansson on enchantedlearning.com
- "Arctic Dreamer" Award-winning documentary on Stefansson's life, includes much archival footage
- The Correspondence files of Vilhjalmur Steffansson in the Rauner Special Collections Library at Dartmouth College