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'Canada's greatest Arctic explorer' raised in N.D.

The first person to recommend a diet high in meat and fat for good health and low obesity was from North Dakota. Seventy-five years ago - long before the Atkins Diet or the South Beach Diet became popular - Vilhjalmur Stefansson wrote several art...

The first person to recommend a diet high in meat and fat for good health and low obesity was from North Dakota.

Seventy-five years ago - long before the Atkins Diet or the South Beach Diet became popular - Vilhjalmur Stefansson wrote several articles in popular magazines and journals about a healthy diet high in protein and fat.

The reason Stefansson promoted this diet was because he had spent years living with the Eskimos. Between 1906 and 1918, he went on three expeditions into the Arctic, which lasted between 16 months and five years. In his "Arctic Manual," he wrote that the Eskimos subsisted on a diet largely of meat and fat from animals and marine life. He wrote that Eskimos were "the healthiest people I had lived with."

His findings were confirmed in an article in the Journal of Biological Chemistry, published in 1930 and based on a yearlong trial conducted on him at Bellevue Hospital in New York. One of the startling results of the test was a dramatic drop in blood cholesterol.

In 1935-36, Harpers Monthly Magazine published a three-part series written by Stefansson that praised the value of a diet high in fat and meat.


Stefansson was born on Nov. 3, 1879 in Arnes, Manitoba, to Johann and Ingibjorg Stefansson. When he was 18 months old, his family moved to a farm near Mountain in northwestern Dakota Territory. His father and two of his siblings died while Vilhjalmur was still a youth. He helped support his mother and sister by herding cattle and selling horses.

In 1897, Stefansson traveled to Grand Forks to enroll at the University of North Dakota, where he lived in low-cost housing on the Harry Richards farm just south of the campus. This area is now the Ray Richards Golf Course.

Stefansson was popular among the university's student body. In 1900, he was voted the best orator. He also worked for the school newspaper. But he was a prankster. One night he reportedly stole the horse and carriage of UND's president and parked it in front of a house known for its prostitution activities.

In 1902, he was suspended from the university for failing "to attend duties." It supposedly was for inciting a protest within the student body.

Stefansson applied forreadmission, but was turned down. He then transferred to the University of Iowa and, in June 1903, graduated with a bachelor of arts degree. He enrolled at Harvard, where he earned a master's degree in 1906 with a major in anthropology.

Stefansson made his first Arctic expedition in 1906-07, becoming the first white person to explore the Beaufort Sea area. His second expedition was from 1908 to 1912, and his third was from 1913 to 1918. The National Geographic Society and the American Museum of Natural History largely funded the last expedition. Stefansson returned from the Arctic in 1918 after discovering the last unmapped islands that were named Brock, Borden, Meighen and Lougheed.

In 1922, Stefansson became involved in an international dispute when he organized an expedition to colonize Wrangel Island, off the coast of Siberia. Colonists planted a British flag on the island, which had been considered the property of Russia. Russia protested and the Foreign Office in England declared this was Stefansson's own affair. They laid no claim to Wrangel Island.

Stefansson was reinstated by UND in 1930 and awarded an honorary doctor of laws degree. Two years later, he began mapping flight plans for Pan American Airlines and, in 1933, worked on Charles Lindberg's plan for a transatlantic flight.


When the prospect of war became apparent in 1940, the U.S. War Department asked him to help the Alaska Defense Force by explaining conditions in the Arctic. He also investigated the prospect of oil production in that region.

During World War II, Stefansson was a military adviser to the U.S. government, writing reports and army manuals about defending the Arctic. In 1947, he became Arctic consultant at Dartmouth College and later was hired as director of polar studies there. By the time he died on Aug. 26, 1962, Stefansson had authored 23 books and more than 400 articles. His autobiography, "Discovery," was published in 1964.

Both the U.S. and Canada claim Stefansson. He is considered "Canada's greatest Arctic explorer," even though he was only 18 months old when his family moved from Canada to North Dakota. Today, he is also considered the inspiration of a number of popular diet plans. Not bad for a person expelled from college.

"Did You Know That" is a Sunday column that focuses on interesting people, places and events that had an impact on North Dakota, or even the country. It is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens at: cjeriksmoen@cableone.net .

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