At the dentist in Antarctica


Early in 1957, 14 Norwegians and 42 Greenland husky dogs were set ashore in Dronning Maud Land, Antarctica. Much can go wrong over the course of three years, and medical equipment and a doctor were very important parts of extended scientific expeditions.

By: Ann Kristin Balto // Norwegian Polar Institute

Haakon Sæther was the doctor during the first winter. Included among the medical supplies were painkillers, apparatus for measuring blood sugar levels, a device to measure carbon monoxide and vials to counteract carbon monoxide poisoning, various scalpels and saws for amputation, as well as dental equipment. No serious incidents occurred during the first winter.

The following year, staff rotation brought in new crew members and a new doctor. Soon after arriving in Antarctica, the doctor, Anders Vinten-Johansen, had to moonlight as a dentist. In this photo, expedition leader Sigurd Helle is receiving dental surgery with the aid of a foot-driven drill. Pumping on the pedal, Dr. Vinten-Hansen powered a small drill rotating at 600-800 revolutions per minute, making it possible to fill Sigurd Helle’s teeth.

Most of the winter was quiet for the doctor, but only a week before the relief boat Polarbjørn was to weigh anchor for the return trip to the north in 1959, disaster struck. Assistant meteorologist Bjørn Grytøyr and steward Sverre O Pettersen set out with a team of dogs to the auxiliary station. When they were preparing to return the next day, the dogs were unsettled and difficult to get started. Then, abruptly, all the dogs set off running at once, dragging heavily on a trace that had become entangled around Pettersen’s right leg.

The powerful jerk caused a complicated and painful fracture. Pettersen was transported back to the cove of Polarsirkelbukta and carried on board Polarbjørn. The doctor was unable to do anything but administer appropriate doses of painkillers, and Pettersen received treatment at a hospital in Cape Town three weeks later. Unfortunately, the operation was unsuccessful and Pettersen had to undergo a new operation at a hospital in Oslo.

Toothache means only one thing: start drilling! Doctor Anders Vinten-Johansen is drilling expedition leader Sigurd Helle’s teeth.

Photo: John Snuggerud, Norwegian Polar Institute


During the 1950s, the world’s nations initiated a huge scientific project called the International Geophysical Year (IGY), which lasted from July 1957 to December 1958. Special focus was placed on the polar regions. Norway participated and established Norway Station in Dronning Maud Land. The expedition was led by Sigurd Helle from the Norwegian Polar Institute.

The original plan was to stay for two entire winters, but the expedition was extended to a third year. Six decades after the signing of the Antarctic Treaty, Antarctica is the only continent in the world where the management plan stipulates that it must be used for peaceful purposes only. Active research work allows parties to participate in decision-making regarding Antarctic cooperation. Sixty years of international research efforts are now bearing fruit, bringing new knowledge to light.

Images from the Norwegian Antarctic Expedition 1956–1960 can be found in the Norwegian Polar Institute’s photo archives An exhibition on research in Antarctica can be viewed in the foyer of the Fram Centre.