S. A. Andrée's Arctic balloon expedition of 1897 was an ill-fated effort to reach the North Pole in which all three expedition members perished. S. A. Andrée (1854–97), the first Swedish balloonist, proposed a voyage by hydrogen balloon from Svalbard to either Russia or Canada, which was to pass, with luck, straight over the North Pole on the way. The scheme was received with patriotic enthusiasm in Sweden, a northern nation that had fallen behind in the race for the North Pole.
Andrée neglected many early signs of the dangers associated with his balloon plan. Being able to steer the balloon to some extent was essential for a safe journey, and there was plenty of evidence that the drag-rope steering technique he had invented was ineffective; yet he staked the fate of the expedition on drag ropes. Worse, the polar balloon Örnen (Eagle) was delivered directly to Svalbard from its manufacturer in Paris without being tested; when measurements showed it to be leaking more than expected, Andrée refused to acknowledge the alarming implications of this. Most modern students of the expedition see Andrée's optimism, faith in the power of technology, and disregard for the forces of nature as the main factors in the series of events that led to his death and the deaths of his two companions Nils Strindberg (1872–97) and Knut Frænkel (1870–97).
After Andrée, Strindberg, and Frænkel lifted off from Svalbard in July 1897, the balloon lost hydrogen quickly and crashed on the pack ice after only two days. The explorers were unhurt but faced a grueling trek back south across the drifting icescape. Inadequately clothed, equipped, and prepared, and shocked by the difficulty of the terrain, they did not make it to safety. As the Arctic winter closed in on them in October, the group ended up exhausted on the deserted Kvitøya (White Island) in Svalbard and died there. For 33 years the fate of the Andrée expedition remained one of the unsolved riddles of the Arctic. The chance discovery in 1930 of the expedition's last camp created a media sensation in Sweden, where the dead men were mourned and idolized. Andrée's motives have later been re-evaluated, along with the role of the polar areas as the proving-ground of masculinity and patriotism. An early example is Per Olof Sundman's fictionalized bestseller novel of 1967, The Flight of the Eagle (later filmed as Flight of the Eagle), which portrays Andrée as weak and cynical, at the mercy of his sponsors and the media. The verdict on Andrée by modern writers for virtually sacrificing the lives of his two younger companions varies in harshness, depending on whether he is seen as the manipulator or the victim of Swedish nationalist fervor around the turn of the 20th century.
The second half of the 19th century has often been called the heroic age of polar exploration. The inhospitable and dangerous Arctic and Antarctic regions spoke powerfully to the imagination of the age, not as lands with their own ecologies and cultures, but as challenges to technological ingenuity and manly daring.
The Swede S. A. Andrée shared these enthusiasms, and proposed a plan for letting the wind propel a hydrogen balloon from Svalbard across the Arctic Sea to the Bering Strait, to fetch up in Alaska, Canada, or Russia, and passing near or even right over the North Pole on the way. Andrée was an engineer at the patent office in Stockholm, with a passion for ballooning. He bought his own balloon, the Svea, in 1893 and made nine journeys with it, starting from Gothenburg or Stockholm and travelling a combined distance of 1,500 kilometers (900 miles). In the prevailing westerly winds, the Svea flights had a strong tendency to carry him uncontrollably out to the Baltic Sea and drag his basket perilously along the surface of the water and/or slam it into one of the many rocky islets in the Stockholm archipelago (see artist's impression, right). On one occasion he was blown clear across the Baltic to Finland. His longest trip was due east from Gothenburg, across the breadth of Sweden and out over the Baltic to Gotland. Even though he actually saw a lighthouse and heard breakers off Öland, he remained convinced that he was travelling over land and merely seeing lakes.
During a couple of the Svea flights, Andrée tested and tried out the drag-rope steering technique that he had invented and wanted to use on his projected North Pole expedition. Drag ropes, which hang from the balloon basket and drag part of their length on the ground, are designed to counteract the tendency of lighter-than-air craft to travel at the same speed as the wind, a situation that makes steering by sails impossible. The friction of the ropes was intended to slow the balloon to the point where the sails would have an effect (beyond that of making the balloon rotate on its axis). Andrée claimed that, with the drag rope/sails steering, his Svea had essentially become a dirigible, but this notion is rejected by modern balloonists. The Swedish Ballooning Association ascribes Andrée's conviction entirely to wishful thinking, capricious winds, and the fact that much of the time Andrée was inside clouds and had little idea where he was or which way he was moving. Moreover, his drag ropes would persistently snap, fall off, become entangled with each other, or get stuck to the ground, which could result in pulling the often low-flying balloon down into a dangerous bounce. No modern Andrée researcher has expressed any faith in drag ropes as a balloon steering technique.
The Arctic ambitions of the northern European nation of Sweden were still unrealized in the late 19th century, while neighboring and politically subordinate Norway was a world power in Arctic exploration through such pioneers as Fridtjof Nansen. The Swedish political and scientific elite were eager to see Sweden take that lead among the Scandinavian countries which seemed her due, and Andrée, a persuasive speaker and fundraiser, found it easy to gain support for his ideas. At a lecture in 1895 to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, Andrée thrilled the audience of geographers and meteorologists. A polar exploration balloon, he explained, would need to fulfill four conditions:
Andrée gave a glowingly optimistic account of the ease with which these requirements could be met. Larger balloons had been constructed in France, he claimed, and more airtight, too. Some French balloons had remained hydrogen-filled for over a year without appreciable loss of buoyancy. As for the hydrogen, filling the balloon at the launch site could easily be done with the help of mobile hydrogen manufacturing units; for the steering he referred to his own drag-rope experiments with the Svea, stating that a deviation of 27 degrees from the wind direction could be routinely achieved.
Andrée assured the audience that Arctic summer weather was uniquely suitable for ballooning. The midnight sun would enable observations round the clock, halving the voyage time required, and do away with all need for anchoring at night, which might otherwise be a dangerous business. Neither would the balloon's buoyancy be adversely affected by the cold of night. The drag-rope steering technique was particularly well adapted for a region where the ground, consisting of ice, was "low in friction and free of vegetation". The minimal precipitation in the area posed no threat of weighing down the balloon; if, against expectation, some rain or snow did fall on the balloon, Andrée argued, "precipitation at above-zero temperatures will melt, and precipitation at below-zero temperatures will blow off, for the balloon will be travelling more slowly than the wind." The audience was convinced by these arguments, so disconnected from the realities of the Arctic summer storms, fogs, high humidity, and ever-present threat of ice formation. The academy approved Andrée's expense calculation of 130,800 kronor in all, corresponding in today's money to just under a million U.S. dollars, of which the single largest sum, 36,000 kronor, was for the balloon itself. With this endorsement there was a rush to support his project, headed by King Oscar II, who personally contributed 30,000 kronor, and Alfred Nobel, the dynamite magnate and founder of the Nobel Prize.
There was also considerable international interest, and the European and American newspaper-reading publics were curious about a project that seemed as modern and scientific as the books of contemporary author Jules Verne. The press fanned the interest with a wide range of predictions, from certain death for the explorers to a safe and comfortable "guidance" of the balloon (upgraded by the reporter to an "airship") to the North Pole in a manner planned by Parisian experts and Swedish scientists.
"In these days, the construction and guidance of airships have been improved greatly", wrote The Providence Journal, "and it is supposed, both by the Parisian experts and by the Swedish scientists who have been assisting M. Andree, that the question of a sustained flight in this case will be very satisfactorily answered by the character of the balloon, by its careful guidance and, providing it gets into a Polar current of air, by the elements themselves. Faith in the experts and in science was common in the popular press, but with international attention came also for the first time informed criticism. Andrée being Sweden's first balloonist, nobody at home had the requisite knowledge to second-guess him about buoyancy or drag ropes; but in Germany and France there were long ballooning traditions and many far more experienced balloonists than Andrée, several of whom expressed scepticism of his methods and inventions. However, just as with the Svea mishaps, all objections failed to dampen Andrée's optimism. Eagerly followed by national and international media, he began negotiations with the well-known aeronaut and balloon builder Henri Lachambre in Paris, world capital of ballooning, and ordered a varnished three-layer silk balloon, 20.5 meters (67 ft) in diameter, from his workshop. The balloon, originally called Le Pôle Nord (French for "The North Pole"), was to be renamed Örnen (Swedish for "The Eagle").
For his 1896 attempt to launch the balloon, Andrée had many eager volunteers to choose from. He picked an experienced Arctic meteorological researcher, Nils Gustaf Ekholm (1848–1923), formerly his boss during an 1882–83 geophysical expedition to Spitsbergen, and Nils Strindberg (1872–97), a brilliant student who was doing original research in physics and chemistry. The main scientific purpose of the expedition was to map the area by means of aerial photography, and Strindberg was both a devoted amateur photographer and a skilled constructor of advanced cameras. This was a team with many useful scientific and technical skills, but lacking any particular physical prowess or training for survival under extreme conditions. All three were indoor types, and only one of them, Strindberg, was young. Andrée expected a sedentary voyage in a balloon basket, and strength and survival skills were far down on his list.
Modern writers all agree that Andrée's North Pole scheme was unrealistic. He relied on the winds blowing more or less in the direction he wanted to go, on being able to fine-tune his direction with the drag ropes, on the balloon being sealed tight enough to stay airborne for 30 days, and on no ice or snow sticking to the balloon to weigh it down. In the attempt of 1896, the wind immediately refuted his optimism by blowing steadily from the north, straight at the balloon hangar at Danskøya, until the expedition had to pack up, let the hydrogen out of the balloon, and go home. It is now known that northerly winds are to be expected at Danskøya; but in the late 19th century, information on Arctic airflow and precipitation existed only as contested academic hypotheses. Even Ekholm, an Arctic climate researcher, had no objection to Andrée's theory of where the wind was likely to take them. The observational data simply did not exist.
On the other hand, Ekholm was critical of the balloon's ability to retain hydrogen, from his own measurements. Ekholm's buoyancy checks in the summer of 1896, during the process of producing the hydrogen and pumping it into the balloon, convinced him that the balloon leaked too much ever to reach the Pole, let alone go on to Russia or Canada. The worst leakage came from the approximately eight million tiny stitching holes along the seams, which no amount of glued-on strips of silk or applications of special secret-formula varnish seemed to seal. The balloon was losing 68 kilograms (150 lb) of lift force a day, and, taking into account its heavy load, Ekholm estimated that it would be able to stay airborne for 17 days at most, not 30. When it was time to go home, he warned Andrée that he himself would not be on board for the next attempt, scheduled for summer 1897, unless a stronger, better-sealed balloon was bought.
Andrée resisted Ekholm's criticisms to the point of deception. On the boat back from Svalbard, Ekholm learned from the chief engineer of the hydrogen plant the explanation of some anomalies he had noticed in his measurements: Andrée had from time to time secretly ordered extra topping-up of the hydrogen in the balloon. Andrée's motives for such self-destructive behavior are not known. Several modern writers, following Sundman's Andrée portrait in the semidocumentary novel The Flight of the Eagle (1967), have speculated that Andrée had by this time become the prisoner of his own successful funding campaign. The sponsors and the media followed every delay and reported on every setback, and were clamoring for results. Andrée, Strindberg, and Ekholm had been seen off by cheering crowds in Stockholm and Gothenburg (see image from Aftonbladet, right), and now all the expectations were coming to nothing with the long wait for southerly winds at Danskøya. Especially pointed was the contrast between Nansen's simultaneous return, covered in polar glory from his daring yet well-planned expedition on the ship Fram, and Andrée's failure even to launch his own much-hyped conveyance. Andrée, theorizes Sundman, could not at this point face letting the press report that besides not knowing which way the wind would blow he had also miscalculated in ordering the balloon and would like another one.
After the 1896 launch was called off, enthusiasm for joining the expedition for a second attempt in 1897 did not run quite so high. There were still candidates, however, and Andrée picked out the 27-year-old engineer Knut Frænkel to replace Ekholm. Frænkel was a civil engineer from the north of Sweden, an athlete and fond of long mountain hikes. He was enrolled specifically to take over Ekholm's meteorological observations, and, despite lacking Ekholm's theoretical and scientific knowledge, handled this task efficiently. His meteorological journal has allowed the movements of the three men during their last few months to be reconstructed with considerable exactness.
Returning to Danskøya in the summer of 1897, the expedition found that the balloon hangar built the year before had weathered the winter storms well. The winds were more favorable, too, and Andrée's leadership more absolute, now that the critical Ekholm, an authority in his field and older than Andrée, had been replaced by the 27-year-old enthusiast Knut Frænkel. On July 11, in a steady wind from the south-west, the top of the plank hangar was dismantled, the three explorers climbed into the already heavy basket, and Andrée dictated one last-minute telegram to King Oscar and another to the paper Aftonbladet, holder of press rights to the expedition. The large support team cut away the last ropes holding the balloon and it rose slowly. Moving out low over the water, it was pulled so far down by the friction of the several-hundred-meter-long drag ropes against the ground as to dip the basket into the water. The friction also twisted the ropes round, detaching them from their screw holds. These holds were a new safety feature that Andrée had reluctantly been persuaded to add, whereby ropes that got caught on the ground could be more easily dropped. Now most of them unscrewed at once and 530 kilograms (1170 lb) of rope were lost, while the three explorers could simultaneously be seen to dump 210 kilograms of sand overboard to get the basket clear of the water. Seven hundred and forty kilograms (1630 lb) of essential weight was thus lost in the first few minutes. Before it was well clear of the launch site, the Eagle had turned from a supposedly steerable craft into an ordinary hydrogen balloon with a few ropes hanging from it, at the mercy of the wind, with no ability to aim at any particular goal and too little ballast. Lightened, it rose to 700 meters (2300 ft), an unimagined height, where the lower air pressure made the hydrogen escape all the faster through the eight million little holes.
The balloon had two means of communication with the outside world, buoys and homing pigeons. The buoys, steel cylinders encased in cork, were intended to be dropped from the balloon into the water or onto the ice, to be carried to civilization by the currents. Only two buoy messages have ever been found. One was dispatched by Andrée on July 11, a few hours after takeoff, and reads "Our journey goes well so far. We sail at an altitude of about 250 m, at first N 10° east, but later N 45° east. […] Weather delightful. Spirits high." The second had been dropped an hour later and gave the height as 600 meters. Aftonbladet had supplied the pigeons, bred in northern Norway with the optimistic hope that they would manage to return there, and their message cylinders contained pre-printed instructions in Norwegian asking the finder to pass the messages on to the newspaper's address in Stockholm. Andrée released at least four pigeons, but only one was ever retrieved, by a Norwegian steamer where the pigeon had alighted and been promptly shot. Its message is dated July 13 and gives the travel direction at that point as East by 10° South, adding "All well on board". Lundström and others note that all three messages fail to mention the accident at takeoff, or the increasingly desperate situation, which was being detailed in Andrée's main diary. The balloon was out of equilibrium, sailing much too high and thereby losing hydrogen faster than even Nils Ekholm had feared, then repeatedly threatening to crash on the ice. It was weighed down by being rain-soaked ("dripping wet" writes Andrée in the diary), and all the sand and some of the payload were being thrown overboard to keep it airborne.
Free flight lasted for 10 hours and 29 minutes and was followed by another 41 hours of bumpy ride with frequent ground contact before the inevitable final crash. The Eagle thus traveled for 2 days and 3½ hours altogether, during which time according to Andrée nobody on board got any sleep. The definitive landing appears to have been gentle. Everybody was unhurt, including the homing pigeons in their wicker cages, and all the equipment was undamaged, even the delicate optical instruments and Strindberg's two cameras.
From the moment the three were grounded, Strindberg's highly specialized cartographic camera, which had been brought to map the region from the air, became instead a means of recording daily life in the icescape and the constant danger and drudgery of the trek. Strindberg took about 200 photos with his seven-kilogram (15 lb) camera over the course of the three months they spent on the pack ice, one of the most famous being his picture of Andrée and Frænkel contemplating the fallen Eagle (see image above). Andrée and Frænkel also kept meticulous records of their experiences and geographical positions, Andrée in his "main diary", Frænkel in his meteorological journal. Strindberg's own stenographic diary was much more personal in content, and included his own general reflections on the expedition, as well as several messages to his fiancée Anna.
The Eagle had been stocked with safety equipment such as guns, snowshoes, sleds, skis, a tent, a small boat (in the form of a bundle of bent sticks, to be assembled and covered with balloon silk), most of it stored not in the basket but in the storage space arranged above the balloon ring. It had not been put together with great care, or with any thought of the indigenous peoples' techniques for adapting to the extreme environment. In this, Andrée contrasted not only with later but also with many earlier explorers. Sven Lundström points to the agonizing extra efforts that became necessary simply because the sleds Andrée had designed, of a rigid construction which owed nothing to Inuit sleds, were so impractical for the difficult terrain — "dreadful terrain", Andrée calls it — with its channels separating the ice floes, high ridges, and partially iced-over melt ponds. Their clothes did not include furs but consisted of woollen coats and trousers plus oilskins. The oilskins were worn, but the explorers still always seemed to be damp or wet from the half-frozen pools of water on the ice and the typically foggy, humid Arctic summer air, and always preoccupied with drying their clothes, mainly by wearing them. Danger was everywhere, as it would have meant certain death to lose the provisions lashed to one of the inconvenient sleds into one of the many channels that had to be laboriously crossed.
Before starting the march across the "dreadful terrain," the three men spent a week in a tent at the crash site, packing up and making decisions about what and how much to bring and where to go. The far-off North Pole was not mentioned as an option; the choice lay between two depots of food and ammunition laid down for their safety, one at Cape Flora in Franz Josef Land and one at Seven Islands in Svalbard (see map). Inferring from their faulty maps that the distances to each were about equal, they decided to try for the bigger depot at Cape Flora. Strindberg took more pictures during this week than he would at any later point, including 12 frames that make up a 360-degree panorama of the crash site.
The balloon had carried a lot of food, of a kind more adapted for a balloon voyage than for travels on foot. Andrée had reasoned that they might as well throw excess food overboard as sand, if losing weight was necessary; and if it was not, the food would serve if wintering in the Arctic desert did after all become necessary. There was therefore less ballast and large amounts of heavy-type provisions, 767 kg (1690 lb) altogether, including 200 liters of water and some crates of champagne, port, beer, etc., donated by sponsors and manufacturers. There was also lemon juice, though not as much of this precaution against scurvy as other polar explorers usually thought necessary. Much of the food was in the form of cans of pemmican, meat, sausages, cheese, and condensed milk. Some of it had in fact been thrown overboard. The three men took most of the rest with them on leaving the crash site, along with other necessities such as guns, tent, ammunition, and cooking utensils, making a load on each sled of more than 200 kg (440 lb). This was not realistic, as it broke the sleds and wore out the men, and after one week a big pile of food and non-essential equipment was left behind, bringing the loads down to 130 kg per sled. It became then more necessary than ever to hunt for food. Seals, walruses, and especially polar bears were shot and eaten throughout the march.
Starting out for Franz Josef Land to the south-east on July 22, the three soon found that their struggle across the ice with its two-story-high ridges was hardly bringing the goal any nearer: the drift of the ice was in the opposite direction, moving them backwards. On August 4 they decided, after a long discussion, to aim for Seven Islands in the southwest instead, hoping to reach the depot there after a six- to seven-week march, with the help of the current. The terrain in that direction was mostly extremely difficult, sometimes necessitating a crawl on all fours, but there was occasional relief in the form of open water — the little boat (not designed by Andrée) was apparently a functional and safe conveyance — and smooth, flat ice floes. "Paradise!" wrote Andrée. "Large even ice floes with pools of sweet drinking water and here and there a tender-fleshed young polar bear! They made fair apparent headway, but the wind turned almost as soon as they did and they were again being moved backwards, away from Seven Islands. The wind varied between southwest and northwest over the coming weeks; they tried in vain to overcome this by turning more and more westward, but it was becoming clear that Seven Islands was out of their reach.
On September 12, the explorers resigned themselves to wintering on the ice and camped on a large floe, letting the ice take them where it would, "which", writes Kjellström, "it had really been doing all along" (p. 47). Drifting rapidly due south towards Kvitøya, they hurriedly built a winter "home" on the floe against the increasing cold, with walls made of water-reinforced snow to Strindberg's design (see plan, below, left). Observing the rapidity of their drift, Andrée recorded his hopes that they might get far enough south to feed themselves entirely from the sea. However, the floe began to break up directly under the hut on October 2 from the stresses of pressing against Kvitøya, and they were forced to bring their stores on to the island itself, which took a couple of days. "Morale remains good", reports Andrée at the very end of the coherent part of his diary, which ends: "With such comrades as these, one ought to be able to manage under practically any circumstances whatsoever." It is inferred from the incoherent and badly damaged last pages of Andrée's diary that the three men were all dead within a few days of moving onto the island.
For the next 33 years, the fate of the expedition was shrouded in mystery and its disappearance part of cultural lore in Sweden and to a certain extent elsewhere. It was actively sought for a couple of years and remained the subject of myth and rumor, with frequent international newspaper reports of possible findings. An extensive archive of American newspaper reports from the first few years, 1896–99, titled "The Mystery of Andree", shows a much richer media interest in the expedition after it disappeared than before. A great variety of fates are suggested for it, inspired by finds, or reported finds, of remnants of what might be a balloon basket, or great amounts of balloon silk, or by stories of men falling from the sky, or visions by psychics, all of which would typically locate the stranded balloon far from Danskøya and Svalbard. Lundström points out (p. 134) that some of the international and national reports take on the features of urban legends and reflect a prevailing disrespect for the indigenous peoples of the Arctic, who frequently appear in the newspapers as uncomprehending savages and kill the three men or show a deadly indifference to their plight. These speculations were refuted in 1930, upon the discovery of the expedition's final resting place on Kvitøya by the crews of two ships, the Bratvaag and the Isbjørn.
The Norwegian Bratvaag Expedition, studying the glaciers and seas of the Svalbard archipelago from the Norwegian sealing vessel Bratvaag of Ålesund, found the remains of the Andrée expedition on August 5, 1930. Kvitøya was usually inaccessible to the sealing or whaling ships of the time, as it is typically surrounded by a wide belt of thick polar ice and often hidden by thick ice fogs. However, summer in 1930 had been particularly warm, and the surrounding sea was practically free of ice. As Kvitøya was known to be a prime hunting ground for walrus and the fogs over the island on that day were comparatively thin, some of the crew of the Bratvaag took this rare opportunity to land on what they called the "inaccessible island". Two of the sealers in search of water, Olav Salen and Karl Tusvick, discovered Andrée's boat near a small stream, frozen under a mound of snow and full of equipment, including a boathook engraved with the words "Andrée's Polar Expedition, 1896". Presented with this hook, the Bratvaag's captain, Peder Eliassen, had the crew search the site together with the expedition members. Among other finds, a journal and two skeletons were uncovered, identified as Andrée's and Strindberg's remains by monograms found on their clothing.
The Bratvaag left the island to continue its scheduled hunting and observations, with the intent of coming back later to see if the ice had melted further and uncovered more items. Further discoveries were made by the M/K Isbjørn of Tromsø, Norway, a sealing sloop chartered by news reporters to waylay the Bratvaag. Unsuccessful in this, the reporters and the Isbjørn crew made instead for Kvitøya, landing on the island on September 5 in fine weather and finding even less ice than the Bratvaag had. After photographing the area, they searched for and found the third body, that of Frænkel, and further artifacts, including a tin box containing Strindberg's photographic film and Strindberg's logbook and maps. The crews of both ships turned over their finds to a scientific commission of the Swedish and Norwegian governments in Tromsø on September 2 and 16, respectively. The bodies of the three explorers were transported to Stockholm, arriving on October 5.
The bodies of the three dead men were cremated without further examination upon being returned to Sweden in 1930. The question of what, exactly, killed them has attracted both interest and controversy among scholars, and several medical practitioners and amateur historians have read the extensive diaries with a detective's eye, looking for clues in the diet, for telltale complaints of symptoms, and for suggestive details at the death site. There is general agreement on many particulars. For instance, the explorers are known to have mainly eaten scanty amounts of canned and dry goods from the balloon stores, plus huge portions of half-cooked meat of polar bears and occasionally seals. They suffered often from foot pains and diarrhea, and were always tired, cold, and wet. When they moved on to Kvitøya from the ice, they left much of their valuable equipment and stores outside the tent, and even down by the water's edge, as if they were too exhausted, indifferent, or ill to carry it further. Strindberg, the youngest, died first and was "buried" (wedged into a cliff aperture) by the others. But what is the significance of these details?
The best-known and most widely credited suggestion is that made by Ernst Tryde, a medical practitioner, in his book De döda på Vitön ("The Dead on Kvitøya") in 1952: that the men succumbed to trichinosis that they got from eating undercooked polar bear meat. Larvae of Trichinella spiralis were found in parts of a polar bear carcass at the site. Lundström and Sundman both favor this explanation, while critics point out that the diarrhea which is Tryde's main symptomatic evidence hardly needs an explanation beyond the general poor diet and physical misery, whereas some more specific symptoms of trichinosis are missing. Also, Fridtjof Nansen and his companion Hjalmar Johansen had lived largely on polar bear meat in exactly the same area for 15 months without any ill effects. Other suggestions have included vitamin A poisoning from eating polar bear liver; however, the diary shows Andrée to have been aware of this danger. Carbon monoxide poisoning is a theory that has found a few adherents, such as explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson. The chief objection is that their primus stove had kerosene still in the tank when found. Stefansson argues that they were using a malfunctioning stove, something he has experienced in his own expeditions. Lead poisoning from the cans in which their food was stored is an alternative suggestion, as are scurvy, botulism, suicide (they had plenty of opium), and polar bear attack. A combination favoured by Kjellström is that of cold and hypothermia as the Arctic winter closed in, with dehydration and general exhaustion, apathy, and disappointment. Kjellström argues that Tryde never takes the nature of their daily life into account, and especially the crowning blow of the ice breaking up under their promisingly mobile home, with the enforced move onto a glacier island. "Posterity has expressed surprise that they died on Kvitøya, surrounded by food," writes Kjellström. "The surprise is rather that they found the strength to live so long" (p. 54).
In 1897, Andrée's daring or foolhardy undertaking nourished Swedish patriotic pride and Swedish dreams of taking the scientific lead in the Arctic. The title of "Engineer" — "Ingenjör Andrée" — was generally and reverentially used in speaking of him, and expressed high esteem for the late 19th-century ideal of the engineer as a representative of social improvement through technological progress. The three explorers were fêted when they departed and mourned by the nation when they disappeared. When they were found, they were celebrated for the heroism of their doomed two-month struggle to reach populated areas and were seen as having selflessly perished for the ideals of science and progress. The home-bringing of their mortal remains to Stockholm on October 5, 1930, writes Swedish historian of ideas Sverker Sörlin, "must be one of the most solemn and grandiose manifestations of national mourning that has ever occurred in Sweden. One of the rare comparable events is the national mourning that followed the Estonia disaster in the Baltic Sea in September 1994" (p. 100).
More recently, Andrée's heroic motives have been questioned, beginning with Per Olof Sundman's bestselling semi-documentary novel of 1967, The Flight of the Eagle, where Andrée is portrayed as the victim of the demands of the media and the Swedish scientific and political establishment, and as ultimately motivated by fear rather than courage. Sundman's interpretation of the personalities involved, the blind spots of the Swedish national culture, and the role of the press carries over into the Oscar-nominated film by Jan Troell, Flight of the Eagle (1982), which is based on Sundman's novel.
Appreciation of Nils Strindberg's role seems to be growing, both for the fortitude with which the untrained and unprepared student kept photographing at all in what must have been a more or less permanent state of near-collapse from exhaustion and exposure, and for the artistic quality of the result. Out of the 240 exposed frames that were found on Kvitøya in waterlogged containers, 93 were saved by John Hertzberg at Strindberg's own workplace, the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm. In his article "Recovering the visual history of the Andrée expedition" (2004), Tyrone Martinsson has lamented the traditional focus by previous researchers on the written records — the diaries — as primary sources of information, and made a renewed claim for the historical significance of the photographs.
The story is included in The Ghost Disease and Twelve Other Stories of Detective Work in the Medical Field, by Michael Howell and Peter Ford (Penguin, 1986), which was dramatised for BBC Radio 4 by Michael Butt as "The Stranded Eagle" as part of the "Medical Detectives" series. The radio play aired 1 April 1998 and starred John Woodvine (Knut Stubbendorf), Clive Merrison (Ernst Tryde), Ken Stott (S.A. Andrée), Jack Klaff (Knut Fraenkel) and Scott Handy (Nils Strindberg).