Conservationist Hanna Resvoll-Holmsen – the first female researcher in Svalbard

Botanist Hanna Resvoll from Vågå in Oppland stands on the deck of the vessel Holmengraa. Geologist Gunnar Holmsen stands beside her. It is 1908 and the two researchers are heading north to an expedition to Svalbard that would later become so important to Norway. In this photograph, they are sailing past Amsterdamøya at the northwest tip of Spitsbergen.


Hanna Resvoll and Gunnar Holmsen. Photo: Adolf Hoel / Norwegian Polar Institute

The man next to Hanna was not just anybody. Gunnar Holmsen would later become her husband. But first these scientists would explore Svalbard, each focusing their own discipline.

Resvoll herself was not just anybody either. She was the first Norwegian woman who did research in Svalbard. Resvoll worked at the time when Norway's most famous polar heroes Nansen and Amundsen were exploring the polar regions. Like them, Hanna was a pioneer, but she has reaped little fame outside her own discipline – undeservedly little, many will argue. The work Hanna Resvoll carried out in Svalbard is now considered the start of Norway's scientific efforts in the archipelago, and it contributed to Svalbard becoming a part of Norway in 1920.

Hanna was a true professional, but also a mother. Before she went to Svalbard, she had been married and divorced – which was quite unusual at that time – and she remarried, this time to Gunnar Holmsen.

Hanna Resvoll-Holmsen paved the way for women – both in academia, and in polar research. She was the first woman to attain a doctoral degree in botany in Norway, and later became the first female lecturer in phytogeography. Hanna's interest in high alpine plants was what attracted her to Spitsbergen. Often working entirely alone, she crossed glaciers, climbed steep mountains and walked along shores, charting, photographing and collecting arctic plants and fossils. She was the first to document Svalbard's plants in colour photos, and in 1927 she published what later became a classic in botany: "Svalbard flora".

Hanna Resvoll-Holmsen's desire to preserve nature in Svalbard and mainland Norway is a recurring theme throughout her work, and she contributed to the lasting protection of vulnerable species, historic sites and plants. She is often hailed as our first modern nature and environmental conservationist.

Hanna Resvoll-Holmsen is being honoured with a monumental work of art by Anne-Karin Furunes in the atrium "Lysgården" at the Fram Centre. Lysgården is open to the public. Well worth a visit for anyone passing through Tromsø.


In our image database you will find approximately 50,000 photos from the polar regions. The Norwegian Polar Institute's photo library consists of a total of 90,000 photographs, dating 140 years back from 1872 and up to today. A range of interesting historical pictures may be found, as well as depictions of polar landscapes, wildlife and field work: