Why Antarctic explorer Roald Amundsen's only bodily remains are in Moorhead
Roald Amundsen was sometimes referred to as the "Last Viking” for his expeditions around the world, including staking claim as the first person to visit the South Pole. But why did he leave his teeth in Fargo-Moorhead?
MOORHEAD, Minn. — When new students come to Concordia College in Moorhead, they’ll get the grand tour from dorms to the dining hall. But one of the biggest surprises awaits them in the archives of the Carl B. Ylvisaker Library.
“During library orientation, we’ll bring down a couple of our more curious items from the archives. We’ll bring down the teeth and the students will say, ‘Why do you have teeth?’” Concordia College Archives Associate Allison Bundy said.
The answer goes back nearly 100 years just after the heroic days of Antarctic exploration, when a man known as the “Last Viking” was nearly toppled by a toothache.
Who was Roald?
Roald Amundsen was born on July 16, 1872, in Borge, Norway, to Jens Amundsen and Hannah Salqvist. The Amundsens had a successful shipping business, but Hannah insisted her fourth son become a doctor instead. So Roald went to Christiania University to study medicine. But following his mother’s death, he set out to do what he wanted — explore the polar regions of the planet.
His goal was to set foot at the North Pole, but when Robert Peary beat him to the punch in 1909, Amundsen set his sights on the South Pole and built a team of explorers to sail south. On Oct. 19, 1911, five men, with four sledges and 52 dogs, began their journey to Antarctica. They made history when they set foot at the South Pole on Dec. 14, 1911.
Amundsen wanted to make sure his life’s work contributed to scientific discovery so he kept exploring the polar regions, including undertaking the Amundsen-Ellsworth expedition which became the first to travel from Europe to America via the North Pole in an aircraft.
Shortly after that expedition, he went into retirement in 1926 at the age of 54. He then traveled the world, sharing his adventures with eager audiences.
One of his stops was Fargo, where he presented his lecture titled “From Rome to Teller by Air Over North Pole” on March 24, 1927, at the Fargo Auditorium. Concordia College sponsored the lecture, with professors and students — not surprisingly — giving the lectures rave reviews.
“Most of the classes back then were taught both in English and in Norwegian, and the college was very proud of its heritage. So the college sponsored people like Roald Amundsen to come and give talks in the area to educate and promote that kind of proud Norwegian heritage,” Bundy said.
But it appears Amundsen might have also taken the time to visit friends from the old country. In 2005, Forum columnist Andrea Hunter Halgrimson (who died in 2015) recounted how Amundsen visited Fargoan Dr. Nils Tronnes, himself a Norwegian native who was best-known as one of the founders of the Fargo Clinic.
Hunter Halgrimson used to live next door to the Tronnes home.
“When I was a little girl, I'd go to see him and often sit in his lap. I remember the smell of pipe smoke, books and leather in the library of his house. And I remember his distinctive voice and lilting Norwegian accent.”
- Late Forum columnist Andrea Hunter Halgrimson on Dr. Nils Tronnes, friend of Roald Amundsen
Records indicate Tronnes and Amundsen might have been medical school classmates back in Norway before Amundsen left school to pursue his dreams of exploration. Hunter Halgrimson especially remembers Tronnes' daughter, Marg, many years later telling her the embarrassing circumstances of how she met Amundsen at the family home in Fargo when she was around 14.
“She said she had introduced him as Rollie to her friends and her very formal father chastised her later. Marg said she had done it out of nervousness and was most embarrassed.”
- Late Forum columnist Andrea Hunter Halgrimson on friend. Marg Tronnes, meetiing Roald Amundsen.
A visit to the dentist
It’s likely Amundsen wasn’t overly concerned with the teenage girl’s casual comment. Any pained expression he had on his face following the exchange more than likely came from something else — a monster toothache.
After complaining about the pain, Tronnes apparently referred the famous explorer to Fargo dentist Dr. Albert Hallenberg, who promptly removed two molars.
No one quite knows why, but Hallenberg held onto the teeth, packing them away — perhaps as a keepsake of the day he had his hands in a famous mouth. Whatever the reason, Amundsen left Fargo and went about his exploration work.
Amundsen goes missing
Despite his retirement, in the summer of 1928, Amundsen agreed to go on a rescue mission to the North Pole to find the missing members of an airship named Italia which had crashed while returning from the Arctic. But Amundsen and five other rescuers suffered the same fate as those they were hoping to rescue, disappearing on June 18, 1928 — seemingly making something he told a journalist earlier that year come true.
Searches by the Royal Norwegian Navy as late as 2009 have still found nothing from the Amundsen flight.
“If only you knew how splendid it is up there; that's where I want to die.”
- Roald Amundsen telling a journalist about the Arctic..He died there less than a year later.
The only remains
Dr. Hallenberg eventually donated the two teeth he pulled to the Concordia Museum, which predates the archives. The molars, both inlaid with gold, are mounted on a block of black wood about 2 1/2 inches square and have been kept in a climate-controlled space for nearly a century now.
Bundy said they continue to be the source of sometimes morbid curiosity, especially around Halloween when people request to see them up close. And while people are often excited to view the molars, there is also an awareness and appreciation of the sadness surrounding the teeth as artifacts.
“Besides them being his last known physical remains, it’s a significant detail of Norwegian history in the area. He was very influential for Norway and for the region and its culture,” Bundy said, “so having the documentation we have and the teeth as well, it's a part of that history, something that made up the area and the college.”