Henry the Navigator Biography

Sven Hedin, a Swedish explorer, geographer, and travel writer, made significant contributions to the field through his expeditions to Central Asia. His discoveries included the sources of major rivers, the mapping of ancient cities and grave sites, and even the Great Wall of China in the Tarim Basin. Inspired by the return of Arctic explorer Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld, Hedin dedicated himself to exploration and received training from renowned geographer Ferdinand Freiherr von Richthofen. His extensive travel notes and scientific documentation greatly expanded Western knowledge of Central Asian nations. Hedin’s expertise on Turkestan and Tibet made him a key player in the British-Russian struggle for influence in the region. Despite never marrying or having children, Hedin’s legacy lives on through his books and personal effects, which he bequeathed to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

Quick Facts

  • Also Known As: Sven Anders Hedin
  • Died At Age: 87
  • Died on: November 26, 1952
  • Place of death: Stockholm, Sweden
  • Notable Alumni: Martin Luther University Of Halle-Wittenberg, Stockholm University
  • City: Stockholm, Sweden
  • More Facts
  • Education: Humboldt University Of Berlin, Uppsala University, Stockholm University, Martin Luther University Of Halle-Wittenberg
  • Awards:
    • 1898 – Founder’s Gold Medal
    • 1902 – Livingstone Medal
    • 1903 – Victoria Medal

Childhood & Early Life

Sven Anders Hedin was born on 19 February 1865, in Stockholm, Sweden, to Abraham Ludvig Hedin and Anna Sofia Berlin. His father was the town architect. When Hedin was 15 years old, the Swedish Arctic explorer, Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld, returned home after his first navigation of the Northern Sea Route. Hedin was fascinated by the hero’s welcome Nordenskiöld received and resolved to become an explorer himself.

Hedin graduated from Beskowska secondary school in Stockholm in 1885. Later that year he traveled to Baku with his student Erhard Sandgren and tutored him there for seven months. During this time he himself learned Latin, French, German, Russian, English and Tatar languages, along with several Persian dialects.

Following his return, he studied geology, mineralogy, zoology and Latin under the geologist Waldemar Brøgger from 1886 to 1888. In December 1888, he became a Candidate in Philosophy. He then continued his studies under the German geographer and China expert, Ferdinand Freiherr von Richthofen in Berlin. During this time, he also attended lectures by Alfred Kirchhoff at the University of Halle-Wittenberg, Halle. In 1892, he received his degree of Doctor of Philosophy with a 28-page dissertation titled ‘Personal Observations of Damavand’.

Later Years

Hedin embarked on a major expedition from Stockholm in October 1893, traveling via Saint Petersburg and Tashkent to the Pamir Mountains. Over the next few years he covered 26,000 kilometres and mapped 10,498 kilometres of them on 552 sheets.

He went on another expedition in Central Asia starting in 1899. During this journey he travelled through the Tarim Basin, Tibet and Kashmir to Calcutta. Over the course of this journey he navigated the Yarkand, Tarim and Kaidu, and discovered the dried out lake bed of Lop Nur.

He attempted, albeit unsuccessfully, to reach the city of Lhasa in 1900 and 1901. He then proceeded to Leh and from there he visited Lahore, Delhi, Agra, Lucknow, Benares, and Calcutta. The expedition led to the creation of 1,149 pages of maps.

He explored the Trans-Himalaya mountain range of Tibet on his next expedition and investigated the Central Persian desert basins, the western highlands of Tibet and the Transhimalaya ranges between 1905 and 1908. During this trip he became the first European to reach the Kailash region, including the sacred Lake Manasarovar and Mount Kailash. He returned with a collection of geological samples from this expedition.

A much popular and acclaimed explorer by this time, he led an international Sino-Swedish Expedition between 1927 and 1935 which investigated the meteorological, topographic and prehistoric situation in Mongolia, the Gobi Desert and Xinjiang. He also led a Chinese expedition on behalf of the Kuomintang government to investigate irrigation measures during this period.

The great explorer found himself in a dire financial situation at the end of the expedition in 1935. Having accumulated considerable debts, he gave more than a hundred lectures in 91 German cities as well as 19 lectures in neighboring countries to earn money to repay his debts.

Major Works

Hedin’s explorations led to important archaeological and geographical findings. His expedition notes paved the way for the precise mapping of Central Asia and he was among the first explorers to unearth the ruins of ancient Buddhist cities in Chinese Central Asia.

During 1933-34, Hedin led a Chinese expedition on behalf of the Kuomintang government under Chiang Kai-shek to investigate irrigation measures and draw up infrastructural plans. His plans led to the construction of major irrigation facilities and roads.

Awards & Achievements

Sven Hedin was the recipient of several prestigious awards including Vega Medal (1898), Livingstone Medal (1902), and Victoria Medal (1903). In 1902, Hedin was raised to the untitled nobility by King Oskar II, becoming the last Swede to receive a charter of nobility. He was admitted to membership in the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in 1905 and to the Royal Swedish Academy of Military Sciences in 1909. He was named Knight Commander of the Order of the Indian Empire by King Edward VII in the United Kingdom. The Berlin Geographical Society presented him with the Ferdinand von Richthofen Medal in 1933.

Personal Life & Legacy

Sven Hedin never married nor had any children. He died on 26 November 1952, at the age of 87. At the time of his death he granted the rights of his books and his extensive personal effects to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. The Sven Hedin Foundation established soon after holds all the rights of ownership.

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