Sveinn Pálsson

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Sveinn Pálsson, 1798
Pálsson's map of Eyjafjallajökull, 1795

Sveinn Pálsson (25 April 1762 – 24 April 1840) was an Icelandic physician and a naturalist who carried out systematic observations of Icelandic glaciers in the 1790s. He also observed volcanoes and wildlife throughout his homeland. He studied medicine and natural science in Copenhagen (1787–1791) before spending four years travelling around Iceland and studying nature. He described his research in Ferðabók (Travel Journal) and in addition, wrote Jöklarit (Glacier Treatise) and Eldrit (Volcano Treatise). Sveinn also wrote extensively about medicine.


He was the first person to propose the theory that glaciers move under their own weight, like viscous material. He focused on glacial sediments, melt-water rivers and floods, and the effects of subglacial volcanism. His conclusions concerned significant findings in regards to formation and dynamics of glaciers. His treatise "Draft of a Physical, Geographical, and Historical Description of Icelandic Ice Mountains on the Basis of a Journey to the Most Prominent of Them in 1792–1794" was submitted to the Danish Society of Natural History in 1795 though it languished there for almost a century. Not until the 1880s was the Danish manuscript published in part; in 1945 it was published in its entirety in Icelandic. Due to its isolated location Iceland remained a remote location for geological investigation until the 20th century.

During his research he observed that glaciers move by creep in a way analogous to the flow of pitch. From the top of Öræfajökull, which he was first to climb as far as is known, he described Kvíárjökull (Hrútárjökull) in his 1794 work in Jöklarit: "The surface appeared to be covered with curved stripes which lay across the glacier, espiacelly up near the main glacier, and the arch of the curves pointed towards the lowland, just as though the descending glacier had flowed down half-melted or as thick, viscous material. Could this be proof that ice, without actually melting, behaves as a liquid to some extent, like some types of resin?" In Eldrit Sveinn was the first person, to describe the volcanic belt, which lies across Iceland from southwest to northeast. He was also first to find Gabbro in Iceland.

Sveinn Pálsson served as physician for southearn Iceland in 1799–1833. His district stretched from Árnessýsla to Skeiðarár Sandur, including the Westman Islands, and was difficult to cross owing to the many unbridged rivers. Doctors were very poorly paid in those days so, to support his family, Sveinn also fished at sea from a rowing boat, and farmed. His wife Þórunn Bjarnadóttir, was hardworking and took charge of the farm when Sveinn was away. They had 15 children, ten of whom survived infancy, so it was a large household. Sveinn lived most of his life at Suður-Vík in Mýrdalur. He was laid to rest in the old churchyard at Reynir near Vík.


  • Sveinn Pálsson. Draft of a Physical, Geographical, and Historical Description of Icelandic Ice Mountains on the Basis of a Journey to the Most Prominent of Them in 17921794, with Four Maps and Eight Perspective Drawings. Edited and translated by Richard S. Williams, Jr., and Oddur Sigurðsson. xxxvi + 183 pp., illus., figs., bibl. Reykjavik: Icelandic Literary Society, 2004.
  • Memorial Tablet in Vík (Iceland)