German-American Arctic explorer and naturalist; born at Heidelberg June 2, 1847; died at Stuttgart March 30, 1888. At the university of his native place he studied medicine and zoology. In 1869, under the encouragement of Petermann of Gotha, he made his first journey to the Arctic ocean, during which he traced the influence of the Gulf Stream to the east of Spitzbergen. In 1870 he joined the German army as a military surgeon, and received public commendation from the grand duke of Baden for his services. A year later he volunteered to go as a surgeon and naturalist with the Hall expedition, which sailed on the "Polaris" from the Brooklyn (N. Y.) navy-yard. Nothing of moment took place until the ship reached 82° 9' north latitude, when Captain Hall, who had been on a short hunting expedition, returned to the ship, partook of a cup of coffee, and shortly after became violently ill (Oct. 24, 1871). Bessels treated him; but the patient several times disregarded the physician's advice. About Nov. 2 Hall showed signs of insanity, refusing to partake of food, and having the idea that he was being poisoned. He died Nov. 8, 1871.
Upon the return of the members of the expedition in 1873, after numerous mishaps and disasters, Morton, second mate of the "Polaris," brought a charge of murder against Bessels, alleging that the latter had administered morphine instead of quinine to Captain Hall. The secretary of the navy directed an inquiry, which was conducted by Surgeon-General of the Army J. K. Barnes and Surgeon-General of the Navy J. Beale, who reported "that Captain Hall died from natural causes—viz., apoplexy—and that the treatment of the case by Dr. Bessels was the best practicable under the circumstances."
Bessels, after this, spent some years at the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, in preparing for publication the scientific results of the voyage, the most striking of which was the proof of the insularity of Greenland deduced from tidal observations. His most important work was "Scientific Results of the United States Exploring Expedition Steamer 'Polaris,'" Washington, 1876. He published numerous papers on general natural-history subjects (see "Royal Society Catalogue of Scientific Papers," vii. 164; ix. 229, 230). Later Bessels joined an ethnological voyage on the U. S. S. "Saranac" to the northwest coast of America; but the vessel was wrecked in Seymour Narrows, B. C.
- Rear-Admiral C. H. Davis, U. S. N., Narrative of the North Polar Expedition, U. S. Ship Polaris, Capt. Charles Francis Hall Commanding, Washington, 1876;
- W. H. Dall, in Bulletin of the Philosophical Society of Washington, xi. 465 et seq.;
- New York Times, Oct. 18, 1873, p. 1, col. 3;
- New York Herald, Oct. 1, p. 6, cols. 4-5;
- ib. Oct. 5, p. 5, cols. 1-4;
- Brockhaus, Konversations-Lexikon, s.v.