Sven Hedin’s legacy as a scientist rests primarily on his personal capacity as a meticulous and indefatigable fieldworker, who under often the most adverse conditions mapped large tracts of Central Asia and Persia/Iran, at the same time as he documented both the natural and cultural landscapes he traversed, amassing collections of geological samples, botanical and zoological specimens, keeping detailed meteorological and other records, pinpointing archaeological sites on the maps. In the massive reports on his three early expeditions, between 1893 and 1908, he carefully accounted for the observations made by him, while it fell on specialists in different fields to analyze and publish the individual materials brought together. For the maps he depended on skilled cartographers and draftsmen to turn his route-maps into works of art and precision. Cartography was close to his heart and he contributed to our understanding of the historical cartography of Central Asia.
Hedin was not a scientist concerned with grand theories, he was a man who reasoned close to his observations. The particular theory he is best known for is the one related to the oscillating Lop Nor lake.
The “Sino-Swedish Expedition” (1927-35), Sven Hedin’s fourth and last one, was of a very different kind from his earlier ones. It was distinctively multidisciplinary and international. Hedin led teams of varying size and composition conducting research into geo-sciences as well the humanities, continuing the mapping of Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang and Northern Tibet. Hedin was the negotiator, provider and coordinator of these joint activities in which young scholars, much better trained in their disciplines than Hedin had ever been, took part. To Sven Hedin’s credit one may note that he never failed to admit the shortcomings his own training, he had been too eager to rush into the field before the last white spots on the maps had been wiped out. He could now with pride watch the results brought back by the young scholars he had sent into his old fields.