For nearly 170 years the mystery behind the Franklin Expedition’s ill-fated crew has gripped three nations—Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States—launching the biggest search and rescue missions in history. In fact, Parks Canada continues to conduct an annual summer search of the missing ships. New research conducted by the University of Glasgow is shedding light on what contributed to the death of Sir John Franklin and his crew of 128.
“Anyone that becomes interested in the story realizes that it involves so much more than just Franklin and the expedition because of the huge effort put into finding them,” explained Professor Keith Millar of the College of Medical, Veterinary and Life Sciences at the University of Glasgow. “It was a very stirring time of amazing adventures and terrible suffering. The Arctic is filled with such extraordinary opportunities into that sort of research and further investigating 19th Century history.”
Franklin was a British Royal Navy Officer and Arctic explorer. He set off in 1845 to chart and navigate the Northwest Passage in the Canadian Arctic with two ships: The HMS Erebus and HMS Terror. Both were equipped with the modern inventions of the day including steam engines and three years’ worth of preserved food supplies in tins. The inexpert soldering of these tin provisions were originally thought to have played a significant part in the death of crew, as ice-preserved remains studied in the 20th Century showed high levels of lead, causing lead poisoning and debility throughout. Earlier theories from an Inuit testimony say the ship became icebound and the crew, cannibalistic. In the 1980’s, a University of Alberta professor named Owen Beattie conducted a 10-year study of the expedition, showing that the Beechy Island crew likely succumbed to pneumonia and even tuberculosis. Beattie also named lead poisoning as a possibility.
Today Prof. Millar (pictured left), along with Professor Adrian Bowman of the School of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of Glasgow (pictured right), and their colleague, the archaeologist and author William Battersby (pictured below), built upon past research and theories to explain the crew’s fate with surprisingly new evidence.
“We were intrigued with what is well-known today about lead poisoning,” said Millar. “Basically, one group of workers exposed to lead are badly affected while another group exposed at the same rate aren’t as badly affected. We wanted to see if that was true of the Franklin Expedition. From what we concluded, there would have been a variability of lead in their bodies, meaning that a fair portion of the crew wouldn’t have suffered as significantly as a result of the lead.”
The team drew these conclusions by going back to the originally published research and re-analyzed it using statistical estimation and the limited data available from the time. They also accounted for the fact that lead levels in the crew were high compared to today’s, but still not that exceptional, given that lead poisoning was not uncommon in 19th Century Britain. Even if a large portion of the men suffered from lead poisoning, the physical and mental state of the others would have been unaffected, at least while they remained in good general health. This analysis was recently published in the journal Polar Record (Cambridge University Press).
“We have huge admiration for the early work done by the Canadian scientists in discovering the presence of lead,” added Millar. “We are not trying to question the reliability of the original research—it’s quite remarkable what they endured to obtain that data including exhuming the bodies under the most arduous conditions possible. We wouldn’t claim for a moment that our analysis has provided definitive answers, we are just suggesting that the idea of lead poisoning causing the expedition’s complete failure may not be totally true. There could be many other causes as well.”
The enigma of the Franklin Expedition has completely captivated Prof. Millar as he says he is now investigating the surgeons’ journals to find out more of the medical difficulties on board the ships. There were four surgeons aware of lead poisoning and its affects and could have found the source as well as attempted to reduce its harms. He also says that the annual Parks Canada search is gradually narrowing down the area where the ships are:
“When they do find them, it’s going to be the archeological find of the millennium.”