While we may never know exactly what happened to the 129 men who were part of Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated Northwest Passage expedition in 1845, Western researchers have at least debunked some of the potential causes of death – that being lead poisoning.
New research challenges long-held beliefs regarding the demise Franklin and his crew, in particular a landmark study in 1981, led by Owen Beattie, a since-retired anthropology professor emeritus at the University of Alberta. He concluded while the British crew most likely died of pneumonia and tuberculosis, lead poisoning was also a contributing factor due to the result of poorly soldered tin cans the crew were eating from.
But more than 30 years later, technology and scientific advancements have provided Western researchers, led by Chemistry professor Ron Martin, with evidence that faulty solder seals in tinned meat cans were, in fact, not the principle source of lead found in the remains of the Franklin crew members.
The findings, revealed in the paper titled Pb distribution in bones from the Franklin expedition: synchrotron X-ray fluorescence and laser ablation/mass spectroscopy, were recently published in the journal Applied Physics A: Materials Science and Processing.
“We’ll probably never know what happened to the crew of the Franklin so it will remain one of the great mysteries of Canadian history, but our resources fail to support the hypothesis that the lead in the bones came from the tins, and I certainly believe that it didn’t,” said Martin, the paper’s lead writer and principal investigator.
“The time, from departure to death, just wasn’t long enough for lead from the tins to become so dominant throughout all the bones.”
Martin and his Western colleagues Andrew Nelson, Steven Naftel and Sheila Macfie, collaborated with Keith Jones from Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York to examine bone samples using a Synchrotron (a particle accelerator used for taking X-rays), as well as scientists at the University of Windsor, utilizing laser-sampling technology.
The X-rays did indeed confirm a high level of lead in the bones, but Martin said the voyage was too brief for the crew to absorb the lead from the cans. The distribution throughout the skeleton is not consistent with short-term exposure.
Franklin had set sail from Greenhithe, England on the morning of May 19, 1845 with two ships – the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror – on what was to be a three-year journey. Two months later, the ships would be spotted by two European whaling ships, marking the last time they would be seen by anyone.
Years later, search parties would try – and fail – to find Franklin and his crew, and according to a note found on King William Island, Franklin had died in June 1847. Remaining crew members would soon follow. The next spring, crew members still alive set out on foot but would not reach their destination.
Martin and his team conclude the lead poisoning, which could result in neurological disease, commenced prior to the Franklin expedition’s departure and was likely a common problem for many 19th century people.
This is not Western’s only connection to the Franklin expedition. In 2010, Western Anthropology professor Ed Eastaugh was part of a Parks Canada expedition on Banks Island, Northwest Territories, that discovered the HMS Investigator, a famed 19th century ship led by Robert McClure that set sail in 1850 on a rescue mission to find Franklin and his crew.
But like the ship he was sent to find, McClure and his crew became stranded in the Arctic. They found a safe haven on the northern shore of Banks Island. When the pack ice didn’t clear during the summer of 1852, the situation became dire for the sailors and they, in turn, were rescued by a Royal Navy sledge team in 1853 and evacuated on another ship.