In May 1845, Sir John Franklin of the Royal Navy, set out with two ships, the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, from England. Sir John was a naval officer with experience in failed polar expeditions. In 1818 he began a voyage to reach the North Pole, which failed. In 1819 and 1823, he made overland journeys from the Hudson Bay to the Polar Sea in order to map unexplored arctic coast near North America. The return journey from this trip left ten men dead from starvation and Franklin himself nearly died. Still, he was unflappable and was selected to lead the 1845 mission to map the Northwest Passage, a seaway that connected the north Atlantic to the Pacific through the Canadian Arctic. In July 1845, they checked in at Disko Bay on the west coast of Greenland to pick up supplies. They entered the Canadian archipelago later that month through the Lancaster sound with 129 men. No one returned.
It wasn’t until the end of 1847 that the Admiralty in London began to express concern for the Franklin expedition. The ship had been packed with supplies for three years, and since this was uncharted territory it wasn’t known how long it would take. From 1847 to 1880, 26 expeditions were launched overland and by sea to search for the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror. A number of these were funded by Sir John’s widow. Most recently, there were a number of searches from 1980 to 1998 which were conducted and helped reveal what happened to Franklin’s ill-fated expedition. After entering Canadian waters, the ice became impossible to navigate and the expedition wintered at Beechey Island from 1845 to 1846. Three men died while there. They were released from the ice in the summer, but by September 1846, they were once again trapped in the ice northwest of King William Island. They continued to be trapped through the winter and summer, during which time 26 men died, including Sir John Franklin.
On Good Friday, 22 April 1848, it was decided to abandon the ships and walk to the island. The decision was made due to the failing health of the men, which is recorded as including large losses of weight, overall weakness, bleeding gums and loose teeth, subcutaneous haematomas, pallor and shortness of breath- all of these features are highly indicative of scurvy, a vitamin C deficiency. All of the remaining men died during this trek across the ice. While the conditions were harsh, all the men were used to this kind of weather, had been trained specifically for this mission, had ample food supplies and shouldn’t have become so weakened. The question is why were they weak, why didn’t they make it?
Beginning in 1980, archaeologists began discovering the remains of the men who attempted this trek. Over the next decades they were able to recover a number of the men who had died along the way, and the first three deaths that occurred near Beechy Island. Initial analysis of the bodies revealed that they were suffering from a number of diseases, and that scurvy was the likely cause of their weakness. Records of the ship’s holdings showed that they had a large store of lemon juice. Each sailor would have received one ounce a day to prevent this- however time and potential mistreatment, could have led to decreased efficacy of the juice.
A new study by Mays, Maat and de Boer (2013) examines the bones themselves, historic records and compares them with other naval remains in order to determine the cause of this weakness that destroyed the Franklin expedition. They argue that scurvy was not likely, even though ethnohistoric and written evidence seems to point to this- the British Navy had a good knowledge of scurvy by this time and would have been able to prepare enough to last the journey. Remains were found at four sites around the arctic. A total of 409 bones were found, but only 105 were available for study, the remaining 304 had to be analyzed through secondary notes. The purpose of the analysis was to identify signs of subperiosteal new bone formation that would be indicative of haemorrhage, potentially a sign of scurvy. Histological study was also done to assess the cellular structure of the bone.
The result of the study showed that there was little evidence of pathological change or staining that can occur due to haemorrhage. Those that did show potential haemorrhage at the cellular level had healing and it was likely caused by earlier injuries rather than a vitamin deficiency. Combining the skeletal evidence with the historic records and knowledge of scurvy in that period, they argue that the symptoms and weakness was not scurvy. It is unclear at the moment how the became so weak, but analysis of the bones and hair by Beattie in the 1980’s showed that there were extremely high levels of lead in the bodies. This may be chemical evidence of lead poisoning, which would have been due to the soldering of the cans that contained the preserved meats. Canning had just been invented, and many cans were held together through tin and lead soldering. Contaminated meat would lead to anorexia, fatigue and weakness. Starvation may have been another option. Cut-marks were found on human remains, confirming ethnohistoric accounts by Inuits that the expedition members were committing cannibalism. Perhaps the food stores weren’t as good as they thought.
Future research and exploration may reveal exactly what happened, but for now we are only getting bits and pieces of bone, and bits and pieces of the story.
Bayliss, R. (2002). Sir John Franklin’s last arctic expedition: a medical disaster JRSM, 95 (3), 151-153 DOI: 10.1258/jrsm.95.3.151
Mays, S., Maat, G., & de Boer, H. (2013). Scurvy as a factor in the loss of the 1845 Franklin expedition to the Arctic: a reconsideration International Journal of Osteoarchaeology DOI: 10.1002/oa.2305