“What killed the sailors on the 1845 Franklin Expedition?”

Oil painting showing John Franklin leaning on his boat, trapped in the Arctic ice and surrounded by the dead bodies of his crew.

An 1895 painting by W. Thomas Smith showing Sir John Franklin dying by his boat. (Photograph © National Maritime Museum, London)

Earlier this year, The Ten-Year-Old’s fifth grade class spent 18 hours learning what it meant to be sailors in 1906 as part of the Age of Sails program at the San Francisco Maritime National Park.  Ever since then, she’s been reading everything she can get her hands on about life on the sea between the mid-1800s and early 1900s.

After learning that the entire crew of the Franklin Expedition of 1845 died in one of that century’s greatest tragedies, The Ten-Year-Old naturally wanted to know why.

First some background for those of us who haven’t been reading everything we can lay our hands on about maritime explorers in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

What was the Franklin Expedition of 1845?

In 1845, Sir John Franklin sailed from London with two ships and 134 men into the Arctic Circle. His goal was to become the first explorer in almost 350 years to find and map the Northwest Passage, a maritime route connecting the Atlantic and the Pacific through Canada’s Arctic Archipelago.

Finding a sea route to East Asia that bypassed the North American land mass was critical to expanding trade. Explorers had been searching for a faster sea route to Asia since Henry VIII first sent John Cabot off to find a northwest sea route to East Asia in 1497.

But mapping the Northwest Passage wasn’t Franklin’s only charter. His expedition was also tasked by the British Admiralty with documenting the plant and animal life in the Arctic, making scientific tests of magnetism, observing meteorology at the North Pole, and establishing Britain’s sovereignty in the area.

Franklin’s expedition built on the knowledge gained over the centuries as famous explorers from Sir Frances Drake to Captain James Cook searched for the passage. Those previous expeditions had ended in failure, but Franklin was determined to succeed.

Franklin’s two ships were marvels in their time

Franklin’s drive to succeed led him to spare no expense when it came to the construction of his two ships. He built his two ships to the latest technological specifications. He had the finest navigation systems, of course. But that was just the start. The bows of his ships were reinforced with steel to cut through the ice and equipped with hot water heating systems to combat the cold. Each ship had a steam engine and screw propeller, which enabled it to move at a speed of 3-4 knots, even in the absence of wind. His ships were even equipped with onboard desalination plants, which enabled them to transform seawater into fresh water on their voyage.

Unfortunately, Franklin skimped on provisions. He supplied his ships with only limited amounts of fuel, and while he bought enough canned food to last several years, he bought that food from the lowest-cost supplier.

Which may have been one of the reasons that every single sailor on the 1845 Franklin Expedition died.

A stone etching on Lt. John Irving's grave shows the grim conditions sailors faced in the Arctic. (Photo: Kim Traynor, via Wikimedia Commons)

A stone etching on Lt. John Irving’s grave shows the grim conditions sailors faced in the Arctic. (Photo: Kim Traynor, via Wikimedia Commons)

What killed them? 

Most of the bodies were never recovered, so it’s impossible to say precisely. Still, we can make some guesses.

Three of the crew died during the first winter of the expedition. Their bodies were buried on Beechey Island. In 1981, Owen Beattie of the University of Alberta, exhumed the bodies and examined them to determine the cause of death. All three had extraordinarily high lead levels in their bones–up to 30 times higher than the levels found in modern individuals exposed to lead. But while the sailors clearly had lead poisoning, it wasn’t the lead that killed them, but rather TB and pneumonia. Still, Beattie speculated that lead poisoning may have contributed to the loss of the entire expedition.

Where did all that lead come from? 

Beattie’s original analysis of the lead in the remains pointed directly to the canned food the expedition relied on. In 1991, his team performed a lead isotope ratio analysis using a mass spectrometer that showed that the lead in the sailors’ bones matched the lead in the solder used to seal those cans.

A later study in 2013 cast doubt on Beattie’s findings. Chemists at the University of Western Ontario reexamined the bones in 2013 using updated techniques. The team, led by Professor Ron Martin, concluded that the bones were so saturated with lead and the lead so evenly dispersed that it couldn’t have all been ingested in the short time the three sailors had been part of the Franklin expedition. Instead, the team hypothesized that the lead levels in the remains pointed to a lifetime of lead exposure.

In fact, lead was much more prevalent in everyday society in the 1800s.  Drinking water, food, and medicines all commonly contained lead in Victorian times. The lead in the sailor’s bones could have easily come from the food, water, or medicines they consumed at home.

Still, given the wide ranging backgrounds of the crew on the Franklin Expedition, some researchers find it hard to believe that they could have all independently been exposed to quite that much lead. As a 2008 report from William Battersby pointed out, there was a plentiful and unique source of lead available to the crew on Franklin’s ships — the lead pipes used in the onboard desalination system.

Those lead pipes carried all of the water on the ship — the crew’s drinking water, the fresh water used in the engine’s steam boiler, and the hot water for the ships’ heating systems. As Battersby points out, you can get really high concentrations of lead in water that is freshly distilled, warm, and transported through a new lead installation that hasn’t yet built up a layer of scale.

Still, while all of the sailors on the Franklin Expedition recovered so far have had remarkable levels of lead in their systems, most researchers don’t believe lead poisoning was the actual cause of death in most cases.

Lead was a contributing factor, but not the only culprit

Pneumonia and TB were the immediate cause of death for the sailors Beattie examined. The bodies of all three sailors also showed evidence of scurvy.

One of the three sailors had spores in his intestines that indicated he may have suffered from food poisoning as well — botulism is apparently quite common in the Arctic. There is also some reason to believe that Stephen Goldner, the man Franklin contracted to supply the food for the journey, didn’t cook the food properly before he canned it.

Additionally, a 2016 study by Jennie Christensen, a toxicologist at TrichAnalytics in North Saanich, Canada indicates that at least one of the sailors found on Beech Island suffered from a severe zinc deficiency, which would have compromised his immune system and made him more susceptible to the pneumonia and TB that ultimately killed him.

The remains of a second batch of sailors were discovered on King William Island in the late 1980s and 1990s. These bones had knife marks on them, leading researchers to speculate that the last members of the Franklin Expedition had resorted to cannibalism.

In each case, the lead in their bones is thought to have weakened the sailors, by impairing their health, making it harder for them to survive exposure to the Arctic’s cruel climate, and clouding their judgement. The mental confusion from lead poisoning could certainly explain some of the odd decisions Franklin’s crew made, such as abandoning their provisions, dragging heavy lifeboats filled with silverware over the tundra, and, you know, cannibalism.

Zinc deficiencies, TB, pneumonia, scurvy, botulism, exposure, mental confusion, and cannibalism. No wonder Richard Bayliss, MD FRCP described the Franklin Expedition in his 2002 article for the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine as a “medical disaster.”

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About Shala Howell

I spent two decades helping companies like Bell Labs, Juniper Networks, and a genetic testing company that was later acquired by CVS translate some of the world’s most complicated concepts into actionable, understandable English. Now I'm working on a much harder problem -- fostering children’s curiosity and engagement in the scientific, artistic, and linguistic world that surrounds them. The first book in my Caterpickles Parenting Series, What’s That, Mom?, focuses on how to use public art to nurture children’s curiosity in the world around them. My next book, Did Dinosaurs Have Belly Buttons?, is currently planned for release in 2018. In the meantime, you can find me blogging about life with a very curious Ten-Year-Old at Caterpickles.com, chatting about books and the writing life at BostonWriters.blog, and tweeting about books, writing, science, & things that make me smile at @shalahowell.
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