Glasgow study provides fresh clues to what really happened to the doomed Franklin Expedition

New research into the ill-fated “Franklin Expedition” lost in the Canadian Arctic as it attempted to navigate the final link in the fabled Northwest Passage has provided fresh insight into the enduring 171-year-old mystery.

Captain Sir John Franklin

Captain Sir John Franklin

The Royal Naval expedition, involving HMS Erebus and Terror under the command of Captain Sir John Franklin, was last seen entering the Arctic in July 1845. Its subsequent disappearance led to one of the greatest search-and-rescue missions in history.

All 129-crew involved in the mission to find a short-cut by sea from Europe to Asia perished and it was not until earlier this month, 3 September 2016, that the “pristine” wreck of HMS Terror was discovered by the Arctic Research Foundation. Its sister ship, HMS Erebus, was found two years ago, in 2014, by Parks Canada.

Until recently the only clues as to what happened lay with the discovery of three graves with ice-preserved corpses, located in 1850 in the northern Arctic, and the discovery of the remains of the rest of the crew nine years later far to the south near the Canadian mainland.

An enigmatic single-page document found with the bodies revealed the ships had become trapped in pack ice in 1846 before being deserted in 1848.

Over the years there have been numerous theories as to how the men died but now new research by academics from the University of Glasgow may give further insight into what really happened.

Medical factors including tuberculosis, scurvy and lead poisoning have been offered to explain the loss of the expedition but have been difficult to prove because the surgeons’ journals which recorded illness on board have eluded discovery.

The steamer Porteus involved in the hunt for Franklin's expedition

The steamer Porteus involved in the hunt for Franklin’s expedition

In the absence of the Franklin ‘sick books’ the Glasgow researchers, led by Professor Keith Millar of the College of Medical, Veterinary and Life Sciences and Professor Adrian Bowman of the College of Science and Engineering, have carried out a study of the sick books of Royal Naval ships sent in search of Franklin.

As the search ships were similarly equipped and provisioned to Franklin’s vessels, the team examined the illnesses and deaths that occurred among the search crews on the grounds the conditions suffered by them might reflect those of the missing expedition.

From the patterns of illness seen in nine search crews it was concluded that Franklin’s men would have suffered common respiratory and gastro-intestinal disorders, injuries and exposure, and that some deaths might have occurred from respiratory, cardiovascular and tubercular conditions.

“Scurvy occurred commonly despite the provision of lemon juice to prevent the disease. However, based on the evidence from the search ships, and analysis of the skeletal remains of some Franklin crewmen by other researchers, it seems that scurvy may not have been significant at the time when Franklin’s crews deserted the ships,” said Professor Millar.

Lead poisoning from solder that sealed the expedition’s canned provisions has also been proposed to explain the loss of the expedition since the discovery of relatively high levels of lead in the remains of some crewmen.

However, Professor Millar claims similar provisions on the search ships would appear to cast doubt on that theory.

”There was no evidence of lead poisoning despite the relatively high exposure to lead that was inevitable on ships at that time and across the British population as a whole,” said Professor Millar.

“Unless a unique source of lead was present on Franklin’s ships, there is no clear evidence that lead poisoning played a part in the disaster.”

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Similarly, while tuberculosis was a common cause of death among naval crews of the time, there was no evidence from the search ships that would support the disease having caused significant losses among Franklin’s men.

Based on evidence from the search ships, the Glasgow team has concluded that the disproportionate number of deaths of Franklin’s officers was probably a result of non-medical factors. Accidents and injuries sustained when officers took on the dangerous task of hunting for wild game to supplement provisions, and during their continued attempt on foot over difficult terrain in a harsh climate to discover the route of a Northwest Passage, were more likely to blame.

The discovery of the Erebus and Terror may ultimately provide first-hand evidence of the role of medical and other factors in the disaster.

“We understand from our colleagues in Parks Canada that if any of the expedition’s written records were stored securely on board then the underwater conditions are such that they may remain in a legible condition,” said Professor Millar.

“If a ‘sick book’ has survived on one of these ships it may record the events that led to the failure of the expedition and put an end to further speculation, including our own.”

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