Hexbyte – Tech News – Ars Technica | Did lead poisoning finish off a doomed Arctic expedition?

Hexbyte – Tech News – Ars Technica |

How did anyone survive the 19th century? —

The final days of Franklin’s 1846 expedition have long been a tragic mystery.


Hexbyte - Tech News - Ars Technica | Article intro image

Lead poisoning may have made life difficult for the doomed men of John Franklin’s 1845 expedition, which got lost in the Arctic while in search of the Northwest Passage linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. But it probably didn’t contribute much to their inevitable fates. That’s the conclusion of a new study of lead concentrations in the hair of one of the men who died while the expedition was stranded on King William Island between late 1846 and early 1848.

Hexbyte – Tech News – Ars Technica | 129 Doomed Men

Captain Sir John Franklin’s expedition wasn’t the first to sail north in search of a passage linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and it wasn’t the last. But its disappearance left behind a compelling mystery, one kept in the public consciousness for years by the tireless efforts of Franklin’s widow. For years in the late 19th century, the search for the lost sailing ships HMS Terror and HMS Erebus nearly rivaled the search for the Northwest Passage itself.

Thanks to a note found in 1869 on King William Island, we know that all was well on the wooden ships in May of 1847, aside from being stuck in the ice. But by April of 1848, 24 men had died, including Franklin and the expedition’s assistant surgeon, naturalist Harry Goodsir. The remaining 105 had abandoned their trapped ships and set off across the ice to try to reach Back River on the Canadian mainland. Neither ship would be seen again for over 150 years. A century and a half later, historians are still debating exactly what went wrong.

A number of fingers have pointed at the ship’s food and water supplies, which they suggest may have been poisoning the explorers all along. The pipes from both ships’ water tanks were made of lead, and nearly all of the crews’ food came in tin cans held together with lead-soldered seams. Many of the medicines Dr. Goodsir and his colleagues would have dispensed to sick or injured explorers also contained lead, not to mention arsenic and a few other things the FDA would balk at today.

And a 1991 study found high lead concentrations in the bones of three men who died on Beechey Island in early 1846, during the expedition’s first winter in the Arctic. All this evidence makes a morbidly fascinating story: two ships full of intrepid Arctic explorers perished because their food and water all carried high doses of lead, and they unwittingly succumbed to muddled thinking, irritability, digestive ailments, pain, and kidney damage.

But a closer look suggests that’s not the case.

Hexbyte – Tech News – Ars Technica | Splitting hairs

Anthropologist Lori D’Ortenzio of McMaster University and her colleagues turned to Dr. Goodsir. His remains were tentatively identified based on facial reconstruction in a previous study, and they were used to help understand whether lead poisoning might have played a role in the expedition’s tragic end. The researchers examined lead concentrations in Goodsir’s hair. Because

Read More