Researchers raise doubts about cause of death of Franklin Expedition members

Researchers from across Canada believe they have ruled out, or at least created serious doubts, that lead caused the deaths of members on the Franklin Expedition of 1845.

A team of experts, including three from Western University, found little evidence to support lead poisoning.

The helm of HMS Terror helm, as viewed from the stern, with the mizzen mast in the background. (Parks Canada)

Researchers from across Canada believe they have ruled out, or at least created serious doubts, that lead caused the deaths of members of the Franklin Expedition in the mid 1800's.  

Three researchers from Western University were among those to study human remains, including bones and teeth, in an effort to learn more about what killed 128 members of the infamous trek. Their work can be found in a new paper published in the journal PLOS ONE.

In 1845, 128 officers and crew went in search of the Northwest Passage aboard two ships. They became stranded in ice off King William Island where they remained for two years. Everyone perished after making a desperate attempt to reach the mainland. 

Lead poisoning?

It's long been suspected they died of lead poisoning, possibly from tin cans that held their provisions. 

"That idea has gotten into the popular press and into the academic press," said Andrew Nelson, one of the researchers from Western. "Even a movie about the Franklin Expedition makes a big deal out of that showing men picking lead out of their teeth."

But, an intense analysis of the crew's human remains, found in the 1980's, makes lead the unlikely culprit, according to Nelson. 

"Our investigation starts in 2013 when a colleague did an analysis of the bone. Lead was evenly distributed throughout the bone. So, in other words, it wasn't a big shot of lead gotten at the end of life. They were exposed to it throughout their lifetime," said Nelson. 

This new research looks at the teeth, as well as the bones and compares them to remains from a naval site in the Caribbean. It also uses much more sophisticated analytical tools, according to Nelson.

"They (the Franklin crew members) had lead in their bones, no question about that. So did the individuals from the naval site in the Caribbean."

"What we're suggesting in the paper is that lead exposure was a function of living in the 1840's," said Nelson. "They were drinking out of pewter, eating off pewter plates, using lead as a sweetener, painting things with lead based paints. They were exposed chronically throughout their entire life."

The mystery deepens

So the mystery continues. 

"Yeah, we're a little closer," said Nelson. "We can eliminate one of the ideas but indeed more work needs to be done."

Nelson is willing to speculate about what might have happened to the members of the ship. 

"I think they must have made a series of really bad judgment calls. They were apparently dragging these rowboats full of crockery and things like that across the landscape, which is one of the reasons people think being exposed to the lead was making them a little bit crazy."