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Franklin expedition study says tuberculosis led to deaths

 

New details have emerged on the doomed voyage of Royal Navy officer, Sir John Franklin, in 1845.

Sir Franklin led two British ships, HMS Terror and HMS Erebus, in search of the last section of the Northwest Passage.

When both ships became stuck in ice, Sir Franklin and all 129 crew members tragically died – but exactly how they met their end has long been a mystery.

While researches have speculated on several causes of death over the decades, including exposure, lead poisoning, and starvation, a new study suggests tuberculosis, resulting in Addison’s disease, also led to the death of the crew.

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The expedition, consisting of two ships led by British Royal Navy captain Sir John Franklin, aimed to find a sea route linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. But the crew was condemned to an icy death after their two ships got jammed in thick sea ice in the Canadian Arctic in 1846

The expedition, consisting of two ships led by British Royal Navy captain Sir John Franklin, aimed to find a sea route linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. But the crew was condemned to an icy death after their two ships got jammed in thick sea ice in the Canadian Arctic in 1846

The expedition, consisting of two ships led by British Royal Navy captain Sir John Franklin, aimed to find a sea route linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. But the crew was condemned to an icy death after their two ships got jammed in thick sea ice in the Canadian Arctic in 1846

The study was conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan and led by University of Michigan dentistry professor Dr Russell Taichman. 

Dr Taichman, who’s held a lifelong love of the Arctic, drew on his expertise in oral health to develop a new theory to help explain the deaths of the crew. 

He said that for decades, historians and researchers have speculated on several generally accepted causes of death: exposure, scurvy, lead poisoning, botulism, tuberculosis and starvation.

But now, Dr Taichman and his colleagues that tuberculosis, which resulted in adrenal insufficiency (Addison’s disease), led to the deaths of some of the crew. 

During the Franklin expedition, the ships became trapped in ice pack in 1846 near King William Island, which is above the Arctic Circle in what is now northern Canada. 

THE DOOMED FRANKLIN EXPEDITION

In command of the doomed was the 59-year-old Sir John Franklin (pictured) who sailed the Arctic three times before

In command of the doomed was the 59-year-old Sir John Franklin (pictured) who sailed the Arctic three times before

In command of the doomed was the 59-year-old Sir John Franklin (pictured) who sailed the Arctic three times before

The expedition, consisting of two ships led by British Royal Navy captain Sir John Franklin, aimed to find a sea route linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

But the crew was condemned to an icy death after their two ships got jammed in thick sea ice in the Canadian Arctic in 1846.

The crew’s final message before they were wiped out – sent April 25, 1848 – indicated that the survivors were abandoning their ships.

They left the two vessels, the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, north of King William Island and set out on a harsh journey south toward a mainland trading post.

Judging by the bodies found so far, none of the remaining crew made it even a fifth of the way to safety.

HMS Erebus and HMS Terror were sent out in the summer of 1845 to find the Northwest Passage but they took a crucial wrong turn and ended up stranded and surrounded by pack ice

HMS Erebus and HMS Terror were sent out in the summer of 1845 to find the Northwest Passage but they took a crucial wrong turn and ended up stranded and surrounded by pack ice

HMS Erebus and HMS Terror were sent out in the summer of 1845 to find the Northwest Passage but they took a crucial wrong turn and ended up stranded and surrounded by pack ice

The ship was well-stocked with canned food, and the crew spent two years on and around the remote island waiting in hard conditions for the ice to melt and free their ships. 

Some of the clues left behind included Inuit accounts of emaciated crew members with ‘hard, dry and black’ mouths. 

With this account in mind, Dr Taichman, also a cancer researcher, decided to look more closely at the various cause-of-death theories and how each condition impacts the mouth. 

Scientists have taken the DNA from the skeletal remains of several sailors who died after getting stuck in Arctic ice on a doomed 1845 expedition. This image shows the mummified remains of one of the expedition's doomed crew members

Scientists have taken the DNA from the skeletal remains of several sailors who died after getting stuck in Arctic ice on a doomed 1845 expedition. This image shows the mummified remains of one of the expedition's doomed crew members

Scientists have taken the DNA from the skeletal remains of several sailors who died after getting stuck in Arctic ice on a doomed 1845 expedition. This image shows the mummified remains of one of the expedition’s doomed crew members

To conduct the research, Dr Taichman and Mark MacEachern, a librarian at U-M’s Health Science Library, cross-referenced the crew’s physical symptoms with known disease and analyzed 1,718 medical citations. 

Marc-Andre Bernier setting a marine biology sampling quadrant on the port side hull of the Erebus

Marc-Andre Bernier setting a marine biology sampling quadrant on the port side hull of the Erebus

Marc-Andre Bernier setting a marine biology sampling quadrant on the port side hull of the Erebus

Dr Taichman was surprised when Addison’s disease, which wasn’t one of the generally accepted causes of death, kept coming up during the analysis.

‘In the old days, the most common reason for Addison’s in this country was TB,’ Dr Taichman said. 

‘In this country now, it’s immune suppression that leads to Addison’s.’ 

People with Addison’s disease have trouble regulating sodium and can become dehydrated, and they can’t maintain their weight even when food is available – two conditions of the crew as observed by the Inuit.

Addison’s disease also leads to darkening of the skin, which could explain the Inuit accounts of the dark mouths.   

While the idea of scurvy among the crew falls in line with the fact that sailors of that time had the disease, that alone does not explain the deaths. 

A stronger clue than this was evidence  of tuberculosis that was discovered during autopsies of three sailors who died and were buried on a nearby island before the ships were marooned. 

Lead poisoning, which was confirmed to a degree by an analysis of recovered bones, could have come from lead solder used fork the food cans and from lead pipes that distilled water for the crew. 

‘Scurvy and lead exposure may have contributed to the pathogenesis of Addison’s disease, but the hypothesis is not wholly dependent on these conditions,’ Dr Taichman said. 

Stranded: In 1837 the HMS Terror became trapped by ice (pictured) while under the command of Admiral George Back. The ship remained stuck for 10 months. Eight years later it returned to the Canadian Arctic and this time it failed to escape the icy clutches of the Northwest Passage

Stranded: In 1837 the HMS Terror became trapped by ice (pictured) while under the command of Admiral George Back. The ship remained stuck for 10 months. Eight years later it returned to the Canadian Arctic and this time it failed to escape the icy clutches of the Northwest Passage

Stranded: In 1837 the HMS Terror became trapped by ice (pictured) while under the command of Admiral George Back. The ship remained stuck for 10 months. Eight years later it returned to the Canadian Arctic and this time it failed to escape the icy clutches of the Northwest Passage

‘The tuberculosis-Addison’s hypothesis results in a deeper understanding of one of the greatest mysteries of Arctic exploration.’ 

Dr Taichman’s fascination with the Arctic began as a child in his native Toronto, when his father told him stories about the early explorers. 

Dr Taichman has visited the Arctic 16 times, where he’s led hiking trips and kayaked among the icebergs and proposed to his wife. 

 

 

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