Doomed 19th-Century Arctic Expedition Wasn't Brought Down by Lead Poisoning


EXCERPT: The Franklin Expedition, a 19th-century mission to chart a fabled northwest passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific ocean, ended in the deaths of all 128 crewmen. A prevailing theory suggests lead poisoning was a major contributor to the sailors’ ultimate demise—a theory that can finally be put to rest, according to new research.

[...] Over the years, some of the gravesites of the sailors have been uncovered, containing well-preserved bodies, and both ships have been discovered by Canadian archaeologists [...] Previous analyses of the bone, hair, and soft tissue from the recovered bodies, along with oral accounts from indigenous peoples, suggested the crewmen died from an assortment of causes, such as lead poisoning, exposure, starvation, scurvy, botulism, tuberculosis, and Addison’s disease [...]

Lead poisoning in particular was seen as a major contributor to the sailors’ deaths, who may have been exposed to lead from tin cans and possibly the ships’ water filtration system. And indeed, previous studies did uncover unusually high levels of lead in some of the skeletal remains [...But...] the researchers concluded that “the skeletal microstructural [lead] distribution data do not support the conclusion that [lead] played a pivotal role in the loss of Franklin and his crew.”

[...] As to what ultimately killed the sailors, it’s not too difficult to imagine. “I would suspect that their problems probably multiplied as time went by...”

AMC aired a miniseries about this failed expedition a few months ago called "The Terror". Creative license enabled the inclusion of a gigantic wild beast summoned by an Inuit shaman that stalked the men while stranded there. Then the eating out of contaminated cans theory was presented from which the crew gradually went mad. The cannibalism suspected from bone excavations was suggested to be a result of that madness as well as from the desperation of their dire situation.

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