The fate of the Franklin expedition

Tuesday 14th January, 2014

In 1845, Sir John Franklin led a Royal Navy expedition to find the Northwest Passage. The expedition disappeared and led to the biggest search and rescue mission in history.

Twentieth-century analysis of ice-preserved remains found high levels of lead; prompting the theory that lead poisoning caused by inexpert soldering of the expedition's tinned provisions had played a significant role in the catastrophe by causing widespread death and debility.

Now, a reappraisal of that theory is taking place as a result of research carried out by Keith Millar (Professor of Medical Psychology), Adrian Bowman (Professor of Statistics) and the archaeologist and author, William Battersby.

Their analysis, published in the journal Polar Record, shows that while levels of lead in the crew were high relative to today's levels, they may not have been exceptional in lead-contaminated 19th century Britain where lead poisoning was not uncommon.

From this, they conclude that although a proportion of the 129 men may have suffered symptoms of lead poisoning - much as in the contemporary land-based population - the physical and mental state of others would have been largely unaffected, at least while their general health remained good.

This finding, linked to other historical evidence that suggests the crew suffered no serious debility until their provisions ran short, may justify a reappraisal of the supposed central role of lead poisoning in the disaster.

There is widespread interest in this historical issue and The Times carried a half-page report of the new analysis on Friday 10th January.