Cunning Canning: Or, Franklin’s Fatal Food

Two ships sent to rescue Franklin expedition in 1848.
Two ships sent to rescue the Franklin expedition in 1848.

In honor of National Lead Poisoning Prevention Week, I can’t help but revisit one of the most infamous cases of lead poisoning in history—the Franklin Expedition disaster.

In 1845, Royal Navy commander Sir John Franklin led two ships, the Erebus and the Terror, on a quest for the Northwest Passage. The expedition had been organized and financed by the British Admiralty under the de facto leadership of its Second Secretary, Sir John Barrow. For more than a quarter-century, Barrow had sent Britain’s most promising naval men on ill-prepared expeditions to the “blank spaces” on the map of the world—sub-Saharan Africa, around the perimeter of Australia, and the high Arctic. Now, as he neared retirement, Barrow wanted to give the Northwest Passage one last go. Franklin was his man.

The Erebus and Terror left London on May 19, 1845 for Baffin Bay, the ice-choked entrance to the Canadian archipelago. The ships gammed with two whaling vessels, the Enterprise and the Prince of Wales, on July 26, 1845. The Franklin Expedition was never heard from again.

A daguerrotype of Sir John Franklin by Baird, 1845. (©National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London)
A daguerrotype of Sir John Franklin by Baird, 1845. (©National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London)

For the first two years of the voyage, the Admiralty wasn’t worried. The Erebus and Terror were better provisioned than any previous Arctic expedition; the ships themselves were iron-hulled to withstand the impacts of ice. The crews had enough food and other necessities to survive three years in the Arctic—five years if they stretched their rations.

But something did go utterly wrong. After three years with no word from the ships, William Scoresby urged the Admiralty to send a search party.

“It is hardly to be supposed that out of the nearly 140 men, surrounded by all the appliances of modern science, all the experience of repeated adventure, and all the endurance of practiced hardihood, some little party of the most energetic or vigorous should not have been able to make their way, by boats or sledges, a distance of from one to two hundred leagues, a distance, which we should presume might suffice to have taken them from any reasonably supposable position, either within range of our returned expeditions, of the Baffin Bay whalers, or of some hunting-station, or tribe of migratory Esquimaux, from which we have had tidings concerning them!”   –The Franklin Expedition: Or, Considerations on Measures for the Discovery and Relief of our Absent Adventurers in the Arctic Regions (1850)

Rescue parties dispatched by sea and land beginning in 1848 found relics scattered across the Arctic that painted a grisly picture, including piles of human bones with the telltale signs of scurvy and cannibalism. A single note found in a cairn indicated that Franklin had died in June 1847, and the ships had been abandoned in the ice. And everywhere the search parties found clues, they also found cans.

The discarded cans once held salted beef, mutton, veal, concentrated soups and boiled vegetables, the bulk of the crews’ three-year anti-scorbutic diet. The food should have kept the men alive and scurvy-free. Instead, the cans likely caused their deaths—by lead poisoning.

Lead soup can from Sir John Franklin's last expedition, c. 1845. Probably found in an Inuit cache at Cape Maria Louisa by the Schwatka Search Expedition 1878–79. (©National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London)
Lead soup can from Sir John Franklin’s last expedition, c. 1845. Probably found in an Inuit cache at Cape Maria Louisa by the Schwatka Search Expedition 1878–79. (©National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London)

In the 1980s, Canadian anthropologist Owen Beattie exhumed three Franklin expedition victims for forensic testing. He discovered lethal amounts of lead in each of the three bodies, enough to have caused disorientation, lethargy and organ failure, a certain death sentence in the inconceivably harsh Arctic climate. The only possible source of the toxin appeared to be lead solder from improperly sealed cans of food.

More recently, research by chemist Ron Martin of the University of Western Ontario muddied the canned-food theory. By viewing bone fragments from Franklin expedition victims with a synchrotron X-ray device, Martin and his colleagues found that the lead riddled the bones, even the densest portions. There was so much of it that Martin hypothesized the person had been exposed to very high levels of lead for at least 20 years—yet the Franklin expedition only lasted three to four years.

“It does raise a very interesting problem. Where did all the lead come from, I don’t know. I would love to know,” Martin told the CBC.

Other investigators have theorized that prolonged exposure to water pipes in London and on the ships, lead paint, or industrial pollution in England’s urbanized centers could be potential sources. It’s possible that industrial food processing and preservation, then in its early stages of development, contaminated the victuals before they were packed.

People are still looking for clues to Franklin’s fate. Parks Canada recently concluded a summer search of King William Island, where the majority of the Erebus and Terror crews are believed to have perished. More than 800 square kilometers of seafloor have been surveyed for evidence. Remains of the Erebus and Terror, as well as Franklin’s grave, have not been found, nor have his journals or any other written records from the expedition.

King William Island, where the last of Franklin's men perished. (Photo by banga/Flickr)
King William Island, where the last of Franklin’s men perished. (Photo by banga/Flickr)

Recommended reading

Barrow’s Boys, by Fergus Fleming: A lively page-turner describing Barrow’s lust for discovery and the insanely courageous men who (sometimes) returned to tell the tale.

The Man Who Ate His Boots: The Tragic History of the Search for the Northwest Passage, by Anthony Brandt: A biography of Franklin’s heroism, from the voyage where starvation forced him to eat his shoes, to his final Arctic journey.

Frozen in Time: The Fate of the Franklin Expedition, by Owen Beattie and John Geiger: The book that revealed the connection between the expedition’s fate and its venomous victuals.

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