Sir John Franklin’s Erebus and Terror

19 May

When I qualified in medicine we knew about chromosomes; curving long threads of DNA that carry our hereditary information, about germ cells, about mitosis when chromosomes duplicate to create daughter calls.
We did not know about forensic DNA profiling, also commonly referred to as DNA fingerprinting. This should not be confused with the fingerprinting techniques carried out at countries’ borders. DNA profiling came into general use in the 1980s, developed by Sir Alec Jeffreys. It is a process whereby DNA samples are matched. Each sample shows everyone’s unique properties but also shows characteristics that are similar to their relatives. Comparison of the DNA of bones from archeological specimens with samples of the DNA of known relatives, may allow for identification of the deceased.
This process is now to be used to gain further information about the causes of the deaths of the crews of HMS Erebus and Terror. This famous expedition, led by Sir John Franklin, set out from Britain in 1845. Its aim was to find a way through the North West Passage, a route that many believed would dramatically reduce the transit time between the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans and open up a new trade route.
None of the 129 crew members were to survive. The ships became trapped in heavy ice. Sir John and twenty-five of the crew died in 1847. The ships were abandoned in April 1848 and the remaining crew (104 men) began their desperate trek from the northwest coast of King William Land towards the mainland.
Precise details of their fate remained a mystery despite numerous expeditions to ascertain their fate, although for years fragments relating to the expedition were found frozen in ice. Erebus herself was finally located in 2014 in the Queen Maud Gulf, below King William Island, her ship’s bell was recovered in November. In September 2016, the wreck of HMS Terror was found submerged in Terror Bay, which is off the southwest coast of King William Island. Both ships were in remarkably good condition despite being lost in the icy wastes for nearly 170 years.
There is a poignant memorial to the disaster in Waterloo Place in London, which I have often studied. On the memorial are the names of all the crew members. Many theories have been advanced to explain the catastrophe: lead poisoning, scurvy, infection, notably tuberculosis. The ships were well stocked with provisions but clearly food ran out for some of the parties; Dr. John Ray who investigated the fate of the Franklin expedition in 1854, reported stories of cannibalism.
Now, researchers have extracted and sequenced DNA from the skeletal remains of 24 crew members from the expedition. The samples were from numerous different sites including King William Island. Thirty-seven tooth and bone samples were tested and DNA extracted from thirty-two and it is hoped that the work may help actually identify the crew by comparative DNA (if living descendants can be found), also that information about the cause of death will be obtained. The study was recently published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports. Four of the samples were identified as females; unexpected, as the ship’s documentation did not record women on board. Two possibilities relating to this finding are a) the DNA has degraded over the 160 years since the crew were lost or b) that there were women actually serving in the ship dressed as men – this is thought unlikely, it would have been difficult for four women to successfully concealed their identity. Another study found zinc deficiency in toenails of one of the mummies.
The expedition remained in the public conscience for years. The suggestion of cannibalism apparently infuriated Charles Dickens who collaborated with his friend Wilkie Collins on a Franklin based play The Frozen Deep. Landseer’s painting Man Proposes, God Disposes, shows man ‘proposing’ in the form of a shipwreck and God ‘disposing’ in the form of two bears. But the discovery of Franklin’s ships is one of the most important archeological finds in exploration history. Finding the ships has been likened to the opening of Tutankhamun’s tomb. Stephen Harper, Canada’s Prime Minister in 2014, emphasized the importance of Franklin’s ships in Canadian history – the expedition laid the foundation for Canada’s Arctic control- all the waterways in the North –West Passage are claimed as Canadian.
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the ships used by Sir John Franklin published by Illustratated London News 24 May 1845/Getty images

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One Response to “Sir John Franklin’s Erebus and Terror”

  1. CHICK June 10, 2017 at 1:13 pm #

    Fascinating stuff—what women have been through to be recognised and achieve equality. Luckily, Dr. Williams has, deservedly, achieved both..

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