Addison’s Disease and Deaths on Franklin’s North West Passage Expedition of the 1840s

12 Sep

I was interested to read that Professor Russell Taichman of the University of Michigan, an expert on the Franklin expedition and the North West Passage, has developed a new theory to help explain deaths amongst the Franklin naval crew -a mystery that continues to intrigue. As is well known there were no survivors amongst the 129 crew on this expedition. Malnutrition, scurvy, lead poisoning, tuberculosis and even botulism have been considered.
Professor Taichman and his colleagues now propose that tuberculosis, a very common disease at the time, could have damaged the adrenal glands and resulted in Addison’s disease an endocrine disorder, which causes a reduction of steroid hormone output. This condition, Professor Taichman suggests, may well have been the cause of some of the deaths. Their findings were published in the journal ‘Arctic’ earlier this year.
When, in 1846, the ships ‘Erebus’ and ‘Terror’ became trapped near King William Island (northern Canada), they were well stocked with canned food and the crew spent two years on and around the island hoping that the ice would melt and their ships escape.
Inuit accounts described emaciated crewmembers with “hard, dry and black” mouths and Professor Taichman, decided to study the various cause-of-death theories and consider how each condition affects the oral cavity.
Taichman and Mark MacEachern, a librarian at the University of Michigan Taubman Health Sciences Library, cross-referenced the crew’s physical symptoms with known diseases. They analysed 1,718 medical citations and were interested to find that the suggestion of Addison’s disease kept appearing during the analysis. In the 1840s the most common cause of the disease was tuberculosis. Potential supporting evidence for tuberculosis was discovered when autopsies of three sailors who had died and were buried on a nearby island,revealed evidence of tuberculosis.
Addison’s disease was not described until 1855 and all of Addison’s six original patients had tuberculosis of the adrenal glands. Nowadays however, the diagnosis of Addison’s disease does not imply any particular underlying diagnosis (of which there are several). Sufferers have poor regulation of sodium, low blood pressure, a curious pigmentation of the mouth and skin creases of the hands; they become dehydrated, and cannot maintain their weight even when food is available. The diagnosis is easy to arrive at nowadays as long as the symptoms are recognised as being possibly due to Addison’s. I vividly remember one young lady who was reduced to literally crawling up stairs in her home before the diagnosis was finally considered.
TB causing Addison’s disease seems a very possible cause of death in some of these poor crewmembers in their terrible situation.


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