Tag Archives: North-West Passage

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.



13 Nov

On our cruise to Norway and Spitsbergen we visited the Polar Museum in Tromso – many details of Roald Amundsen’s expeditions; lantern slides, original letters, photographs, newspaper articles, which gave information about his attempts at the North Pole and the North West Passage in 1906, and his plans for a further attempt to go north in 1909. Also information about his successful expedition to the South Pole in 1911

 I was of course, particularly interested by Amundsen’s change of plans, his decision to sail south from Madeira in September 1910 instead on north: Why did he do this and why did he keep the plans secret? The explanation was funding. 
 In 1910 he wrote that although the plan to take ‘Fram’ south rather than north could be interpreted as a change of plan, this was not the case; it was actually an extension of the original plan, an extension needed so he could be sure of attracting sufficient funds and equipment for the long drift on the polar ice. He wrote that he had actually changed his plans in 1909, secondary to the announcement that the Americans, Peary and Cook had claimed to have got to the North Pole. This claim would have deterred donors from giving Amundsen the necessary funds for his northern plans. Something else was needed to attract public attention and interest in order to attract the large amount of money still needed.
In August 1910, he wrote to Nansen (who he had not informed before sailing), in the same vein. He started his letter; ‘It is not easy to send you these lines, but there is no way to avoid it, and therefore I will just have to tell it to you straight. When the news from the Cook, and later the Peary, expeditions came to my knowledge last autumn, I instantly understood that this was the death sentence for my own plans. I immediately concluded that after this I could not be expected to secure the financial support I required for the expedition’. He said that the Norwegian Parliament’s decisions to decline requests for support proved him right. He did not want to abandon his plans but he realised that the South Pole, the main remaining challenge in the Polar Regions, was the one to excite public interest. He had not told Nansen of his plans because he was afraid that Nansen would stop him. He had no animosity against Scott and wanted to meet him.
He wrote that he was sending the King the same message and that his brother would make a public announcement a few days after Nansen had received the message.
He did not go back to the ‘long drift on the polar ice’ and the scientific expedition he had planned to the north. But his achievement in reaching the South Pole first was magnificent. He attracted world fame, international attention and he lectured widely to fascinated audiences.