Tag Archives: Sir John Franklin

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.

the ships used by Sir John Franklin published by Illustratated London News 24 May 1845/Getty images

The Northwest Passage

21 Jun

When, in 1845, Sir John Franklin (KCH FRGS RN), attempted to navigate and chart the Northwest Passage, all of the crew of 24 officers and 105 men died. Their poignant memorial is in Waterloo Place, London, outside the Athenaeun Club. All the men who died are listed on the memorial. Franklin’s ships were ‘Erebus’ and “Terror”, names now permanently remembered, following Sir James Clark Ross’ decision to call the two volcanoes on Ross Island, (one active), by these names. These volcanoes were a powerful backdrop to the British expeditions of the early 1900s.
Franklin’s men died of starvation, hypothermia, tuberculosis and scurvy. Franklin himself died in June 1847; some two years after the expedition had left England. The men must have suffered terribly as they attempted to return to civilisation. In their desperation they are said to have, reasonably, resorted to cannibalism –this report by the Scottish explorer Dr John Rae, enraged Franklin’s widow and Victorian society and condemned Dr Rae to ignominy. Many ships were involved in a search for the lost men. Eventually more ships and men were lost looking for Franklin, than on the expedition itself.
Now cruise ships are to sail along the Northwest Passage as the Arctic summer sea ice diminishes. Polar Bears are losing ground. Ice volume decreased by 3% per year between 1979 to 2014. But those who see the melting ice sheets press the need for a Climate Change Accord, emphasising again, that those human activities that contribute to climate change must be modified.


3 Feb

The medal is awarded by the Queen. It was known first as the Arctic Medal, which was issued in 1857 and awarded to, amongst others, the expedition trying to discover the fate of Sir John Franklin and his crew, lost in 1847 whilst trying to discover the North West Passage. The Polar Medal was introduced in 1904 in recognition of the achievements of Scott’s Discovery expedition to Antarctica. It was awarded to members of the Discovery crew, also, I understand, to the crews of both rescue ships the Terra Nova and the Morning. A few years later members of Shackleton’s expeditions (1907-09 and 1914-1916) were honoured also.

The medal is given to citizens of the United Kingdome and Northern Ireland who have made significant contributions to knowledge in the Polar Regions or those who have given outstanding support in the acquisition of this knowledge and the objectives of polar exploration. Both groups have to have had experience of the hazards and rigours of the Polar environment.

The Arctic Club is delighted that its honorary secretary has been awarded the 2016 Polar Medal. Seven people have been awarded the medal this year ‘for outstanding achievement and service to the United Kingdom in the field of polar research’ with three of these related to Arctic work’.

As you know I am writing about William Speirs Bruce who led the major (Scottish) expedition, the Scotia expedition, to the Weddell Sea in 1902. After the expedition Bruce expected that he would get London-based recognition for his scientists and officers, but none received the Polar Medal. Bruce considered this a tremendous slight to himself and his crew and battled for years for the honour. He was convinced that Sir Clements Markham, the powerful President of the Royal Geographical Society and not a man to be crossed, influenced the decision. Sir Clements was the father of the Discovery expedition. He thought (and wrote) that he considered that Bruce had diverted monies that should have gone to Discovery to the coffers of the Scotia. This fundamental disagreement left Bruce with a lifelong distrust of Sir Clements and a conviction that the powerful president had effectively prevented the award.

Appeals by the Government to convince the Palace that the award should be granted were rebuffed. But recent evidence suggests that Bruce’s suspicions were wrong. The refusal appears to have been neither due to doubts as to Bruce’s scientific achievements, nor to Sir Clement’s malign influence, but because the Scotia expedition had been financed in Scotland and did not require government monies nor Admiralty rescue i.e. it had not had financial support out of Scotland (one of the ironies of this decision is that Shackleton’s Nimrod expedition did not have London-based financial support either). King Edward VII refused the award, his son George V was not prepared to overturn his father’s decision, a reason given that to honour Bruce’s expedition would set a precedent by widening the scope of the medal. A more recent application also failed.
Bruce considered, until his dying day, that Sir Clements had caused an estrangement between him and the Royal Geographical Society after the Scotia Expedition


2 Jan

In Waterloo Place, St James, London there is a poignant tribute to Sir John Franklin’s doomed expedition, planned to last three years from 1845, to find the Northwest Passage – the sea route that links the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The names of the 129 Royal Naval officers and men who lost their lives in the expedition are listed on each side of the memorial.

The Northwest Passage runs from its eastern entry from the North Atlantic (between Greenland and the Canadian Archipelago) and is contiguous with Canada’s northern mainland coast. The discovery of a route through the maze of islands making up the archipelago was considered to be a most important economic prize. Although it lay within the Arctic Circle and the passage was thought to be frozen most of the year, many speculated that the route would be considerably shorter than the long sea route via the South Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean and The West Coast of North America

The route had been sought for many years and many thousands of pounds were offered as a prize to the successful navigator. Experienced seamen had failed to do this though many miles of the Northern Canadian coast and its archipelago had been explored and surveyed.

Sir John Franklin had been one of these explorers. In total he made four journeys to the Arctic. On the second, the expedition ran out of food and the men chewed leather to reduce their hunger pangs. This thrilling escapade made Franklin a British National Hero. On his third expedition he mapped over 1000 miles of the Northern Canadian Mainland coast and like subsequent explorers recorded the weather, wild life and plant life. In 1845, aged 59, he was considered an excellent choice to lead a further expedition and to gain the elusive prize.
Franklin led an expedition of 2 ships HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, (whose names are now well recognised as volcanoes on Ross Island in Antarctica). They were sailing ships but had small steam engines to blast through the ice. The ships carried food for 3 years including thousands of tins that were sealed with lead, (which, it is now speculated, could have caused lead poisoning). The ships left England in May 1845 and were last seen off Baffin Island in July of that year. It is known that initially the expedition explored Canada’s Northern coast but in the winter of 1846-47 the ships were beset in the Victoria Strait, an area of deep sea between Victoria Island and King William Island.
Franklin died in June 1847, many of the crew sickened and died. Later the same year the ships were abandoned when Captain Crozier decided to attempt to travel south overland to seek help. No one survived.
Many expeditions went subsequently to try to ascertain the fate of the men, including John Ross and his nephew James Clark Ross, McClintock (who was given buttons, needles and knives from the ship) and John Rae (Orkney’s greatest unsung hero and Edward Wilson’s personal hero) who recorded that cannibalism had occurred (hotly contested by the Great British Public including Charles Dickens and Sir John Franklin’s widow, Lady Jane who spent her fortune financing search parties).
There have now been remarkable developments. Recently the 2014 Victoria Strait Expedition was launched to find the lost vessels. Huge resources were put to the task that was backed by the Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper. A helicopter expedition to an island in the eastern end of Queen Maud Gulf found remains from one of the ships; the wonderful find of an iron fitting from a davit and two halves of a deck hawser plug. Soon after a sonar towfish found the wreck of one of Franklins ships. This was subsequently identified as Erebus
Stephen Harper spoke at a press conference in September 2014 in Ottawa of the truly historic moment for Canada. He said that Franklin’s expedition laid the foundations of Canada’s Arctic history
There will be much more. The hull is amazingly intact. It may be that information will appear about the fate of Franklin. Great stuff!



12 Sep

The Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and Pacific is becoming more accessible. The sea ice is disappearing fast. This summer it has shrunk to its lowest since measurements began.

Apparently in 1979, the ice covered nearly 14 million square kilometers. This year it measured 4.1 million sq km.

This has one indisputable effect. The Northwest Passage is becoming more accessible, for navigation and exploration.

As is well known, in 1845 Sir John Franklin led a Royal Naval expedition that was to chart northern Canada and attempt to discover a route through the Northwest Passage, the ‘shortcut’ from the East to West. Sir John perished along with the crews of ‘Erebus’ and ‘Terror’ (the names that had been given given by Ross to the two volcanoes on Ross Island in Antarctica). Searches to discover conclusively what happened to the expedition have regularly failed. There is now a traditional annual summer search for the remains of the ships.  At the rate the sea ice is disappearing, the chances of finding them improve each year.